Michael Ondaatje's poem, "To A Sad Daughter," is a father’s loving tribute to a daughter caught in the struggles of life. The father, also the narrator of the poem, speaks to his daughter who has just turned sixteen. This is his first time to give her “life” advice. He knows that she is about to enter the "wild world," and that he can only swim along side of her because she must “sail her own ship”; these are idioms. He will be there beside her, but she will have to make her own way.
The narrator reflects on the things she likes and the things she did in the past. Her love of hockey and sleeping under a picture of the infamous goalie mask symbolize her past. Sleeping in her track suit and reporting on the teams are not what the father expected from his daughter; however, he loves (whoops, she would not like that word), likes her.
The use of colors throughout the poem symbolize different aspects of both the father's and the girl's moods and memories:
I like all your faults even your purple moods….
Sometimes I’ve gone into my purple world and lost you.
Purple is a mysterious color often associated with spirituality and in some cases a separation from reality. Her metaphoric purple moods probably come from her changing hormones; and his metaphoric purple world, which adults find when they lose themselves in their work or life in general, symbolizes the lack of communication experienced by most children and parents. Nothing new, except the father recognizes these purple moods for what they are.
Yellow is also used to symbolize a time in the father’s lasting memory of his daughter, encircled by sunlight with the beautiful forsythia bush in the background. His memory is both wonderful but sad because he knows that soon she will leave him for her own life. The narrator’s simile symbolizes a father who loves his daughter without question:
and sun spilled over you
like a thick yellow miracle
as if another planet
was coaxing you out of the house
--all those possible worlds!--
I cannot look at forsythia now
without loss, or joy for you.
Yellow is referred to again at the end of the poem with reference to a spiritual ceremony, an annunciation, that the girl attended or experienced. The yellow color symbolizes the beginning or metaphoric spring of her womanhood.
The metaphorical goalie is personified as a web-footed creature who lives in caves or wherever. The poet's figurative language warns her to beware people who are not authentic. His message rings clear:
You can enter their caves and castles
their glass laboratories. Just
don't be fooled by anyone but yourself
The father promises the daughter that he will always be available to her. Apparently, their talk has included the idea that she fears death. Wisely, the father discourages her thinking of death symbolized by graves because there is no real explanation for death except that it happens. More importantly, he encourages her to spend time recalling the memories of the ones who have passed on. Their lives become symbolically permanent through the memories of those who are left behind.
Finally, the father asks her to imagine that frightening goalie who has been above her bed as if she has been just dreaming of it. He hopes that her dreams will be restful and tranquil as well.