Michael Ondaatje The Cinnamon Peeler

I had a whole post written, with pics, ready to upload.

And then I made vanilla butter cookies with rosewater and listened to the decades-gone UK band Free play the song Fire and Water … which put paid to that.

I was finishing the washing up after the cookies were baked and just felt that ache in centre of my chest, the one you get having read or listened to or seen or done something that just speaks to your being. And somehow I’d managed to conglomerate those at one go. The smell of the cookies and the aching pain of the lyrics but beauty of the melody sent me looking for what is one of my favourite poems.

I expect most readers know Michael Ondaatje for the film of The English Patient. And I think – it is such a long time ago – that after seeing the film I read the book and then I read everything else of Ondaatje’s I could get my hands on.

At some point within that period of gorging myself on his stuff I read his poetry, including “The Cinnamon Peeler”.

As an aside, The English Patient isn’t my favourite novel of his. That goes to In the Skin of a Lion, and I have to say his later novels don’t stack up to that or The English Patient.

But back to The Cinnamon Peeler. Why did it come into my head along with the cookies and Fire and Water? I can’t parse that – I don’t know why sometimes various experiences aggregate to point to needing to include yet another very specific one. Maybe listen to Fire and Water on YouTube and it will make some sort of sense.

I love the idea of smelling of spices but have encountered only a handful of fragrances that I think remain perfumes even though you can delineate certain spice notes – rather than smelling like a spice cabinet. Serge Lutens Arabie (2000; main notes cedar, sandalwood, candied mardarine, date, fig, nutmeg, cumin, clove, etc) is one and it remains among my favourite cooler weather choices. I think the dried/stewed fruit aspect balances the spices and it is not sweet. Another fragrance is the more recent Etat Libre d’Orange Spice Must Flow (2019; main notes rose, ginger, saffron, cardamon, cinnamon and saffron) which leans more towards spice cabinet but doesn’t fall over that cliff, probably due to the rose. A fragrance in this genre that doesn’t work, IMHO, is Diptyque’s l’Autre (1973; cardamon, pepper, carnation, caraway, nutmeg, coriander, patchouli). It’s too peppery and dry which does push it into spice cabinet rather than perfume.

The poem is non-rhyming. I don’t know enough about the structure of poetry to discuss its metre here, but I’ve seen this labelled as a lyric poem.

My original reading of this many years ago (the copyright for the book in which it appears is 1989) resulted in an intake of breath and an increase in heart rate. I finished it and went straight back and read it again (I had a similar experience with Auden’s The Shield of Achilles). I would make the point here that I don’t think of myself as an intellectual – I read for a living but I also read voraciously, but I sometimes think I do it simply to fill my head so I can relax (what I read for work can be disturbing). I can’t recall most of the books I’ve read and I only return to poems or books when they’ve had a real impact.

Anyway, while the poem clearly includes fragrance at its heart, the more abstract idea of association seems to me more important. And I think that is what spoke to me so explosively when I originally read it. I won’t quote the whole thing, just this:

“… 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

You touched
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife. Smell me”

So. I ended up spraying on Arabie once I’d found the book but before I re-read the poem while writing this. I expect it still doesn’t make sense as to how I got from baking and a blues rock song from 1970 to this poem but the brain and the heart will do what they will.

Does this happen to you? If so, where does it tend to lead? (And no, my nom de parfum has nothing to do with this poem. I use cinnamon in many screen names but usually as cinnamon toast.)

(Featured pic from Pexels. Book pic me.)

  • Dina C. says:

    I’ve never heard of the poet/author and didn’t watch The English Patient, so thanks for the introduction, Cinnamon. Spice cabinet scents aren’t my usual jam. The closest I have might be Cologne du 68 by Guerlain which is unisex and very spicy. Fortunately it’s sheer. Good for anytime, but feels rightest in the fall.

