Michael Ondaatje is one of my favorite authors. While attending Ondaatje’s alma mater, Queen’s University, I read his first novel Coming Through Slaughter (published 1976) that depicts the life of a jazz musician in early 1900s Louisiana. It was love at first read. I was still a teenager and the sensuousness of Ondaatje’s prose delighted and tickled my senses, felt a tiny bit wicked. It was unlike anything I’d read before – beautiful, literary and arousing.
Later, thanks to my boyfriend at the time, a brilliant Fine Arts major, I would be exposed to his poetry. It likewise often aroused me, but it was the playfulness displayed with metaphor and the exotic qualities of so many of his subjects that took hold of me.
Here is one of my favorites.
The Cinnamon Peeler
by Michael Ondaatje
If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
And leave the yellow bark dust
On your pillow.
Your breasts and shoulders would reek
You could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.
Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbour to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.
I could hardly glance at you
never touch you
–your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…
When we swam once
I touched you in the water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
you climbed the bank and said
this is how you touch other women
the grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume
what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife. Smell me.