Book Review : Poetry From Keeping Still

Times Book Critic

Secular Love by Michael Ondaatje (Norton: $14.95)

Michael Ondaatje is a Canadian poet from a Ceylonese family; a Pacific sensibility tackling an Atlantic destiny. He invokes Rilke with reverence, and Yeats with exasperation, but his talent is not for the grand line, the racking emotion or the metaphysical bear-trap. His North Woods landscapes come out dark and rigid, as if his light values were set for dazzlement and tended to underexpose anything more subdued. Many of his poems are love poems, yet he is least successful when he most directly presses a passion.

What he excels at is the flash of color transmuted by his particular prism; the large mystery seen not directly but by some suspicious detail, as if Providence had hidden all its tracks except for one tiny toenail-scraping visible only to Ondaatje’s bifocal sensitivity.

His hallucinations are better than his visions. And so, of the four groups of poems in this collection, the most successful is the first. It expresses middle-aged anguish using a narrator who drinks at a party past the point of despair. He wanders outdoors; nature suddenly appears uncoded.


At certain hours of the night

Ducks are nothing but landscape

... cows drain over the horizon and the dark

vegetables hum underground


He wakes later, at 4 a.m., in the solitude of the drinker. His house, it seems, is under water, and he swims from room to room.

The oven light

shines up through water at him

a bathysphere a ghost ship


and in the half drowned room

the crickets like small pins

begin to tack down

the black canvas of this night


In the second section, “Tin Roof,” the poet is living in a cabin somewhere on the Pacific coast. Here is how his prism splinters:

Geckoes climb

the window to peer in,

and all day the tirade pale blue waves


touch the black shore of volcanic rock

The third section, “Rock Bottom,” is an array of personal fragments, some of them splendid. Floating on an inner tube on a river, he tilts his head so far back that the heron he spots seems upside down.

One of us is wrong

he in his blue gray thud


thinking he knows

the blue way out of here

or me

Insomnia is a commoner poetic theme nowadays than passion, but Ondaatje has his own:


We find ourselves

within the black

circus of the fly

all night long


his sandpaper

tabasco leg

This is Ondaatje at his best, fractioned but magical. When he becomes more vehement, more philosophical, more of a wooer, his voice goes off pitch. A poem to a daughter is emotional and commonplace. Poems celebrating the Ontario countryside have a forced pastoral quality; he carpenters dryads for his trees. The style does not hold; he seems to be trying out voices.

When he remains still, poetry comes to him. When he pursues it, he pursues it uphill. He is a poetic Archimedes, seeking a place to set his lever, and shifting restlessly from spot to spot.