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Blankets and Shells

By Allan Wu | 05 Feb 2018

Nine Sentiments (IX)

Michael Ondaatje

An old book on the poisons 

of madness, a map 

of forest monasteries,

a chronicle brought across 
the sea in Sanskrit slokas. 

I hold all these 

but you have become 

a ghost for me.

I hold only your shadow 

since those days I drove 

your nature away.

A falcon who became a coward.

hold you the way astronomers

draw constellations for each other 

in the markets of wisdom

placing shells

on a dark blanket 

saying "these 

are the heavens"

calculating the movement 

of the great stars

Michael Ondaatje is a Sri Lanka-born Canadian do-it-all — poet, writer, and filmmaker — probably better known for his prose than poetry. In Ondaatje’s poem “Nine Sentiments,” he details the pains of loving someone who does not reciprocate this love. (What exactly happened? Who knows, but I’m betting it’s more serious than Bachelorette drama.) There were some parts that I liked in particular.

He details a series of items in the beginning (dropping them in succession faster than Kanye drops controversial quotes). The “old book,” “map,” and “Sanskrit slokas” all share a unifying characteristic: they are text-based, static representations of life-infused experiences — “poisons of madness,” “forest monasteries,” and “a chronicle brought across the sea.” These items also seem decrepit and ancient, serving as preservations of the past, of better times (reminding me of a grandpa recounting his “glory days”). So with regards to Ondaatje’s relationship, while Ondaatje can “hold all these,” that he can recall and convey the details, the atmosphere, and the emotions, they inevitably fall short of the past, of actuality. Ondaatje’s love is a “ghost” – a shadow of its former self. While there is substance – these texts exist – it lacks the essence – the subject is in the past, both for these texts and Ondaatje.

In the second half of the poem, Ondaatje compares himself to astronomers. Note the paradoxical nature of an astronomer. Entomologists study insects by observing insects up close. Archaeologists study the past by unearthing fossils and excavating tombs. Yet astronomers study space – the universe and its stars and celestial objects – by observing it from afar. They can precisely detail the temperature of stars, their depth and width, their history and potentiality, but to say an astronomer has truly felt the scorching surface or experienced the immensity and grandeur of their studied is wrong. It’d be like me marrying someone I’ve never met. (A marriage suggests a relationship defined by closeness, intimacy, yet, here, it would be a commitment to an unknown.) Despite their expertise and knowledge, they perform observations and conduct research merely as distant observers of remote, impalpable objects and places. Thus, Ondaatje uses how distant of a science astronomy is to its subject of study to similarly reveal how distant he feels and beyond distance, how foreign and estranged he feels.

Ondaatje builds upon this point in the next stanza, choosing “shells” and “a dark blanket,” two static and lifeless objects, to represent the night sky and its stars. The shell itself is a container of life but not life itself – an outward representation of an actual experience and sensation. Similarly, the dark blanket is a representation of the night sky but not the night sky itself; in fact, the blanket is reductive, simplifying the unbounded, three-dimensional vector space occupied by the universe into a two-dimensional and bounded piece of cloth. By literally representing “‘the heavens’” as the “shells” and “dark blanket,” Ondaatje makes representations, skeletons of corporeal reality. Similarly, his love and relationship has taken on an emaciated, hollowed form.

The ending with the astronomers “calculating the movement / of the great stars” is heartbreaking and almost laughable. There is a particular irony in astronomers – individuals celebrated for studying the unknown, entities that have captivated civilizations for centuries, and things out there that we deify and glorify – attempting to capture the immensity of the great stars with shells and a blanket.