A Gentleman Compares His Virtue

A Gentleman Compares His Virtue Poem

to a Piece of Jade
The enemy was always identified in art by a lion.
And in our Book of Victories
wherever you saw a parasol
on the battlefield you could
identify the king within its shadow.
We began with myths and later included actual events.
There were new professions. Cormorant Girls
who screamed on prawn farms to scare birds.
Stilt-walkers. Tightrope-walkers.
There was always the “untaught hold”
by which the master defeated
the pupil who challenged him.
Palanquins carried the weapons of a goddess.
Bamboo tubes cut in 17th-century Japan
we used as poem holders.
We tied bells onto falcons.
A silted water garden in Mihintale.
The letter M. The word “thereby.”
There were wild cursive scripts.
There was the two-dimensional tradition.
Solitaries spent all their years
writing one good book. Federico Tesio
graced us with Breeding the Race Horse.
In our theatres human beings
wondrously became other human beings.
Bangles from Polonnaruwa.
A nine-chambered box from Gampola.
The archaeology of cattle bells.
We believed in the intimate life, an inner self.
A libertine was one who made love before nightfall
or without darkening the room.
Walking the Alhambra blindfolded
to be conscious of the sound of water—your hand
could feel it coursing down banisters.
We aligned our public holidays with the full moon.
3 a.m. in temples, the hour of washing the gods.
The formalization of the vernacular.
The Buddha’s left foot shifted at the moment of death.
That great writer, dying, called out,
for the fictional doctor in his novels.
That tightrope-walker from Kurunegala,
the generator shut down by insurgents
stood there
swaying in the darkness above us.

Michael Ondaatje
from Handwriting

A Gentleman Compares His Virtue

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