Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler”

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.

 

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Michael Ondaatje’s “‘The Gate In His Head’: for Victor Coleman”

In “‘The Gate in His Head,'” Michael Ondaatje troubles the way language structures subconscious thought; it turns abstract impression into arbitrary clarity. Perception is metaphysical, fluid, and unfocused, yet, language refines it capriciously. In the landscape of imagination, words are mere “tracks of thought” (5): they’re standardized connotations that cannot represent the “pouring chaos” of the dreamer’s impressions (15). Writing is merely the “caught vision” of a whole sea (21), the capturer’s meager prey “in nets onto the page” (40). The process of writing is therefore reductive as well as productive, as it creates a sense of coherence by expressing within the limits of syntax.

Ondaatje paradoxically uses the very language he criticizes to describe writing’s inability. To Ondaatje the perceiver, the components of landscape are impressed simultaneously upon the mind, but in lines 6 to 9 Ondaatje’s vista is relayed in fragments. This vision ceases to be a panorama in writing, instead becoming a series of linguistic and physically separate refinements on a page:

busted trees

the melted tires

Stan’s fishbowl

with a book inside.

Similarly, “like some sea animal/ camouflaging itself” (11-12) or “the typeface clarity/ going slow blonde in the sun full water” (13-14), the equation of thought into to words disrupts the visual and cognitive obscurity that all perceivers experience. Ondaatje uses words and enjambment to convey the inseparability of objects from one another.

For Ondaatje, the stark definition of things is artificial and a product of language. In lines 20 and 21 the image of a blurred photograph imparts to the brain what words do not. The obscurity of a gull in motion–the ambiguity of where the background stops and the bird begins–is something that language has difficulty capturing (and yet, through his anomalous mastery of English, Ondaatje can capture it anyway). Separate entities, the gull and the sky appear as part of each other to the viewer, but the photo shows them blended, and unless the viewer has eagle vision, it is impossible to clearly distinguish a bird’s wing in flight.

Writing, then, is not merely an innocent vehicle for expression. It threatens to structure our interpretation of the world at the level of thought. The speaker admits,

“A blind lover/ don’t know/ what I love till I write it out” (18). Rather than associate perception of the world with standardized language, Ondaatje warns us that, at the risk of being narrow-minded, we should appreciate our perceptions as “shapeless, awkward” (25), indefinite enigmas.