    • cinnamon says:

      The film is good but the book is better. He is well worth checking out. I have this plan the next time I’m in London to visit Harrods and do a real long proper sniffage. The shop has so many brands — plus a load of exclusives.

  • Zazie says:

    Love those apparently random connections that sometimes lead to surprising associations and re-discoveries.
    Thank you for sharing the poem, you make me want to look further into the author.
    As for spicy perfumes, the recent Paris Paris from Chanel has an exhilarating (and exaggerated) burst of pepper on top, but somehow manages to stay firmly in perfume territory. I bought the FB.
    Other spicy perfume loves of mine are Mohur and -surprisingly- vamp à New York. I say “surprisingly” not because it is surprising for me to love a sunny white floral composition, those are my bread and butter actually, but because I smell an entire spice cabinet in the opening -cinnamon bark especially- and yet it still works.
    But maybe the spices are just a random connection of my brain, a ghost conjured by something else…

    • cinnamon says:

      They are apparently random but I really wonder how they slot together. Ondaatje is wonderful. And he’s got an interesting history. Mohur … yes. I was looking at the NVC sample set to have another go at her stuff but discovered the postage for the UK from the EU now is prohibitive. Sigh.

  • Portia says:

    Hey cinnamon,
    I used to read but not anymore. Well, not properly.
    Give me ALL THE SPICE RACKS in perfume please. I want to smell like I’ve walked into an Indian bazaar, Asian apothecary or/and a Middle Eastern market. Yes, please. It’s rarely too much and often I wish for more.
    Mixing up poetry, music and perfume. Naah, I’ll just spritz thanks. I liked it that you did it but I’m well basic.
    COOKIES though….
    Portia xx

    • cinnamon says:

      Cookie recipe is really simple (and I think it came from Australia). Bloom Perfume in London actually has a spice sample set …

  • Tom says:

    I have to echo what Musette wrote. Uncle Serge does spices like no other. Ondaatje is brilliant. And if there’s something better than a nice, simple butter cookie I am hard pressed to think of it. I don’t make them because I live on a fault line and could conceivably plunge through the earth’s crust if I overindulge.

    • cinnamon says:

      I was trying to think of other overtly spice-focused fragrances and came up a bit empty. I think I need to do some research. Indeed he’s brilliant.

    • Maya says:

      OMG you can be so funny!
      As to cookies – I’ll see your butter cookie and raise you a Scottish shortbread cookie. Heavenly.

      • March says:

        I’ll see you a shortbread and raise you a biscochito — the first ingredient is lard. They are heaven. (although I’m a huge fan of shortbread as well)

        • Musette says:

          I’ll see ALL the cookies. Please!


          • Maya says:

            Dammit. I’m out – until I try a biscochito. 😉 🙂

          • Tom says:

            I’m with you. Except cookies with nuts. Don’t care for them. More for you guys.

          • cinnamon says:

            no nuts? what about those huge soft Pepperidge Farm things with lots of choc and nuts? You can’t get PF here or Entemenn’s. Not cookies, but I really miss the chocolate donuts, especially after they’ve been in the fridge.

  • March says:

    What a wonderful post — I have absolutely fallen down that rabbit hole of connecting all sorts of things that trigger a memory. Those cookies sound wonderful. And I really need to try Spice Must Flow, I keep forgetting about it and I suspect I’d love it.

    • cinnamon says:

      The cookies are good (I just had one with breakfast …). I think next time they would benefit for a bit of cinnamon or allspice but not a lot. The ELdO is very worth having a look at.

  • Musette says:

    Uncle Serge, when he gets it right, is unparalleled perfection. M. Ondaatje is, as well. This is a lovely post, cinnamon – and those cookies sound amazing!!


    • cinnamon says:

      I really really want to visit the Palais Royale and just overload on the smelling. The cookies were incredibly easy and they reminded me after the arduous chocolate killer cake and the weird watermelon and rosewater pudding that baking can be simple and very rewarding.