The sound of Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler” is as smothering as the spicy scent he writes about. With inflection that ebbs and flows, the speaker likens the powerful smell of freshly ground cinnamon to an inextinguishable sexual desire for his wife. Having his wife and his smell “known amongst strangers” is a sign of sexual domination that is mirrored in the poem’s cadence, rather than in its linguistic meaning.
For instance, the inertia of Ondaatje’s long sturdy sentences reflects sexual power, wherein Ondaatje’s persona fantasizes about assuming complete control over his beloved. She is not an individual, but “the cinnamon peeler’s wife,” branded by her husband’s profession. The poem’s cadence doesn’t inflect emphasis on particular words, rather, the sound and rhythm as a whole evokes the speaker’s sexual sensuousness. The poem’s rhythm is like cinnamon on every inch of the beloved’s skin, penetrating and too strong to escape.
But Ondaatje also threatens to exhaust the poem’s sexual rhythm with line breaks. This merely increases the reader’s erotic interest, however. His desire permeates his wife’s life as he longs to “ride your bed/ and leave the yellow bark dust/ on your pillow,” or as he fantasizes about “the profession of my fingers/ floating over you.” The meaning of these sentences are explicit, yet, the eroticism of saying it in slow and obscure parts is visceral. It parallels the speaker’s rebounding effort to suppress his sexual desire.
The speaker’s love for his wife transcends the urgent and erotic. In the second half of the poem, the speaker turns from his power-tripped reverie to a memory, where he did not own the beloved; she “could hold me and be blind of smell.” Free of her dominating husband in this stanza, the estrangement of intense sensation replaces a reckless passion with a more emotional love. The liberated body forgoes“the pleasure of a scar.” To have a balanced perception of the other is to be unenlightened, to be “left with no trace.” The balance between respect and passion must be struck.
Which is why “The Cinnamon Peeler” is written in the conditional tense. He is mixed with sexual desire of emotional love for his wife. The reality is that the speaker does not have this kind of power over his wife. Were things different he“would ride your bed,” and because of him her “breasts and shoulders would reek.” He may not even be a cinnamon peeler. This gap between emotional respect and rash desire–the hypothetical and the real–is what excites him.