Letters And Other Worlds


By Michael Ondaatje

For there was no more darkness for him and, no
doubt like Adam before the fall,
he see in the dark.”

My father’s body was a globe of fear
His body was a town we never knew
He hid that he had been where we were going
His letters were a room he seldom lived in

In the logic of his love could grow.
My father’s body was a town of fear
He was the only witness to its fear dance
He hid where he had been that we might lose him
His letters were a room his body scared

He came to death with his mind drowning.
on the last day he enclosed himself
in a room with two bottles of gin, later
fell the length of his body
so that brain blood moved
to new compartments
that never knew the wash of fluid
and he died in minutes of new equilibrium.
His early life was a terrifying comedy
and my mother divorced him again and again.
He would rush into tunnels magnetized
by the white eye of trains
and once, gaining instant fame,
managed to stop a Perahara in Ceylon
— the whole procession of elephants dancers
local dignitaries — by falling
dead drunk onto the street.
As a semi-official, semi-white at that,
the act was seen as a crucial
turning point in the Home Rule Movement
and led to Ceylon’s independence in 1948.

(My mother had her share too —
her driving so bad
she was stoned by villagers
whenever her car was recognized)

For 14 years of marriage
each of them claimed he or she
was the injured party.
Once on the Columbo docks
Saying goodby to a recently married couple
my father, jealous
at my mother’s articulate emotion,
dove into the waters of the harbour
and swam after the ship waving farewell.
My mother pretending no affiliation
mingled with the crowd back to the hotel.

Once again he made the papers
though this time my mother
with a note to the editor
corrected the report — saying he was drunk
rather than broken hearted at the parting of friends
The married couple received both editions
of The Ceylon Times when their ship reached Aden.

And then in his last years
he was the silent drinker
the one who once a week
disappeared into his room with bottles
and stayed there until he was drunk
and until he was sober.

There speeches, head dreams, apologies,
the gentle letters, were composed.
With the alacrity of architects
he would write of the new blue flowers
his new wife had planted,
the plans for electricity on the house,
how my half-sister fell near a snake
and it had awakened and not touched her.
Letters in a clear hand of the most complete empathy
His heart widening and widening and widening
to all manner of change in his children and friends
while he himself edged
into the terrible acute hatred
of his own privacy
till he balanced and fell
the length of his body
the blood entering
the empty reservoir of bones
the blood searching in his head without metaphor

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