Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dreams of Ondaatje (2)


The Father's Guns

After her father died they found nine guns in the house. Two in his clothing drawers, one under the bed, one in the glove compartment of the car, etc. Her brother took their mother out onto the prairie with a revolver and taught her to shoot.

The Bird

For a while in Topeka parrots were very popular. Her father was given one in lieu of a payment and kept it with him at all times because it was the fashion. It swung above him in the law office and drove back with him in the car at night. At parties friends would bring their parrots and make them perform what they had been taught: the first line from Twelfth Night, a bit of Italian opera, cowboy songs, or a surprisingly good rendition of Russ Colombo singing "Prisoner of Love". Her father's parrot could only imitate the office typewriter, along with the ching at the end of each line. Later it broke its neck crashing into a bookcase.

The Bread

Four miles out of Topeka on the highway - the largest electrical billboard in the State of Kansas. The envy of all Missouri. It advertised bread and the electrical image of a knife cut slice after slice. These curled off endlessly. "Meet you at the bread," "See you at the loaf," were common phrases. Aroused couples would park there under the stars on the open night prairie. Virtue was lost, "kissed all over by every boy in Wichita". Poets, the inevitable visiting writers, were taken to see it, and it hummed over the seductions in cars, over the nightmares of girls in bed. Slice after slice fell towards the earth. A feeding of the multitude in this parched land on the way to Dorrance, Kansas.

First Criticism

She is two weeks old, her mother takes her for a drive. At the gas station the mechanic is cleaning the windshield and watches them through the glass. Wiping his hands he puts his head in the side window and says, "Excuse me for saying this but I know what I'm talking about - that child has a heart condition."

Listening In

Overhear her in the bathroom, talking to a bug: "I don't want you on me, honey." 8 a.m.

Self Criticism

"For a while there was something about me that had a dubious quality. Dogs would not take meat out of my hand. The town bully kept handcuffing me to the trees."


Always one fantasy. To be traveling down the street and a man in a clean white suit (the detail of "clean" impresses me) leaps into her path holding flowers and sings to her while an invisible orchestra accompanies his solo. All her life she has waited for this and it never happens.


In 1956 the electric billboard in Kansas caught fire and smoke plumed into a wild sunset. Bread on fire, broken glass. Birds flew towards it above the cars that circled round to watch. And last night, past midnight, her excited phone call. Her home town is having a marathon to benefit the symphony. She pays $4 to participate. A tuxedoed gentleman begins the race with a clash of cymbals and she takes off. Along her route at frequent intervals are quartets who play for her. When they stop for water a violinist performs a solo. So here she comes. And there I go, stepping forward in my white suit, with a song in my heart.


The poem above is by Michael Ondaatje, one of my favorite writers. I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to Ondaatje - I talked about him here over a year ago, and meant to say more. Life moves in, and takes up space. Welcome, life, you say, then turn around and find it's been a year since you last thought about answering a question you'd meant to shed light on the day before. What I mean is Michael Ondaatje, and how instructive he is. How he keeps out of the poems by being so in them, unquestionable. I'm tired, can you tell? I want to say more but can't, Rudyard Kipling is next to my desk stomping around, demanding to be read for tomorrow I'll say that this poem is one of my favorites of his. He's coming to Houston next Monday and I'm deeply deeply excited and am going to dorkily bring all of the books I have of his to be signed. Is that terrible? I'm going to do it. Maybe not. But I'd like to. I'd like to have him sign along the line of the veins in my wrist.

On a side note, my poetfriend Chuck Carlise has a new chapbook out, called A Broken Elevator Still Isn't the Stairs. It's $10.00 and it's incredibly, incredibly beautiful.

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