Driving with Dominic
in the Southern Province
We See Hints of the Circus
The tattered Hungarian tent
A man washing a trumpet
at a roadside tap
Children in the trees,
into the grip of another
— Michael Ondaatje
Think of it as a spell, a moment broken off from all the moments that surround it, touched with the mystery of being that Michael Ondaatje’s writing honours with such scrupulous consistency. That for me is the pith of the poem’s appeal. It is not a poem that requires an exegesis. It is meant to be transparent. Not set with astounding technical precision but kept purposely plain. A couple of sentences from Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter I have long linked to the effect Ondaatje’s writing has on his reader: “The boat came breasting out of the mist, and in they stepped. All new things in life were meant to come like that.” This is what his quick, understated poem delivers.
A poem of six short lines with a title of three short lines, half the length of the poem’s body. At the very least with the long title, the physical scene is apt to be presented, as it is here. This makes building a set inside the body of the poem unnecessary. We are located. Too often a poem’s basic content is rendered in the title. A regrettable act, title plunked down as village explainer. The touch in this instance is more deft and discreet: the speaker is in the car and can be presumed to be the passenger. The driver is a man named Dominic. Only his first name is given, which implies familiarity: friendship, kinship, the casual nature of a place or the first-name basis of a tour guide’s tag (proper name accorded to the customer).
The passenger is free to look out the side window as well as the windshield. First sighting is assigned to the passenger. They are driving in the Southern Province. In this instance we can guess without much risk that the speaker is the poet, a writer, conditioned not to miss anything, especially something magical. The undeveloped Southern Province of Sri Lanka is the author’s native country (an area not then severely damaged by the tsunami), a place he left in childhood, so his interest in what he sees is intensified by every return. Every return offers an opportunity to fill in the gaps, revise memory, further detail the imagination with what his senses actually testify to. His senses are inundated. Sri Lanka.
Their mutual silence is implied. The shell of the car separates them from what is external. A private space is established. The space elides with time: here, now, gone. Both have been privileged to take in the scene—which creates its own bond. They can confirm each other’s angle of vision. They shared this.
The reader flashes on La Strada, a slice of film history appears on the mind’s screen and runs full-length, the reel breaking here and there to stand in for lapses of memory, the forward motion of the car, the change of scene. The passenger’s relation to film is well documented. There is no persona to construct the poem; the passenger melts into the scenery. He is the camera and does not break the frame after the title announces his presence.
The poem itself is a trace of that title. It is the trace that attracts most of all. The poem describes a sighting, a glimpse of another world, other lives, the kind of thing one feels so charmed to have witnessed, to which one’s own life is wistfully kindred but definitively removed. Vivified in an instant—with a couple of bare details, a corner of the world where circus people still provide entertainment, live a nomadic existence, get drinking and cleaning water from a spigot sticking out of the ground. A suspended state of childhood where children do what children have always done—climb trees. However, these children are professionals. They are trapeze artists, and the tree provides a convenient armature for an informal rehearsal. As children, they can fall and trust their bodies. As professionals, they can fall and trust one to catch the other. The grip is abrupt; it holds. The poem is barely there before the scene peels away behind the driver and his passenger, but the trace of it lingers, and that is just very, very pleasing . . . releasing our own hushed reverie.
There are no grand strategies at work in this poem. There is no sabotage to syntax or sequence in which information is delivered. There is no pronounced rhythm. No ulterior philosophical message. With terrific economy a lush environment is suggested. With characteristic restraint a little world is made. One blogger dismissed the poem as something as easy to write as striking a match and blowing it out. It could well have been so simply bestowed, that effortlessly executed. The poem could be the nucleus of one of the central characters and narratives of a novel to come, Divisadero, for instance. I suggest that it is.
C.D. Wright (1949–2016) published sixteen collections of poetry and prose and served on the faculty at Brown University for decades. Her books include One With Others [a little book of her days], Rising, Falling, Hovering, and One Big Self (a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster). Casting Deep Shade comes out with Copper Canyon Press in 2019.