Given the first half of Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler,” the poem can be reach as a patriarchal or colonial text, where the titular cinnamon peeler has clear authority and dominance over the cinnamon peeler’s wife. Ondaatje uses the actual past of the second half to subvert this dominance in the hypothetical present, re-examining the power dynamic between the persona and his wife. By exploring the nature of power in love, their actual relationship is revealed to be much more nuanced, with the persona’s wife paradoxically empowered and powerless in relation to the persona at the same time.
The poem firmly begins with a hypothetical premise, “If I were a cinnamon peeler” (Ondaatje 1). It is from this hypothetical position that the persona derives his power, “You will be known among strangers / as the cinnamon peeler’s wife” (Ondaatje 17-18). The temptation of seeing this as a patriarchal text is strong. Indeed, the poem is written in the first person, from the perspective of the persona speaking to his wife. Ondaatje uses the metaphor of cinnamon as an invisible control, one that cannot be seen but is nonetheless immediately perceptible. “The blind would / stumble certain of whom they approached” (Ondaatje 8-9). This control is highly sexualized, manifesting physically on wife’s body. Indeed, she is completely objectified: “This ankle” (Ondaatje 16). There is a threatening violence in the persona’s gaze, emphasized in the alliterative “the crease / that cuts your back” (15-16).
But there is the implication of resistance from the wife. The persona says that the cinnamon is inescapable and permanent, “though you might bathe / under rain gutters, monsoon” (Ondaatje 10-11). Water is introduced here as the means to freedom. Ondaatje uses pathetic fallacy to emphasize the wife’s possible desire for independence: monsoon is the season of reversed winds.
The final stanza of the first part leaves the hypothetical narrative, instead exploring the past. In stark contrast to the desire and power of the preceding stanzas, the persona is now completely powerless: “I could hardly glance at you / before marriage / never touch you” (Ondaatje 19-21). The persona goes so far as to mask his scent, attempting to transform himself to avoid contaminating his future wife, “I buried my hands / in saffron, disguised them” (23-24). It is implied that he wishes to remove his cinnamon scent. Yet it must be remembered that he is not a cinnamon peeler in his reality—the symbolism of the cinnamon as power transcends the hypothetical.
Ondaatje remains in the actual past in the second half of the poem, to a scene of swimming. As noted, water has been associated with freedom and independence. This is explicitly expressed here: “I touched you in water / and our bodies remained free” (Ondaatje 28-29). The two are firmly equals, “you could hold me and be blind of smell” (Ondaatje 30). Interestingly, Ondaatje combines the visual with the olfactory, “blind of smell,” referencing back to the invisible control of the cinnamon. For the first time, the wife is given speech, remarking that this freedom means she is indistinguishable from any other women to the persona: “this is how you touch other women / the grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter” (Ondaatje 32-33).
The indentation of the line emphasizes the epiphany the wife reaches, “and knew // what good is it / to be the lime burner’s daughter / left with no trace” (Ondaatje 36-39). She understands that love requires an imposition. There is nothing to differentiate her if the persona does not imprint himself, “as if not spoken to in the act of love / as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar” (Ondaatje 40-41).
The physical location of the persona’s wife reflects this acquiescence, “You climbed the bank and said” (Ondaatje 31). The wife makes a conscious decision to leave the freedom of the water. This lack of water is again reiterated, “You touched / your belly to my hands / in the dry air” (Ondaatje 42-44). The emphasis is on the “belly,” which still has sexual undertones, but is more closely associated with birth. The wife is in a paradoxical position of power and powerless. She gives the persona power over her, saying “I am the cinnamon / peeler’s wife. Smell me” (45-46). At the close of the poem, the persona’s wife makes the hypothetical a reality The enjambment of the line hints at the duality of her true position: she is simultaneously the cinnamon, the symbolic source that the cinnamon peeler derives his power from, and the cinnamon peeler’s wife, subservient to the cinnamon peeler.
The final imperative, “Smell me” perfectly captures this simultaneously empowered and powerless position of the persona’s wife. She is submitting herself to the persona, but is also commanding him through this submission. Ondaatje engages the olfactory senses through the metaphor of cinnamon to capture the paradoxical position of simultaneous submission and dominance necessary to any power dynamic.