There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje’s book There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do is most strongly characterized by its impressive imagery and word choice. The structure of the poetry varies, as Ondaatje plays with line, stanza, italics, and punctuation—all are used to bring a certain art to the poems, and to reinforce meaning. At times the style is somewhat rambling, and extremely poetic and obscure, but in other poems Ondaatje’s voice is rather straightforward, and takes on the form of a narrative. The punctuation of the poems switches consistently between little or none, to lots of dashes, commas, and parentheses. The overriding theme of the work is family, particularly the author’s wife and son. The book opens with a narrative poem about photographs that explains several family relations and their individual stories. It is a good introductory poem because it reflects the thematic elements that will follow in the rest of the work. Overall, There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do is emotionally appealing, well-crafted, and sensibly artistic.

One of my favorite poems is called “Late Movies with Skyler”; it’s written in a narrative style. It is, essentially, a picture of the narrator and his son watching a movie together late one night and ends with the aging father’s thoughts on his son’s life, comparing him to the hero from the movie. What strikes me the most about the poem is the camaraderie between father and son, and the realistic images of the movie-watching. Ondaatje uses words as “adventure”(Ondaatje 68) to describe their night together at uses the pronoun “we” consistently: “We talk during the film/ and break into privacy during commercials/ or get more coffee or push/ the screen door open and urinate under the trees” (68). He also ties the father and son together my making them experience the same emotions. The two are described as “laughing”(69) together, and “…we are moved/ as Stewart Granger girl-less and countryless/ rides into the sunset with his morals and his horse”(69). I particularly like this last image because it implies that both father and son have the same impression with the ending of the movie, which really reveals the bond the two have between them. In reference to some more powerful imagery in the poem, the second stanza is my favorite:

21 years old and restless

back from logging on Vancouver Island

with men who get rid of crabs with Raid

2 minutes bending over in agony

and then into the showers! p. 68

The simplicity of this image is characteristic of the style of the poem—it isn’t flowery or overly poetic, but rather abrupt and realistic. The last stanza of the poem is also illustrative of this point, and it reveals Ondaatje’s characteristic grammatical choices (or lack thereof):

In the movies of my childhood the heroes

after skilled swordplay and moral victories

leave with absolutely nothing

to do for the rest of their lives. p. 69

This final image is cool in that there are several possibilities, and the reader is forced to re-read the stanza to find what he or she may think is the correct interpretation. Once again, the image of the speaker’s son embarking on an adventure without any set plans is powerful in its simplicity, and additionally, I love the way it reveals the father’s pride for Skyler.

In conclusion, I absolutely loved reading There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do. The themes and images were refreshing in a way that caught me off guard, and the stylistic elements were diverse enough to be consistently entertaining. I recommend this book to all!

1 Response to “There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do by Michael Ondaatje”


  1. 1 Maria Feb 7th, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    What did you think of the poem “The Diverse Causes”?

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