Secular Love

If you’ve heard of Michael Ondaatje, it’s probably as the author of The English Patient, which was made into the movie (lampooned by Elaine on Seinfeld). But Ondaatje is that rare author who writes equally well in multiple formats. His memoir, Running in the Family, is a terrific book about growing up in Sri Lanka (the Ceylon), and he has several books of poetry. Today’s poem is from Secular Love, and is one of my favorites.

peelerI can imagine the origin of this poem as a musing–what if I were one of those men peeling cinnamon bark? Then taking off from there, using the richness of those memories to weave into this sensuous love poem.

The Cinnamon Peeler

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
neighbor 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
before marriage
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 water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
You climbed the bank and said,

missingthis 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

missingmissingand knew

missingwhat 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.

You touched
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife. Smell me.

Michael Ondaatje

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