Welcome to this month’s installment of “A Favorite Poem.” Granted, it’s a bit late coming, but all the same, I hope that it’ll please you. 🙂
This month’s poem is that of Michael Ondaatje’s “What we Lost,” which I just stumbled upon recently and fell in love with. Interestingly enough, the poem is about love, or rather, the analysis of a love poem that incorporates the spiritual and worldly into a thoughtful, sometimes sensual, read.
What we Lost (Michael Ondaatje)
The interior love poem
the deeper levels of the self
landscapes of daily life
dates when the abandonment
of certain principles occurred.
The rule of courtesy — how to enter
a temple or forest, how to touch
a master’s feet before lesson or performance.
The art of the drum. The art of eye-painting.
How to cut an arrow. Gestures between lovers.
The pattern of her teeth marks on his skin
drawn by a monk from memory.
The limits of betrayal. The five ways
a lover could mock an ex-lover.
Nine finger and eye gestures
to signal key emotions.
The small boats of solitude.
Lyrics that rose
back into the air
naked with guile
Our works and days.
We knew how monsoons
would govern behaviour
and when to discover
the knowledge of the dead
hidden in clouds,
in rivers, in unbroken rock.
All this we burned or traded for power and wealth –
from the eight compass points of vengeance
from the two levels of envy
Besides the beautiful notes of nature peppered throughout, what makes Ondaatje’s poem so refreshing is that it talks about love, but at the same time it’s not about it. In other words, it doesn’t subscribe to conventional notions of love poems today: whereas most love poems I read are focused only on the intimate details of two individuals (and sometimes overly explicit for the sake of being explicit), Ondaatje’s “What we Lost” takes it beyond just romantic love and expands it to the love of nature. Images of “forests,” “monsoons,” “rivers,” and “unbroken rock” create the sense of spiritual love, in a sort of nature poetry that I associate with that of the Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Shelley.
At the same time, the poem is two-sided in that it talks not only about love, but also betrayal. This concept works on two levels, including infidelity between two lovers (and subsequent jealousy) and the destruction of nature for human greed of “power and wealth.” Just as much as love is a coupled entity, so is betrayal in which one does the betraying while the other receives it. Because of this, I found the poem to be very reciprocal in style, as it traded off between lover and lover, human and nature, and love and betrayal. The mutual, layering effect was absolutely rich with meaning; if the elegant, seemingly effortless fluidity of Ondaatje’s language didn’t resonate with you, then the significance of the poem should instead.
Enjoy the poem; let me know what you think!
— The Finicky Cynic
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