Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165
Perhaps no other Canadian writer, with the exception of Atwood, has written well in such a variety of genres and received the international acclaim accorded Michael Ondaatje. This “international” reputation is hardly surprising, given his Sri Lankan heritage, his thoroughly “British” schooling, and the foreign teaching positions he has held. In fact, since Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid have distinctly American themes (the first about jazz man Buddy Bolden; the second about a Western cultural icon), there has been a tendency to deny Ondaatje Canadian status. Similarly, given the unconventional nature of the narrative in Coming Through Slaughter and the blending of poetry and prose in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (which some critics have categorized as fiction or “other”), Ondaatje’s writing tends to blur, if not to obscure, conventional distinctions between fiction and poetry.
The Dainty Monsters
The Dainty Monsters, Ondaatje’s first volume of verse, contains many poems about animals and birds. “Description Is a Bird” is the first of eight poems in the collection. For the most part, humans are absent from these poems; the animals seem to serve as symbols but resist interpretation, leaving room for various responses. Douglas Barbour reads the poem as follows: “Love is a performance against solitude which demands discipline in the midst of apparent chaos.” The birds’ actions describe love. Barbour feels that poems like these, those that allow “closure,” were omitted in later collections because “Ondaatje’s restless imagination” found them “too confining.”
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
In 1970, three years after The Dainty Monsters, Ondaatje published The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a hybrid book containing some lyric poems but also photographs, a fictional newspaper account, ballads, and selections from real documents. For Dennis Lee, “this polyphony introduces an exuberant flow into the book’s movement, which carries a reader with ease through the discontinuities of the plot.” In the book, civilization and nature are at odds, and Billy dehumanizes himself by becoming a killing machine. Constantly on edge, Billy is the outsider constrained by boundaries which he crosses or observes. The volume begins with an empty square that represents a picture of Billy, but the prose passage alludes to moving pictures. In fact, the book contains references and descriptions that suggest that Billy is a camera, observing angles and distances, or a motion picture camera, describing actions as one would write a screenplay:
Garrett smiles, pokes his gun towards the door.The others melt andsurround.All this I would have seen if I was on the roof looking.
As a filmmaker, Billy, like Ondaatje, is an artist; and in this volume, as in his other works, Ondaatje tends to resemble his protagonist.
“Letters and Other Worlds”
In “Letters and Other Worlds” (Rat Jelly), which Stephen Scobie has described as “the greatest single poem in Canadian literature,” Ondaatje attempts to come to terms with his absentee father, a recurrent figure in his work. The poem recounts his father’s drinking bouts, his self-destructive behavior, and his self-imposed isolation in a room with bottles of liquor. The poem is at once amusing and tragic, like his father’s life: “His early life was a terrifying comedy.” Ondaatje jokes that his father’s “falling/ dead drunk onto the street” and stopping the Perahara procession was “a crucial/ turning point” that “led to Ceylon’s independence in 1948” because his father was a “semi-official, and semi-white at that.”
The last verse paragraph presents, through balancing imagery, the tenuous hold his father had on his life. In his room, Ondaatje’s father wrote apologies, “Letters in a clear hand of the most complete empathy.” While his heart widened to accept “all manner of change in his children and friends,” he “himself edged/ into the terrible acute hatred/ of his own privacy.” Fearful (earlier Ondaatje writes, “My father’s body was a globe of fear”) of accepting and forgiving himself, “he balanced and fell.”
Ondaatje often used mythology in his early poems, but in the later ones, he tends to mythologize domesticity. Community becomes a major concern as he probes relationships with friends and family. In “Light” (There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do), dedicated to his mother, as he sits through a midnight summer storm, he sees the slides “re-shot from old minute photographs” projected on the wall. His relatives “stand/ complex ambiguous grainy,” at several removes from reality. The complexity and ambiguity are reflected in memories of eccentric but endearing behavior (his Aunt Christie thought Harold MacMillan was “communicating with her through pictures in the newspapers”). The pictures, like the various pieces that comprise The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, are “fragments, all I remember”; but Ondaatje can see his family not only reflected in himself and in his children, but also as a “parade in my brain” and make connections between “expanding stories,” partly of his creation, and “the grey grainy pictures.” Like the trees around his house, they “Haven’t moved an inch from me.”
In Secular Love, Ondaatje became more autobiographical, more intimate, and more confessional, in the manner of poets like Robert Lowell. The volume describes the disintegration of a marriage, a near mental breakdown, “Rock Bottom” (the title of one of the four sections), and recovery and new love. Although the poems are part of a whole and are, for the most part, interdependent, “To a Sad Daughter,” which has been anthologized, stands on its own. It is a secular love poem-lecture to a daughter who is not what he “expected.” She delights in violent sports, retreats into “purple moods,” and finds his expression of “love” embarrassing, but he likes this behavior. Uncomfortable with the role of father and not good at giving advice, he nevertheless gives her a “lecture” which is poignant and life-affirming (perhaps the advice applies to his own life). Using myth, he advises her to listen to the song of the sirens, to not be fooled by anyone but herself, and to “break going out not in.” The poem ends on a quasi-religious note (“suburban annunciation”) and suggests that love may lie beneath a violent exterior: “Your goalie/ in his frightening mask/ dreams perhaps/ of gentleness.”
In this volume of poetry, Ondaatje turns his attention to Sri Lanka, to Sri Lankan culture, and to the writing process. The poem that begins “What we lost” best describes how Sri Lankan culture has deteriorated. The poet describes the loss of the “interior love poem,” the “dates when the abandonment/ of certain principles occurred.” The principles involve courtesy, the arts, and “Lyrics that rose/ from love/ back into the air.” The nuances of human communication, the harmony between humans and nature, and the tie between nature and religion—“All this we burned or traded for power and wealth.” In this volume Ondaatje addresses the political problems of Sri Lanka as he juxtaposes “men carrying recumbent Buddhas/ or men carrying mortars.”