I bought this book, about ten years ago, on a whim during my first Ondaatje kick. I'd just read The English Patient and loved it, and In the Skin of a Lion and really liked it. The poems in this slim little volume surpass both and this is one of my favourite works in the English language.
Ondaatje's novels always hover just on the edge of poetry. I know that some find his work difficult because he's not so much about plot or even characters always (although he does have a knack for creating a memorable character, and his plots are fascinating and unconventional); he is about the language and the imagery and the impressions that a paragraph can leave on a reader. In a lesser wordsmith I might find this highly irritating, but with Ondaatje I'm perfectly happy to float along. Also, I know at this point what I'm getting into when I pick up his novels.
Handwriting is a set of poems that are so rich. I react to these poems viscerally -- I can smell, taste, see -- they are dark and smoky, sorrowful, sensual, full of history and pain and love and beauty. There's humour, bright and unexpected, and threads between poems where Ondaatje finds a theme and connects them across the volume; sometimes it's a phrase that finds its way into a new poem and a new interpretation, sometimes it's an expansion of a concept. They are about Sri Lanka, Ondaatje's country of birth; it hosts many of the poems, and the rest are about being absent from it. Many of them pay homage to Sri Lanka's long history and depth of culture, and others are laments for its conflicts and pain.
These poems connect the reader to history and culture and human experience in a way that news reports and history books can't. I read these poems and hope that, for all of our sakes, Sri Lanka can find peace. Given the conflict there recently, these poems resonate even further with me now, despite the fact that they were written over ten years ago. If you have an opportunity to find this little book, please do, even if you don't normally read poetry. Now is a perfect time to read it.
The First Rule
Never build three doors
in a straight line
A devil might rush
deep into your house,
into your life