Michael Ondaatje

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Douglas Barbour (review date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777

SOURCE: “Controlling the Jungle,” in Canadian Literature, No. 36, Spring, 1968, pp. 86-8.

[In the following assessment of Dainty Monsters, Barbour praises Ondaatje's natural imagery, subtle narrative, and controlled language.]

[The Dainty Monsters] is the finest first book of poems to appear since Margaret Avison's Winter Sun. Michael Ondaatje represents a healthy reaction in modern Canadian poetry. Although a completely contemporary writer, he eschews the “simple”, almost barren, style of so many of the poets influenced by the Black Mountain group. He owes much of his originality to his background, I think. The exotic imagery which crowds the pages of this book appears to stem from his childhood memories of Ceylon. His poems are jungle-lush, but, unlike a jungle, they are cultivated and controlled. Their profuseness suggest a full and fertile mind always at work.

Imagery, in itself, is not enough, of course. Michael Ondaatje is also sensitive to poetic form, and he exercises a firm rhythmic control over his language. There is also, in his longer poems, his sense of plot, or story. In the poems of the second part of the book, he demonstrates a fine and subtle understanding of poetic narrative. This does not mean he longwindedly “tells the story.” Rather, the story exists behind the poem, always present to focus the specific incident in a precisely imagined context. This suggestion of story context often occurs in the shorter poems, too. In “The Moving to Griffin,” for example, there is a gain in density from the implied context of the poet's life story.

Ondaatje's imagery is obsessively natural: the book is a kind of modern bestiary, with birds, predatory and domestic animals, and the beast, man, always present, always active. Images of birds, especially, occur again and again. Yet in the poem, “Song to Alfred Hitchcock and Wilkinson”, he does the unexpected, and the poem fairly leaps from the page as a result:

Flif flif flif flif very fast
is the noise the birds make
running over us.
A poet would say ‘fluttering’,
‘see-sawing with sun on their wings’.
But all it is
is flif flif flif flif very fast.

Although his poems are filled with images of violence and terror, his love poems are able to stand against this vision. Life is seldom gentle in these poems, but the love lyrics salvage and savour those moments of deep gentleness which cannot last but must be accepted joyfully in their passing. “The Diverse Causes”, “She Carries a ‘Fat Gold Watch’”, “Christmas Poem, 1965”, “Four Eyes”, as well as the poems of love in the Troy Town section, all present the particular moments of communion with an intensity sufficient to command belief. We accept the validity of such moments because the poems poignantly create that validity.

Yet Ondaatje's poetry never dissolves into sentimentality. His sure control, and the precision of his vision won't allow that. The ironies of his animal poems, his use of tone, the mythic vision of the Troy Town poems, the sense of the power in others, of our inability to control or protect others all preclude sentimentality. He is too tough-minded, too aware of the complexities of life, and his poetry offers no answers or escapes, as sentimentality always does.

“Troy Town”, the second part of The Dainty Monsters, is concerned with myth and the creation of myth. This is a difficult term; but it should be sufficient to suggest that, in these poems, Ondaatje tells “stories” which engender responses of awe and admiration. The life of these poems is violent, for they deal with the permutations of human violence. He has used the well-known myths of Troy and Lilith for some of these poems, but he has also created new myths out of history, or, in “Peter”, probably the finest poem in the collection, out of his own imagination. The poem on Egypt, and the Elizabeth poems are fascinating for their sense of the person. These are monologues, and, especially in “Elizabeth”, he has achieved a high degree of dramatic realism. I have said that he has a clear imaginative understanding of violence, yet this violence never overwhelms the poet. The poetry is not voluptuous in its violence; it is chiseled and carefully wrought. The old idea of decorum applies perfectly to these poems. This is especially true of “Peter”, where the poet deals with varieties of physical and mental violence in an almost virginally pure style and manner. The result is a tremendous gain in imaginative force over most modern treatments of the theme.

This is a beautiful book. It is this in both senses of the word, as a work of poet's craft and as a work of printer's craft.


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(Philip) Michael Ondaatje 1943-

Ceylonese-born Canadian poet, novelist, dramatist, editor, critic, and filmmaker.

