May 30, 1999 | Seduced by Dry
We biked down to the Freer Gallery to see Michael Ondaatje read some poetry from his new book. Ondaatje is most directly mapped onto the popculture landscape as the author of the dense and rich story The English Patient, which inspired a movie in which everyone was beautiful, even the badly burned man. Michael Ondaatje was a rumpled man who spoke in a halting, quiet voice until he read his poems. As soon as he entered into the territory of his own work, he talked smoothly, without hurrying. He was very charming.
I read a book of Ondaatje's poems and The English Patient when I was in Senegal, and was just stunned at how good they were. He did something astonishing to the language he used, as if he'd rearranged the words on a page of directions for using a VCR and somehow turned them into the I Ching. In Senegal, the early portion of The English Patient always seemed the most interesting: this unidentified, amnesiac man falls burning from the sky into the bright-hot desert, and is found by a group of nomads. They tow him along their route, wrapping his body to shield his raw flesh from the sun and unwrapping him at night as they sit around fires at watering-holes. From where I lived on the blistering edge of that selfsame desert, this brief portion of the book was the most vivid of all. It conjured the mystery of living in so harsh a place in a way that I felt but could not begin to explain.
During my last year in Senegal, I lived in a small town along the banks of the Senegal river, about 500 kilometers upstream from the Atlantic coast. Many Senegalese people I knew elsewhere in the country considered Matam to be the most Godforgotten wasteland under the sun. The river was a green ribbon laid down across a featureless brown desert. A smudge of greenery hunkered down on the river's banks, and people along its edge pumped and channeled its waters to nurture gardens along its length. Beyond this fragile zone of living things, there was a large floodplain of packed clay, cracked into deep shattered patterns in the endless heat. In rainy season, the river overran its banks and submerged huge areas, turning many villages into islands that were only reachable by dugout boats. Beyond the floodplain, the baked clay earth gave way to loose sand, speckled with scrub brush and occasional acacia trees. This landscape was as different from the densely-forested foothills of Virginia as I could imagine. I thought it was cruel and beautiful.
During the hot season in Matam, temperatures could frequently hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit. My mother's oven has a precise control knob that lets you set temperatures within 5 degrees, and sometimes when I'm home I'll set it for 120 and stick my head in just to get that terrible feeling again. It wilted the body and drained the mind of any stray thought but coolness. Many afternoons, I'd get on my motorcycle and ride upstream for a few kilometers to a long, beautiful bend in the river, and clamber down the clay banks to the water's edge. I would walk into its slow green swirl and submerge myself to the eyes. The bottom was slick and squishy and wonderfully cool between my toes. Sometimes I smeared ridiculous patterns on myself and let the river erase them from me. It felt like all the poisons in my body were leeching out and being borne away downstream, to be diluted beyond toxicity in the ocean somewhere far off.
After a while, it almost hurt to be so relaxed, suspended, cooled in the water, weightless, with mud sliding smoothly between my toes. All the heat that had built up in me during the day's slow bake began to pull loose from my flesh. It was nearly a relief to emerge into the sun and feel my temperature again synchronize with the earth.
When I read about the burned man being carried through the maddening swelter of the desert, it seemed almost like he was being ferried through familiar territory. In truth, the desert of the book is countless miles away in North Africa, the far shore of the vast expanse in which I lived. But deserts everywhere have some deep connection, as if they intertwine their dry roots down below the surface of the earth, or send them far into us.
Today in Washington the climate gave me moments of nostalgia. It wasn't hot by DC standards, not in the bone-wilting way it will be in August, but there was a hint of the steamy asphalt-scented summer haze to come. Nothing like a desert, really, except for the moments in which the heat forces you to live entirely in the boundaries of your skin. There is no escape and no relief, and that fact alone renders you more yourself than at perhaps any other time.