Tuesday, October 2, 2012

If I Were

Last week in workshop we studied Michael Ondaatje's poem "The Cinnamon Peeler."  Here it is:


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

Your breasts and shoulder 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
neighbour 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 grass cutter’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 the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.

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

                        - Michael Ondaatje, The Cinnamon Peeler, Selected Poems

I love this poem, of course, and my students did too. I've tried to teach this off and on for years, in various classes, and usually without much success--it's a complex poem.  This time we talked about the imaged narrative--starting a poem with "If I were--" and going from there.  We had the idea that starting this way would force some freedom into our work.  We also mapped the verb tense use in the poem, noting the four tenses Ondaatje moves through, and how he's able to crescendo the poem in part through this verb work.

So I assigned the students an "If I were" poem and last night they read the results.  They were fantastic!  What we noticed, after they had read their poems, is how almost all of them felt like performance poems.  They had the cadence and rhythm of spoken-word poetry and so many of them were very unlike the work those writers normally do.  It was interesting to think about imagined narratives turning to persona poems, which then called up performance voices for these writers.  Many of the poems were hilarious ("If I were a dark lord...") and not a few were pretty deep and intense emotional poems.

I'm so inspired by their work I'm going to spend this week working on my own "If I were" poem.  What a magical teaching experience--I love it when my students teach me, and help shape my own work.

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