Ondaatje emerged during the 1960s as one of Canada's most respected young poets. In his verse, Ondaatje examines the dichotomy between rational intellect and disorderly reality and suggests that the poet's efforts to render personal experience must necessarily result in distortion. Ondaatje's style is characterized by humor, flamboyant imagery, extravagant metaphors, and sudden shifts in tone. Sam Solecki observed that in Ondaatje's poetry, “the fundamental or essential nature of experience is consistently being described and examined. The entire thrust of his vision is directed at compelling the reader to reperceive reality, to assume an unusual angle of vision from which reality appears surreal, absurd, inchoate, dynamic, and, most important, ambiguous.”

Biographical Information

Born into a wealthy family in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Ondaatje left home after his parents' divorce in 1952 for London, where he attended Dulwich College. Shortly thereafter, Ondaatje immigrated to Montreal, Canada, to study at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, where he began writing poetry, and later at the University of Toronto, where Ondaatje met poet Raymond Souster. Souster included Ondaatje's work in his 1966 anthology of young Canadian poets titled New Wave Canada. After winning the university's Epstein Award for Poetry, Ondaatje was introduced by poet Wayne Clifford to Coach House press, which published his first collection, The Dainty Monsters, in 1967.

In 1964 Ondaatje married artist Kim Jones, who had four children from a previous marriage; the couple had two children of their own soon after. Marriage, family life, and friendships inform a number of poems in Ondaatje's first book as well as in the 1973 collection Rat Jelly. After completing his M.A. at Queen's University, Ondaatje began teaching English at the University of Western Ontario. In 1971, unwilling to obtain a Ph.D., Ondaatje left the university for a teaching position at Glendon College in Toronto. In 1980 Ondaatje separated from his wife and, soon after, began a relationship with another woman. The events of his life at this time, primarily the sadness of divorce and the joy of new love, are documented in Ondaatje's 1984 collection Secular Love. In addition to writing and teaching, Ondaatje has edited a number of important anthologies for Coach House press.

Major Works

Ondaatje's early collections of poetry, The Dainty Monsters and The man with seven toes (1969), display a preoccupation with domestic and personal conflicts, mythical and historical figures, the often violent relationship between humans and animals, and destructive impulses among artists. Critics noted that his verse is consistently presented in musical sound-conscious language. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1970), which won a Governor General's Award, is considered Ondaatje's most important volume of poetry to date. Combining prose, verse, photographs, and drawings, Ondaatje presents a fictionalized biography that probes the psyche of notorious American outlaw William Bonney. There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979), which also won a Governor General's Award, contains selections from The Dainty Monsters and Rat Jelly as well as nineteen new poems centering on such topics as friendship and family history. Secular Love comprises four unified sequences of confessional lyrics exploring paternal love, Ondaatje's traumatic divorce, and the redemptive qualities of love. In these poems, Ondaatje is both a character and a creative observer molding his experiences into art. Ondaatje's more recent collections, The Cinnamon Peeler (1989) and Handwriting (1999), both explore Sri Lankan history and culture.

Critical Reception

Ondaatje's poetry has garnered popular and critical acclaim since publication of his first volume. Douglas Barbour found Ondaatje's early works “jungle-lush,” noting also Ondaatje's “rhythmic control over his language.” The man with seven toes has been performed as a dramatic reading and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje's most acclaimed poetic work, has been adapted for the stage. While some critics have chided Ondaatje for lyrical excesses, most scholars of Ondaatje's poetry have concurred that his highly original—and occasionally dark—vision, his linguistic skill, and his manipulation of myth both established and that of his own imagination make Ondaatje one of the most important poets of his generation.

Michael Ondaatje with Jon Pearce (interview date 1978)

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SOURCE: “Moving to the Clear: Michael Ondaatje,” in Twelve Voices: Interviews with Canadian Poets, Borealis Press, 1980, pp. 129-44.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in 1978, Ondaatje discusses his poetry, particularly the creative process.]

[Jon Pearce]: When did you start to write? Did you write at all in England when you lived there as a teen-ager?

[Michael Ondaatje]: No. I think I did write one short story, but I didn't have much interest in writing at the time. I had read a lot, but had actually no interest in writing. I started to write in 1963 and The Dainty Monsters came out in 1967.

How do you account for such a mature, sophisticated, and well-crafted book as The Dainty Monsters? Most writers go through a period of apprenticeship, which seems to be necessary in order to get rid of their bad poems. But you don't seem to have had to do that.

I don't know how to answer that question. I had no interest in poetry. I don't think, until I came to Canada and went to university here. I started writing a lot then and some of the stuff wasn't much good at first. Most of the poems in The Dainty Monsters came about from 1964 to 1967. The first couple of years they weren't there.

Who helped you? Who influenced you?

