cover image A Year of Last Things

A Year of Last Things

Michael Ondaatje. Knopf, $28 (128p) ISBN 978-0-593-80156-7

The dazzling latest by Ondaatje (The Story) brings his formidable literary gifts and imagination to bear on questions of memory and artistic process. Tenderly plumbing friends, ex-lovers, works of art, and “echoing rivers where we lost and found ourselves,” he writes of “all those small recalls of this and that/ before our walk up a staircase into the dark.” Photographs serve as especially potent aides-mémoires, and retrospection is more playful than onerous, even when recollected moments retain their dangerous charge (like “that abandoned time” in boarding school under the reign of an abusive priest, “his large body belted with a Christian cord of rope”). Each experience exists “not as memory, but like a gift/ from forgetfulness.” “Nothing stays still in a story,” Ondaatje reminds the reader, and, indeed, the narrative impulse holds sway in these lyric poems: “your bare feet on a mosaic in Gaza that could perhaps guide you like a terza rima towards a safe place to complete your story.” Poetry offers a place “beyond the familiar properties”: “the breaking line’s breath-like leap/ into the missed life// till there was no longer a story, only stillness/ or falling.” Speaking from and into times of extraordinary loss, the speaker asks: “Now we are less. How do we become more?” This collection radiates the joy of a fully realized, literary life. (Mar.)