Michael Ondaatje first published “The Cinnamon Peeler” in 1982 as part of his book Running in the Family. “The Cinnamon Peeler” appeared later in Ondaatje’s collection Secular Love. As most critics note, this collection was influenced heavily by events in Ondaatje’s life, namely his 1979 separation from his wife, Kim Jones, and his subsequent affair with another woman, Linda Spalding. The book is arranged into four different sections, which collectively detail the pain of Ondaatje’s breakup and his path through despair to newfound love. “The Cinnamon Peeler” is located in the fourth and final section, “Skin Boat,” and is one of the poems that glorifies love. In the poem, the speaker gives a very sensual description of his wife and their courtship, using the exotic qualities of cinnamon, especially its potent scent, to underscore his love and desire. Ondaatje’s use of cinnamon, a plant found in his native Sri Lanka, indicates his desire to focus on his former homeland. Ondaatje, who has been a Canadian citizen since he was a teenager, often includes discussions of Sri Lanka in his works. Although critics responded favorably to the poems in Secular Love, this response pales in comparison to the critical and popular response that Ondaatje received for his third novel, The English Patient (1992), which was adapted into a blockbuster film in 1996. A copy of the poem can be found in The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems, which was published in paperback by Vintage International in 1997.
“The Cinnamon Peeler” sets up a hypothetical situation right from the first line: “If I were a cinnamon peeler.” Right away, readers can determine that the speaker is not a cinnamon peeler, but that the poem will discuss what might happen if he was. In the last three lines of the stanza, the poem takes on erotic overtones, as the speaker notes, “I would ride your bed / and leave the yellow bark dust / on your pillow.” The verb “ride” is inherently innocent, but when it is combined with the word “bed,” it becomes very sexual in nature. It is clear that the speaker is writing a sexual poem to his lover. The “yellow bark dust” that the speaker refers to is the dust that a cinnamon peeler has on his body after harvesting the spice, which comes from the bark of a specific type of evergreen tree that is Sri Lankan in origin. By talking about leaving the bark dust on his lover’s pillow, the speaker sets up a graphic image of the couple making love and the man leaving evidence of his presence by the work-related cinnamon dust that falls onto the bed in the process.
The poem gets increasingly erotic in the first line of the second stanza, as the speaker describes, in detail, which areas of the woman’s body would smell of cinnamon dust. In addition to referencing the woman’s anatomy, the speaker also notes how the cinnamon smell would mark the woman as his wife even when she left the house. To further emphasize the power of this scent, the speaker gives an extended example of blind people stumbling from the potency of the odor. The speaker uses two images of water to indicate that the woman could not wash away the scent.
Whether the woman gets slightly wet from the light stream of water that falls from a rain gutter or thoroughly drenched from the torrential downpour of a monsoon, the scent of the man’s profession, which also serves as a symbol of his love and desire, will stick to the woman. A symbol is a physical object, action, or gesture that also represents an abstract concept, without losing its original identity. Symbols appear in literature in one of two ways. They can be local symbols, meaning that their symbolism is only relevant within a specific literary work. They can also be universal symbols, meaning that their symbolism is based on traditional associations that are widely recognized, regardless of context. The poem relies on the former type. While the speaker starts out discussing the...
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