You met poets in Canada. If I'd continued to live in England, I would never have met any poets—or at least it would have been very unlikely. I met poets here like D.G. Jones and Raymond Souster. Poets in Kingston, where I was going to university, like Tom Marshall and Tom Eadie. And I think what happened was at that time there was a lot of conversation about writing among us, and I tended to ask for comments when I sent manuscripts off to magazines, and I was very lucky; I got lots of reactions to the poems. One of the persons I recall was Milton Wilson of the Canadian Forum, who took great trouble with the poems. Not only did he take some poems for the Forum, but he wrote back and made comments about them. Once he gave me good advice which I didn't take. In “Pigeons, Sussex Avenue”, he thought there were a couple of lines that were unnecessary; but I was convinced they were crucial and the poem was published in the magazine as it was. Later, when I was editing The Dainty Monsters, I realized he was quite right and I dropped the two lines—about three years too late.

Can I interrupt for a minute? I've compared some of your poems as they have appeared in anthologies with the poem as it appears in book form. And it seems to me that there hasn't been much editing done. Is that true?

Essentially, a lot of the editing has been done before the poem goes out. I tend to keep a poem around for a long time—at least six months or a year—before I send it out. Before The Dainty Monsters came out, for example, two people helped me a great deal with the editing. Wayne Clifford criticized the individual poems, and George Whalley helped me with the structure of the book as a whole. I learned a great deal from both of them.

Do you find that you revise poems extensively in the six months that you keep them around?

Yes, very much so. They usually get shorter and they usually get a bit more subtle than they were in the first place. But there's a lot of editing going on.

How long does it take you to write a poem?

A poem like “A House Divided” took me about twenty seconds and I never changed that one. I was stunned: some poems get written like that but they only get written like that because you work on other poems and learn something subconsciously. I think editing comes not just in changing the words but in working with the form of the whole poem.

The matter of editing interests me a great deal—it's different for every poem. But usually the poem gets tightened in some way or gets loosened in some way. Sometimes the poem is too tight to begin with and it needs to breathe a bit more, and you go back to the poem after a couple of months and you see that it's too introverted and too tight and one has to blow some air into it somehow and start again. So, with a book, what happens usually is that there is a process of editing within the actual individual poem, and also there is a process of structuring the book which is also part of the editing.

In one of your published statements, you say, “I usually take my own aesthetics very lightly. Laws and rules and aesthetic principles I think are dangerous if you carry them over into your next poem.” But then you go on to say that “there is usually a set of rules in each poem but it's organic.” Do you attempt to implement the principles of organic form both within a particular poem in the book, as well as in the book as a whole? You were talking a moment ago about the structure of a book.

Well, I definitely think there has to be an organic structure in a book, and I think that's what really interests me in books like Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter It's a case of finding that structure after you've written the book. It's a case of the poem or the book getting written as a whole and then trying to find the sharpest way of presenting that organic form—if that makes any sense.

This would involve editing, of course.

It would definitely involve editing, not just within each poem but the way in which each poem would be placed in relation to every other poem in the book. So that there would be a rhythm in the book.

Some poets don't seem to bother with the notion of a structure or a rhythm in a book; they just lump the poems together willy-nilly, with no apparent thought for the interrelationships.

That's fine for them, but it would upset me greatly.

Can I go back to The Dainty Monsters for a moment? What does the epigraph from W.H. Auden refer to: “We've been watching you over the garden wall / for hours…”? Who are the “we?”

I don't know.

There's a garden here with a wall that apparently divides the animal world from the human world. I'm wondering about the connection between the two worlds. Who are the “we”? The humans or the animals? And what kind of garden is this? Does it have anything to do with the Garden of Eden?

I think both things come up, but I don't know for sure who the “we” is.

What we're talking about is the poetic process. If I may, I'd like to continue along these lines and ask you a couple more questions

Sure, but you probably won't get any straight answers.

When talking about the poem “Peter”, you've said, “My only emotion about my own work is curiosity.” This statement implies that—somehow—after the writing of the poem you've become detached from it, that you look upon it in a curious, disinterested way. As if it wasn't yours. Can you explain that: how you can dissociate yourself from something you once must have been so close to?

