By Ceilidh Hart
I didn’t know I liked Ondaatje (still haven’t made it through Anil’s Ghost) until I encountered this poem, randomly, in a Canadian poetry anthology when I was doing my undergrad.
I’m skeptical of love poetry generally: quick to nose out cliché or insincerity, but at the same time tired of and frustrated with irony. What struck me about “The Cinnamon Peeler” wasn’t the speaker’s professions of desire, his compulsion to mark as his the body of his lover; but rather, his lover’s desire to be marked by him, to be changed by him, to be changed by love.
I still read those final two lines and think what a brave and honest sentiment she articulates there.
The Cinnamon Peeler
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
neighbour to you 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
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 the 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
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.
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
Peeler’s wife. Smell me.