Friday, July 17, 2015

I Wish I'd Written This

To Anuradhapura
By Michael Ondaatje

In the dry lands

every few miles, moving north, 
another roadside Ganesh

Straw figures
on bamboo scaffolds
to advertise a family
of stilt-walkers

Men twenty feet high
walking over fields
crossing the thin road
with their minimal arms
and 'lying legs'

A dance of tall men
with the movements of prehistoric birds
to practice before they alight

So men become gods
to the small village
of Ilukwewa

Ganesh in pink,
                         in yellow,
in elephant darkness

His simplest shrine
a drawing of him

lime chalk
on a grey slate

All this grey
preparing us for Anuradhapura

its night faith

A city with the lap
and spell of a river

Families below trees
around the  heart of a fire

from the small villages
of the dry zone

Circling the dagoba
in a clockwise hum and chant,
bowls of lit coal
above their heads

whispering bare feet

Our flutter and drift
in the tow of this river

from Handwriting (London, Bloomsbury, 1998)

The award-winning Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje grew up in Sri Lanka, where there is an old custom of fishing on stilts.  

Anuradhapura, in the north, is an ancient city, a World Heritage site famous, Wikipedia tells us, for its well-preserved ruins. The village of Ilukwewa is 
in central Sri Lanka

And Ganesh, if anyone doesn't know, is an elephant-headed Hindu god. I'm fond of Ganesh; I have a small statue of him, which my son brought back from India for me, outside my front door — which, I have read, is the correct place for it. 

I've never been to Sri Lanka, but I love this poem of Ondaatje's reminiscences. I like the peaceful feeling he achieves in the build-up of detail.

Best-known as a novelist, he has also written non-fiction, including autobiography and film scripts — and 13 books of poetry. Until now the closest I ever came to reading him was seeing the movie The English Patient, based on one of his novels, which he himself adapted for film. But when I saw that the local library was selling off Handwriting as old stock no longer required, I felt I had to rescue it!

It's lovely and intriguing work, so now I know I must catch up with all his other writings.

There are a few of his poems (not many) at PoemHunter and The Poetry Foundation. And of course his books are on Amazon.

The photo is of him speaking at Tulane University in 2010, and is licesed under Creative Commons as follows:
"Michael Ondaatje at Tulane 2010" by Tulane Public Relations - Flickr: Michael Ondaatje. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Poems used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. I fell under his spell. I couldn't tell it was fishing, but loved the description: A city "with the lap / and spell of a river" with the people tributaries. The description of how the stilt-walkers, with their lying legs, become gods is a slow motion dance video. Wow.

  2. I love the smoothness, contentment in this poem. I want to read more. Thank you Rosemary for introducing Michael Ondaatje.

  3. there is a peaceful ambiance in the lines that he mother has a good collection of Ganeshas( painting, metal, terracotta & what not) ....a very adorable India so much creativity is still spinning centering Ganesh must be seen to be believed...

  4. Beautiful piece, filled with so much goodness. Great back story and nice of you to share his works. Greetings!

  5. I especially admire his novel, Divisadero - did not know he was a poet, as well. Thanks for the share ~

  6. A wonderful writer. The image of men fishing on stilts will stay with me, I had not heard of that before..........wonderful choice, Rosemary!

  7. Loved the poem! What a truly wonderful writer :D Thank you for sharing this with all of us Rosemary :D

    Lots of love,

  8. i know of dancers on stilts here in Trinidad and Tobago we call them "moko jumbies";

    It was interesting to be introduced to fishers on stilts though, lovely poem

    "A dance of tall men
    with the movements of prehistoric birds
    to practice before they alight

    So men become gods
    to the small village
    of Ilukwewa"

    much love...


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