I think if you still like the poem after two years or after ten years, you get a certain pleasure out of it. But it is, I think, essentially curiosity, trying to remember how you were at the time when you wrote that poem. Your state of mind, your trying to remember the sources of that poem—curiosity is what I think I'm talking about. No, once you've written the poem, the poem doesn't belong to you; once you've written the poem, it's out there—not part of you any longer. For instance, a character like Billy or Buddy Bolden: it's like having known someone very well—intensely for a certain amount of time while you were writing the book. Then there's a fantastic separation that comes when you finish the book and leave the characters or the poem behind.

In a sense, I lived with Billy when I wrote the book for three or four years and with Bolden for about six years. You know, living with those characters for all that time so intensely means they are always in the back of your mind. Your thinking will be thought by you and is thought by the character simultaneously. But when the book is finished, or when you finish the actual writing of the book, then you get the fun of shaping that person from the outside—in terms of giving the manuscript to friends and saying, “What do you think is missing here?” or “Should this be clearer there or is this too vague?”. Questions like that. Then it's like a piece of sculpture more than personal expression.

I have no desire, for instance, to go back and re-write Billy or re-investigate Bolden. Just recently there's another book on Bolden that's come out in the States. I have absolutely no desire to read the thing. Even if it gives me all kinds of new material about Bolden, I'm not at all interested in it. For me, Bolden is a character who is important to me only as I knew him. He's there now and I still like him, and now and then I'll see something in the street that I will see the way he saw it.

Let me quote you again. You say that “at universities and schools teachers are preoccupied with certain aspects of content, with themes, with messages.” Then you go on to say “that's only about half of poetry”. If so, what's the other half?

You sound like a lawyer, a criminal lawyer.

Well, I'm not. I'm a school-teacher. But I do happen to have some notes in front of me. I've prepared a bit of a brief so I can try to get you to say what you mean.

Okay. The other half… style, technique, the method and movement of the poem. I think William Carlos Williams or someone said he could summarize all the main things about poetry on the back of a postage stamp… that's a minor part of the poem. If you read a love poem, well obviously there will be nothing new in a love poem—it's just the way it's said and it's the way it's said that makes it suddenly hit you.

So the question shouldn't be “What does the poem mean”, but “How does a poem mean”?

Yes, the way the poem means.

Let me ask you something else about technique. I find the incidence of your use of figurative language more frequent than in many poets. More important, though—since figurative language is an essential element of the language of poetry—I find your use of it… bizarre, disturbing, arresting, sometimes shocking. It makes the reader sit up and take notice.

What do you mean by figurative language?

Figurative language is language used with a twist, as in a drink of Scotch. It's not straight Scotch; it's boosted. The girl's hair isn't honey hair, literally; it's probably browny-blonde… And by figurative language, I suppose I mean, most simply and conventionally, simile, metaphor, and the like.

Now, when I read that someone “drowned / in the beautiful dark orgasm of his mouth” or a young girl “burns the lake / by reflecting her red shoes in it” or a pregnant woman has inside her “another, / thrashing like a fish”, I find myself getting anxious about these jagged, almost violent images. Am I getting to something that's characteristic of your poetry and that you deliberately and consciously use?

This is very difficult. Two things are very difficult for me to answer: one is, you know, why I write in a certain way, which I think is what you're asking; and the other is what I think of someone's interpretation of a poem. But, trying to answer the first question, why I use these images, I don't think I'm conscious of it when I'm writing; I'm not conscious of trying to shock someone when I'm writing with a specific image. That just happens in the process of writing, but I'm not conscious of it while I'm writing it. I don't know what more I can say about that. It's there, and it's obviously part of my style. But I don't think I'm a particularly violent poet, which some people feel I am, and I don't think I'm a grotesque poet, as some people think. You know, I think I have a vision of reality that is totally normal to me.

But a lot of the imagery tends toward the violent—

Yes, that's true—

And it's not just the material—the subject matter—that determines the nature of the imagery. In Billy the Kid, for example, the image when he's riding chained to his horse and the sun reaches down through Billy's head and pulls him inside out, that—at least to my tender mind—is certainly bizarre.

Yes, but you know, the poor guy is having some form of sunstroke. For me in Billy I can see just as much gentleness as violence; for me there's a balance. And I really tried to keep the number of deaths in Coming Through Slaughter to a minimum.

Maybe the elements of violence in Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter are unavoidable. But what I was interested in asking about were some of the same things in the earlier poems—in The Dainty Monsters and in Rat Jelly

Well, maybe something got clarified in Billy that didn't get clarified in the earlier poems, although I think I could go back and see preparations for Billy in The Dainty Monsters… The thing is it's a very real world to me and if people don't want to see that as part of the real world, then they're ignoring it. It's been said that violence is normal in our lifetime just as good manners were normal to the world that Jane Austen created. You know, it's a reality. It's getting a balance between the two worlds—the violent and the gentle—but both exist.

