Unreal Nature

May 6, 2017

Silverfish

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:33 am

… the lost summers of the writer’s youth are also “layers of civilization in his memory / … old photographs he didn’t look at anymore.”

This is from Michael Ondaatje’s chapter in The Other Side of Dailiness: Photography in the Works of Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Laurence by Lorraine M. York (1988):

… The grown writer’s longing for the fixed moment of the past — the partially eaten apple of experience — is powerfully captured in the epithet “wretched.” In Rat Jelly, poetry becomes the agent which is able to fix without rendering the subject lifeless or bland (the agent, if you will, which makes jelly of the rat, but does not allow us to forget that “it’s rat / steamy dirty hair and still alive.” Voiced in another (less gruesome) way, this type of poetic capturing resembles

… a blurred photograph of a gull.
Caught vision. The stunning white bird
an unclear stir.

And that is all this writing should be then.
The beautiful formed thing caught at the wrong
……  moment
so they are shapeless, awkward
moving to the clear
(“The Gate in His Head,” Rat Jelly)

In the later poems in There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do (1979), Ondaatje turns his attention to another element of the past which he must also “fix”: his Sri Lankan childhood. Writing of “Uswetakeiyawa,” a place where the imagination and the subconscious seem ready to surface at any moment, he describes “A landscape nightmare / unphotographed country.” Running in the Family will be his attempt to capture in words and photographs this untouched land of his past.

The past is, in fact, the other main element which Ondaatje associates with photography in his poetry. In “Tink, Summer Rider,” the photograph of a girl on a horse, “her hair turned by wind,” contrasts sharply with the image of the “serious,” “rigid” woman that girl later becomes (Dainty Monsters 40). The photograph thus becomes a poignant reminder of the lost wildness of youth — and, by extension, the lost wildness of human beings as a result of civilizing forces. This association is borne out in “Burning Hills” from Rat Jelly, where the lost summers of the writer’s youth are also “layers of civilization in his memory / … old photographs he didn’t look at anymore.”

… Homes in Sri Lanka are continually described as being invaded by the natural world, be it in the form of floods, snakes, or tiny “silverfish” which “slid into steamer trunks and photograph albums — eating their way through portraits and wedding pictures. Ondaatje is clearly horrified by this loss of a recorded past. “What images of family life they consumed in their minute jaws and took into their bodies no thicker than the pages they ate” …


a book eaten by silverfish [image from Wikipedia]

My most recent previous post from York’s book is here.

-Julie

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