A Billiard Hall, Cress Sandwiches, Wallpaper, a Piano Solo

Beckett, they say, read his Bible for style,
Stendhal the Napoleonic Code.

The Ames billiard hall in The Hustler
during the first thirty-five minutes. And again
in the final scene.

Or a slower duration of time
during the ball in The Leopard, and in the memory game
in Days and Nights in the Forest.

Picnics by Monet, Titian, the Elder Bruegel, grand lunches
in the Bois de Boulogne with concealed orchestras in a grove,
or Ratty with Mole consuming cold chicken ham pickled gherkins
french rolls cress sandwiches ginger beer, along their river.

The wallpaper in Proust’s bedroom, 1882, while he was a boy.

Les Oignons!” by Sidney Bechet, Paris, 1949, shouted aloud
    as everybody danced.

That piano version of “The Man That Got Away” by Bill Charlap
you listened to, solitary at midnight, his slow thoughtful chords
defeating the great damned eloquence of the words

during those hours when we lose interest in what needs to be done.


Reading the lines he loves
he slips them into a pocket,
wishes to die with his clothes
full of torn-free stanzas
and the telephone numbers
of his children in far cities

As if these were
all we need and want,
not the dog
or silver bowl
not the brag of career
or ownership

Unless they can be used
—a bowl to beg with,
a howl to scent a friend,
as those torn lines remind us
how to recall

until we reach that horizon
and drop, or rise
like a canoe within a lock
to search the other half of the river,

where you might see your friends
as altered by this altitude as you
The fresh summer grass,
the smell of the view—
dark water, August paint

How I loved that lock when I saw it
all those summers ago,
when we arrived
out of a storm into its evening light,

and gave a stranger some wine
in a tin cup

Even then I wanted
to slip into the wet dark
rectangle and swim on
barefoot to other depths
where nothing could be seen
that was a further story

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje is the author of seven novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. His novel The English Patient won the Booker Prize in 1992. His latest book of poetry, A Year of Last Things, was published by McClelland & Stewart in Canada.