Thinking of a life I used to have, in a world I’ve never been.

To A Sad Daughter
Michael Ondaatje

All night long the hockey pictures
gaze down at you
sleeping in your tracksuit.
Belligerent goalies are your ideal.
Threats of being traded
cuts and wounds
–all this pleases you.
O my god! you say at breakfast
reading the sports page over the Alpen
as another player breaks his ankle
or assaults the coach.

When I thought of daughters
I wasn’t expecting this
but I like this more.
I like all your faults
even your purple moods
when you retreat from everyone
to sit in bed under a quilt.
And when I say ‘like’
I mean of course ‘love’
but that embarrasses you.
You who feel superior to black and white movies
(coaxed for hours to see Casablanca)
though you were moved
by Creature from the Black Lagoon.

One day I’ll come swimming
beside your ship or someone will
and if you hear the siren
listen to it. For if you close your ears
only nothing happens. You will never change.

I don’t care if you risk
your life to angry goalies
creatures with webbed feet.
You can enter their caves and castles
their glass laboratories. Just
don’t be fooled by anyone but yourself.

This is the first lecture I’ve given you.
You’re ‘sweet sixteen’ you said.
I’d rather be your closest friend
than your father. I’m not good at advice
you know that, but ride
the ceremonies
until they grow dark.

Sometimes you are so busy
discovering your friends
I ache with loss
–but that is greed.
And sometimes I’ve gone
into my purple world
and lost you.

One afternoon I stepped
into your room. You were sitting
at the desk where I now write this.
Forsythia outside the window
and sun spilled over you
like a thick yellow miracle
as if another planet
was coaxing you out of the house
–all those possible worlds!–
and you, meanwhile, busy with mathematics.

I cannot look at forsythia now
without loss, or joy for you.
You step delicately
into the wild world
and your real prize will be
the frantic search.
Want everything. If you break
break going out not in.
How you live your life I don’t care
but I’ll sell my arms for you,
hold your secrets forever.

If I speak of death
which you fear now, greatly,
it is without answers.
Except that each
one we know is
in our blood.
Don’t recall graves.
Memory is permanent.
Remember the afternoon’s
yellow suburban annunciation.
Your goalie
in his frightening mask
dreams perhaps
of gentleness.

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This is the space where I should say something. But I only have a photograph of a pavement, and a cigarette.

The Time Around Scars
Michael Ondaatje

A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar.
On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her
brandishing a new Italian penknife.
Look, I said turning,
and blood spat onto her shirt.

My wife has scars like spread raindrops
on knees and ankles,
she talks of broken greenhouse panes
and yet, apart from imagining red feet,
(a nymph out of Chagall)
I bring little to that scene.
We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends.
I remember this girl’s face,
the widening rise of surprise.

And would she
moving with lover or husband
conceal or flaunt it,
or keep it at her wrist
a mysterious watch.
And this scar I then remember
is a medallion of no emotion.

I would meet you now
and I would wish this scar
to have been given with
all the love
that never occurred between us.

()

I always have a nose for things. Mind you, I do not make a habit out of butting into other people’s personal lives — I’m not that kind of nosy. Rather, I always smell anything and everything. I think I am kind of obsessed with scents.

Today I did nothing but smell things like food and pillows and books. I was shopping with my mother, and we went to a perfume store where a tiny little bottle caught my eye. It was called, “that breathtaking moment when your heart stands still.” I can’t believe that something that smelled so wonderful could have a name so long and lovely. I stood in awe of this scent because it make me think of lying down on a soft, soft field of flowers, just watching the blue, blue sky above me. The sun isn’t shining so bright, and the breeze felt so cool that I’m half-asleep and floating.

When I came home, I smelled the following: coffee beans in the kitchen, an old musty literature book, a broken stick of cigarette, Clinique Happy, soiled clothes, my father’s aftershave, Jessica McClintock perfume, a black marker, newly-washed clothes, my dog’s fur coat, photocopied handouts, an apple, hot sauce, mint toothpaste, diced tomatoes, garlic, the family piano, my journal, a lit match, and my own hair.

It was fun just going around the house and smelling. I am reminded by something for each one. I think about how the coffee would smell even more delicious after it’s ground and boiled. How years and years of information is stored in that book, and how many minds gained more with each time they opened it – what they were thinking when they read it, what age they were, how the book came into my possession now. I think about the person who invented the cigarette, and if he somehow knew the impact that it would make and bring to the human psyche. I think about Clinique and wondered if it would really make you happy. The soiled clothes in the house – who wore it and what happened that day that made the fabric smell that way. How many women turn their heads at my father because of his scent. How many men will turn their heads because of my scent. How high I get out sniffing a marker. I think about the bluest sky because of the clean clothes, excitement and boredom because of my dog’s fur coat. How long the Xerox lady was standing all day trying to photocopy every handout every student gave her, how long the apple was clinging to the tree before it was taken, or has it dropped itself to the ground?

How my nose twitches at the smell of pepper, like I’m close to sneezing but then it suddenly disappears (I hate that). How I feel clean after I taste and feel the mint in my breath, how warm I feel inside at the scent of tomatoes. I think that frying garlic is one of the most wonderful smells in the world. I think about how many notes the old piano has played, remembering my regret at not knowing how to play. Remembering all I was feeling at every entry in my journal, how a lit match is the smell of dying. Remembering how I used to wash my hair for a long time because A. loved to smell it.

Such histories. So potent. And I am reminded of a poem, from long time ago:

The Cinnamon Peeler
Michael Ondaatje

If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.

Your breasts and shoulders would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.

Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbor to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.

I could hardly glance at you
before marriage
never touch you
— your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…

When we swam once
I touched you in water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
You climbed the bank and said

this is how you touch other women
the grasscutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume.
and knew
what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in an act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of scar.

You touched
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife. Smell me.

Updated on 28 November 2013. Thanks, K.