I was a conservative but literary teenager growing up in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, when I first read Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler” more than twenty-five years ago. A sensuous poem you can smell, see, and feel, “The Cinnamon Peeler” strips away the clothing of its narrator and his beloved and just as beautifully strips away truth to reveal a greater truth in its fiction.
If I were a cinnamon peeler,
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.
How different the world of the poem was from Saudi culture, which draped me in black and insisted, it often seemed, on One Truth. How different from my uncle’s wife explaining the hijab to me by comparing women to pieces of meat that needed to be covered to keep off the flies. In Jiddah, if a girl had a boyfriend, she kept it secret, sneaking phone calls late at night, maybe sneaking out, chauffeured by her family’s driver, to meet up with the boy.
I was too timid for any of that—too scared of boys, too scared of getting caught. I read books instead, and wondered if one day I might have strong enough conviction to wear the hijab—not to protect myself from flies, but to live modestly within my faith.
Though Ondaatje’s poem is called “The Cinnamon Peeler,” there is at first, no cinnamon peeler.
“If I were a cinnamon peeler,” the narrator begins. The cinnamon peeler lives in the narrator’s imagination—no, in the narrator’s fantasy.
Your breasts and shoulders would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. […]
And through fantasy, the cinnamon peeler begins to materialize. First, he is a reflection of the beloved’s fantasized identity.
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.
Then, a moment of confusion:
I could hardly glance at you
never touch you
—your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
We are not sure—are we still in the subjunctive? (“If I were a cinnamon peeler …”) Or are we in the past? The stanza barrels on, settling the question:
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…
The ellipsis, followed by the white space of a stanza break, signals a complete break from the reality we started with.
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.
When I first read “The Cinnamon Peeler,” I was seventeen or eighteen, and it would still be three or four years until I had the courage and opportunity, as a college student in the United States, to indulge in a first kiss. It would be another year after that till I had my first boyfriend.
I had no concept of what love felt like. But I understood longing. I could listen to John Mellencamp’s “Hurts so Good” and sort of get it. I could read this poem and understand:
________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.
In the poem’s coda, the beloved puts her dry belly against the narrator’s hands and says,
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife. Smell me.
I comprehend now, as I did then, that love is experienced with all the senses, and love is a fantasy, and love is the truest truth. I smell the traces of longing and desire on my skin, and I am glad of the scent.
Feature image via Creative Commons.