The Cinnamon Peeler

by Michael Ondaatje

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1907

Stanza 1
“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.

Stanza 2
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 potent scent of cinnamon, it becomes clear through his erotic descriptions that within the context of the poem, cinnamon is a symbol for sexual desire.

Stanza 3
In the third stanza, the poem gets even more erotic. Whereas the second stanza talked about the woman’s “breasts and shoulders,” now the speaker is moving lower on the woman’s body, indicating more body parts that his cinnamon scent would inhabit. The speaker mentions the woman’s thigh. A woman’s upper thigh has inherent erotic overtones. The use of the words “smooth pasture” increases the eroticism of the speaker’s statement, because it highlights the smooth texture of the woman’s skin. Smooth skin is another anatomical aspect that is used to indicate eroticism. In the third line, the speaker gives one of the most graphic descriptions in the poem: “neighbour to your hair.” Although hair could normally mean the hair on a person’s head, the fact that the speaker is talking about hair near the woman’s upper thigh identifies it as the woman’s pubic hair.

This reference is blatantly sexual, but the speaker only lingers here for a moment, before traveling on to the next body part, the woman’s back. While not as blatantly sexual as a woman’s pubic hair, a woman’s back is still inherently sensuous, as is his last anatomical description of the woman’s ankle. Although America’s emphasis on sexual freedom has taken away the power and mystery of a woman’s ankle, in some cultures, where women are expected to wear more clothes, the sight of even an ankle can be a very sensuous experience. The speaker sums up all of his descriptions in the last two lines of the stanza: “You will be known among strangers / as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.” In other words, the cinnamon peeler’s scent, the symbol of his sexual desire and the marital connection that he shares with this woman, has marked this woman so much that even strangers will recognize the woman as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.

Stanza 4
At this point, the poem switches gears. Up until now, it has functioned on a hypothetical level, as this married couple engages in a game of roleplaying. Now it switches to a description of the couple’s actual past. As he notes in the first line of the poem, the speaker is not a cinnamon peeler. The speaker’s love for his wife, however, is as strong as the love that this hypothetical cinnamon peeler has for his wife. In fact, the poet uses the hypothetical example of the cinnamon peeler for a reason. He wants to emphasize his desire to his wife in a symbolic sense, as if it is literally a scent that can be noticed by others. As the poem shifts in this stanza, the reader can see why the speaker goes to all this trouble. The speaker is remembering back to a time before he and his wife were married, when they were dating. He was afraid to look at his beloved, because he did not want to betray his feelings for her. Even more importantly, the speaker says he could never touch his beloved. If he were to do this, it would be like the cinnamon peeler who touches his wife and leaves evidence of his desire, in the form of cinnamon dust. The speaker would not necessarily leave physical evidence of his desire such as dust by touching his beloved. Yet, as he notes in the next line, others, especially his beloved’s family, would be able to literally smell his desire for her.

Because the mark of his desire is so potent, the speaker must take further steps to hide the scent of this desire, even beyond not looking at or touching his beloved. The narrator says that he must hide the potent scent of his desire by masking it behind other potent scents.

Stanza 5
In the fifth stanza, the speaker switches gears again. Up until now, he has spoken about the hypothetical cinnamon peeler and his wife making love, and he has described how he was unable to even look or touch his beloved while they were dating, for fear of betraying his desire. Now, however, he talks about his own experience making love to his beloved while they were dating. The speaker remembers a day during their marriage when he and his beloved went swimming together. The poet notes that when they were both immersed in the water together, “you could hold me and be blind of smell.” In other words, when the couple were trying to hide their desire from her family during their courtship, it was difficult to hide its potency. In addition, they were both focused on it because their desire is a forbidden thing, which makes it that much harder to resist. In this private swim together as a married couple, however, they could be “blind of smell” because they had no reason to hide their desire anymore. They were fulfilling their desire, which takes away its smell, at least temporarily. This idea sets up the rest of the poem.

Stanza 6
This line leads into the sixth stanza, which starts out with a statement from the speaker’s beloved.When one reads the first line of this stanza, it might seem as if the woman is saying that the speaker has literally made love to other women. One can interpret the poem this way. Yet, the speaker’s choice of a “grass cutter” and “lime burner” is significant, and suggests a different interpretation. Both of these professions, unlike the profession of cinnamon peeler, involve working with natural substances that have little or no scent. While the scent of fresh-cut grass is unmistakable, it does not have the potency of freshly peeled cinnamon bark. Lime, on the other hand, contrasts even more sharply with cinnamon. Lime is inherently an odorless substance, and the lime burner, who obtains lime from limestone by burning off the carbon dioxide, therefore does not carry the scent of his profession with him to other places. Because of these choices, it does not seem as if the speaker’s beloved is accusing him of sleeping with other women. Instead, it seems as if she is creating a hypothetical situation of her own, to counter her husband’s hypothetical cinnamonpeeler situation. She is imagining what it would be like for her lover to be with these other women, who do not carry the scent of their husband’s profession, as she would in the hypothetical situation where she is the cinnamon peeler’s wife. In the last part of the stanza, the speaker’s beloved smells her arms, which no longer carry the scent of their desire.

Stanzas 7–8
The seventh stanza is very short, only two words long: “and knew.” Though it is short, it is a powerful stanza. In its short space, it implies that the woman is having a revelation, which is explained in the next stanza. The speaker’s wife is continuing both hypothetical situations, saying that it is no good to be without a scent, as a lime burner’s daughter is. She would rather be marked with the scent of her husband’s desire. To be otherwise, would be like she was “not spoken to in the act of love” or as if she was “wounded without the pleasure of a scar.” The first idea suggests that the lack of strong desire between a couple is the equivalent of mechanical lovemaking without communication. The second idea is more visceral, once again using anatomical associations, although this time the speaker is talking about a wound, which most people would consider an inherently bad thing. Yet, within the context of the poem, even a wound can be a pleasurable experience if it leaves a mark, as the cinnamon peeler leaves a mark on his wife.

Stanza 9
The final stanza wraps up both hypothetical situations. The speaker’s wife presents her body to her husband, and the poem once again focuses on a part of the woman’s anatomy, her belly. The speaker’s wife closes the poem by going along with the roleplaying game that her husband set up in the beginning. She acknowledges herself as his wife and tells her husband: “Smell me.” In other words, as the speaker has demonstrated repeatedly throughout the poem, smell and scent are synonymous with desire in the speaker’s mind and in this couple’s experience. So when the speaker’s wife asks him to smell her, she is asking him to desire her. This married couple is rekindling their passion for each other, by drawing on past memories and using a role-playing game where he becomes a cinnamon peeler, and she becomes the cinnamon peeler’s wife.

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