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Michael Ondaatje

A Gentleman Compares His Virtue to a Piece of Jade


The enemy was always identified in art by a lion.


And in our Book of Victories

wherever you saw a parasol

on the battlefield you could

identify the king within its shadow.


We began with myths and later included actual events.


There were new professions.  Cormorant Girls

who screamed on prawn farms to scare birds.

Stilt-walkers.  Tightrope-walkers.


There was always the "untaught hold"

by which the master defeated

the pupil who challeneged him.


Palanquins carried the weapons of a goddess.


Bamboo tubes cut in 17th-century Japan

we used as poem holders.


We tied bells onto falcons.


A silted water garden in Mihintale.

The letter M.  The word "thereby."


There were wild cursive scripts.

There was the two-dimensional tradition.


Solitaries spent all their years

writing one good book.  Frederico Tesio

graced us with Breeding the Race Horse.


In our theases human beings

wondrously became other human beings.


Bangles from Polonnaruwa.

A nine-chambered box from Gampola.

The archaeology of cattle bells.


We believe in the intimate life, an inner self.


A libertine was one who made love before nightfall

or without darkening the room.


Walking the Alhambra blindfolded

to be conscious of the sound of water-- your hand

could feel it coursing down banisters.


We align our public holidays with the full moon.


3 a.m. in temples, the hour of washing the gods.


The formalization of the vernacular.


The Buddha's left foot shifted at the moment of death.


That great writer, dying, called out

for the fictional doctor in his novels.


That tightrope-walker from Krunegala

the generator shut down by insurgents


stood there

swaying in the darkness above us. 


-from Handwriting: Poems 

BIO: Philip Michael Ondaatje is a Sri Lanka-born Canadian poet, fiction writer, essayist, novelist, editor and filmmaker. He is the recipient of multiple literary awards such as the Governor General's Award, the Giller Prize, the Booker Prize, and the Prix Médicis étranger. Ondaatje is also an Officer of the Order of Canada, recognizing him as one of Canada's most renowned living authors.

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