The Cinnamon Peeler is a poem from a book that goes by the same name, a collection written between 1963 and 1990 by Michael Ondaatje and published in early 1997.
On the surface the poem is a tale of marital seduction teeming with richly sensual images seen through the eyes of a man. The poetical hand paints across the backdrop his focus; a woman's body streaked with vital, spirited and many-hued aromas. Enriching scents are nearly palpable in the yellowed-gritty dust as his light touch drenches her becomong clamorous; demanding possession. He drifts through a recount of their courtship. Suffused, she replies with surrender--and an imperative.
- If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.
One must know a little about the history of the poet's first home, Sri Lanka in order to understand the poem in a different light. Cinnamon is a spice made from the dried bark of the tree Cinnamomum of the Laurel family. The best known and most sought after spice of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is the species, (C. zeylancium) native to Sri Lanka; it's now cultivated in many other tropical countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, but the cinnamon that is grown in Sri Lanka remains superior in taste. When the bark of the tree begins to turn brown it is harvested or peeled off and as it dries it forms rolls or quills. Smaller rolls are inserted into larger ones and then several are combined into sheaths to be sent of to the marketplace. Yellowish brown, cinnamon possesses a unique fragrance and aroma combined with a pungent and sweetish taste. Used since antiquity to scent soap, flavor candy and as a culinary spice, it's also used in some medicines.
The Dutch, unlike the Portuguese before them, vastly extended the area under their control. In 1795 the Dutch capitulated to British rule and by 1798 Sri Lanka, formerly know as Ceylon was established as a crown colony. This period of British rule was marked by periods of abortive native rebellions. Tea, rubber, and cinnamon estates were formed and all the native peoples struggled continuously for a representative government and national freedom. One of these castes of people was the cinnamon peeler. The first substantial victory was in 1931, when Great Britain proffered a new constitution granting semiautonomous control with the indigenous people over national affairs. By February 4th, 1948 the colony became an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Michael Ondaatje was born just a few years prior to Sir Lanka's independence in 1948 and grew up in the midst of a rebellion against colonialism. His parents were both native to Sri Lanka of Tamil and Singhalese descent. At school, he learned to admire the strange arrangements of history: "We began with myths and later included actual events." Ondaatje's childhood memoir, Running In The Family, explains his early years, the child of a strong-willed mother and a brilliant, maniacally eccentric father.
Sri Lankan settings are ripe with exotic and mythic scope, added to the warm distinctive aroma Ondaatje believes "(colonist) came originally and overpowered the land obsessive for something as delicate as the smell of cinnamon." He goes on to tell, "captains would spill cinnamon onto the deck and invite passengers on board to `smell Ceylon' before the island even came into view," Ondaatje uses metaphors such as the seduction of a woman to represent his views on colonialism throughout Sri Lanka's past.. This inspires the scene for Ondaatje's objections about not only colonialism, but foreigners as well, he even states, "I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner...Ceylon always did have too many foreigners". Referring to the ethnic diversity of Ceylon, he writes, "The English were seen as transients, snobs, and racists, and were quite separate form those who had intermarried and who lived here permanently...The island seduced all of Europe...And so it's name changed, as well as it's shape, -Serendip, Ratnapida (`island of gems'), Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seyllan, Ceilon, and Ceylon - the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything."
- Your breasts and shoulders would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.
Clearly the poet uses the desire for cinnamon as a metaphor creating parallels out of the desire for the spice with that of a woman. Under this guise he retells the saga of the colonizing of his beloved homeland. Ondaatje himself as native son, yearns to be The Cinnamon Peeler by blanketing the woman with his alluring scents that trail behind her wherever she may go. At once she belongs to the cinnamon peeler, but also spreads the sweet, alluring smell so that all, even blind men will notice.
- Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbor to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler's wife.
The Dutch saw cinnamon as "the bride round whom they all danced in Ceylon." The landscape of the woman's body forms the backdrop for Sri Lanka's driving passion and cinnamon is the force behind its inevitable colonization.
- -- your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers...
The "pleasing honeyed and woody scent, which is delicate and intense at the same time;" so powerful is the allure of cinnamon, Ondaatje is taken aback and observes:
- You climbed the bank and said
- this is how you touch other women
the grass cutter's wife, the lime burner's daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume
- and knew
- 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
A university professor remarks: "She (Sri Lanka) cannot escape being tampered with, mapped, and designated according to the culturally implanted expectations and desires of gazing man. His perception and his language trap her in a fixed position that reduces her to body and to her sex alone"
While one could think the phrase lime burner is evocative of burning limes and the strong citric odor afire that would still be over come by the strong woody scent of cinnamon. I understood this verse in the sense of the word, lime as meant to imply the powerful and acrid scented corrosive chemical used as a bleach, disinfectant, or deodorant. It seems more in line with reflecting Ondaatje's strong anti-colonialist views of how the island's spices were so appealing that her color washed away as she was overrun; eroded with war and strife for love and pleasure.
- You touched
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler's wife. Smell me.
Sri Lanka, the lime burner's daughter, is the cinnamon peeler's wife; the driving factor behind the tale is due to cinnamon's affect on its tumultuous history; her aroma still lingers. Ondaatje has woven a rich tapestry of images of longing and desire, a layered montage of profoundly beautiful language that displays all the richness of imagery and the piercing emotional truth. Culture falls away in the juxtaposition of an individual's sense of loss, grief, and remembrance. A thoroughly enjoyable read of anticipation and pleasure The Cinnamon Peeler is a delicate and powerful narrative-- about love, landscape, and the sweep of history.
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Sri Lanka," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.