Sweet Like a Crow

For Hetti Corea, 8 years old


‘The Sinhalese are beyond a doubt one of the least musical

people in the world. It would be quite impossible to have

less sense of pitch, line or rhythm — Paul Bowles


Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed

through a glass tube

like someone has just trod on a peacock

like wind howling in a coconut

like a rusty bible, like someone pulling barbed wire

across a stone courtyard, like a pig drowning,

a vattacka being fried

a bone shaking hands

a frog singing at Carnegie Hall.


Like a crow swimming in milk,

like a nose being hit by a mango

like the crowd at the Royal­-Thomian match,

a womb full of twins, a pariah dog

with a magpie in its mouth

like the midnight jet from Casablanca

like Air Pakistan curry,

a typewriter on fire, like a hundred

pappadans being crunched, like someone

trying to light matches in a dark room,

the clicking sound of a reef when you put your head into the sea,

a dolphin reciting epic poetry to a sleepy audience,

the sound of a fan when someone throws brinjals at it,

like pineapples being sliced in the Pettah market

like betel juice hitting a butterfly in mid-air

like a whole village running naked onto the street

and tearing their sarongs, like an angry family

pushing a jeep out of the mud, like dirt on the needle,

like 8 sharks being carried on the back of a bicycle

like 3 old ladies locked in the lavatory

like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep

and someone walked through my room in ankle bracelets.

Dive in
  1. This poem is made up of wild comparisons, but let’s imagine the poem’s speaker is being direct: What would be one word or one straightforward sentence the speaker would use to describe “your voice”?
  2. What’s your favourite “zinger” in this poem? Which comparison is most ridiculous to you? Which one conjures up a sound you can hear perfectly? Which one can you not hear at all? 
  3. The writer uses similes to describe the child’s singing voice. Why do you think the writer uses similes instead of metaphors? What if the writer wrote, “Your voice is a scorpion being pushed/through a glass tube” rather than “Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed/through a glass tube”?
  4. There’s a bit of “preamble” before this poem starts: a dedication followed by an epigraph. What does that epigraph from Paul Bowles do to set the tone for the poem? How do you understand Ondaatje’s use of it, especially after that dedication?
  5. A lot of people laugh when they hear or read this poem. Why? What is the writer doing to make readers laugh? How would you recite this poem to bring out the comedy of it?
  6. Writing Activity: Write your own “backhanded ode” using a list of similes. Think of something that annoys you or a pet peeve you have. Address your poem to that annoying thing or pet peeve. Write a list of outlandish similes that tell us what you think of that annoying thing only by comparing it to other things.

Useful Links:

Here’s a video of Michael Ondaatje talking about how music has influenced him as a writer (and perhaps why he felt compelled to write this “ode” to “your voice”!).

The poetic term for the type of repeated phrase structure this poem uses is called anaphora. Here’s a brief description of what that means, and the intense effects anaphora can have in a poem.

Here’s a video of a frog “singing” (maybe outside of Carnegie Hall?). And here you can listen to the beautiful, sonorous melody of the peacock (and imagine what it might sound like getting “trod” upon).

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Bibliographical info

Copyright © 1983 by Michael Ondaatje. Reprinted by permission of Michael Ondaatje.

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