I know that you're not going to like this, but I'd like to talk about poetics once more. Poets frequently comment on poetry in the poems that they write, and the one in which you do most obviously is “‘The gate in his head’”. Let me quote some of it:

Victor, the shy mind
revealing the faint scars
coloured strata of the brain,
not clarity but the sense of shift

a few lines, the tracks of thought
.....My mind is pouring chaos
in nets onto the page.
A blind lover, dont know
what I love till I write it out.
And then from Gibson's your letter
with a blurred photograph of a gull.
Caught vision. The stunning white bird
an unclear stir.
And that is all this writing should be then.
The beautiful formed things caught at the wrong moment
so they are shapeless, awkward
moving to the clear.

Now I have three questions to ask you. What do you mean by “My mind is pouring chaos / in nets onto the page”? Is that somehow a description of the poetic process for you?


What does it mean?

I find it difficult answering questions that ask me specifically to interpret some lines in a poem. I'm not being evasive, but I just find it very difficult. You want me to write the poem and then to interpret the poem. But I'm not being evasive.

Let me try the second question. The poet—or let's say the speaker—is “A blind lover”; he's attached to something, but can't see or understand properly. Then: “dont know / what I love till I write it out.” When I read that, I thought of that old chestnut “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Have you ever heard that?

No, but it sounds good to me.

The “blind lover” is “pouring chaos”, which is caught “in nets” on the page; but he really doesn't know what he loves—what he's attached to, what his subject matter is—until he sees it on paper. The writing of a poem seems to be a process of discovery, knowing, seeing.

The third question is this: why are “The beautiful formed things caught at the wrong moment”? I don't understand that.

I really don't like interpreting my own poetry. I hope you can understand that.

Well, since you're reluctant to answer questions about particular lines, what is the poet's responsibility to his poetry or to his poems?

I think he has to remain silent after he's written the poem. I think it only damages a poem to have the poet try to explain it. I can't understand writers who do this. The statement that a poet makes in a poem is just as much the way he says it as what he says. To ask someone who's said something in a poem to paraphrase it or to expand that statement can only destroy a poem, for me. It's the case of a poem being looked on as a crossword puzzle; the reader wants to know exactly what is meant. But I don't think the reader should ask the poet exactly what he is saying.

What he wants to say he has said, and a poem is important in what it doesn't say as well as what it says. You want to reach just the right tone or mood, the point where you don't say certain things, you say certain things, you say certain things in a certain way. You have enough faith in the audience for the reader to be able to interpret what was said by just the amount you've said. I'm often horrified when I hear a poet talking on about a poem he's written. Often this happens at readings; people over-expand before they've read or over-expand after they've read or in a question period go on about the poem or what they wanted to do. For them to have to do this, the poem has failed in some way. I would rather try it over again when it's failed, but I think it's the duty of the poet to remain silent. I think he can talk about various things, but to say more about the poem he damages the poem in some way.

I'm not sure that I agree with you.

Maybe not; but I think it's a point of view.

I think that what a poet has to say about his own poetry or about a particular poem that he's written has a peculiar interest, and that's why I asked you those questions. I don't think that what he has to say about that poem has a peculiar authority, though. My reading of those lines might be fully as legitimate as yours.

Exactly! That's exactly the point I'm trying to make: your point of view has exactly the same validity as my point of view.

Yes, but yours might be a little more interesting…

But you say “peculiar” in terms of a peculiar interest—

A different interest. If a friend of mine were listening to this conversation, he might not be so interested in what I had to say about those lines as he would be in what you had to say about those lines. You'd have a peculiar interest for him because you put the lines on the page. But, nevertheless, my remarks might be just as valid as yours. Of course, if we go to the other extreme and if we say that my remarks are equally as good as yours—and so and so's are equally as good as yours and mine—don't we get into a completely relativistic view of poetry? This would allow the freshman horticulture student to read Blake's “Sick Rose” as an allegory of a certain kind of plant disease. (This is a true story, by the way.)

That's lovely.

But the reading isn't sound; it doesn't work.

I'd still be more interested in what the horticulturist had to say.

Okay, can I at this point go back to “‘The gate in his head’” for the last time? I still think it constitutes an important statement of Michael Ondaatje's poetics.

First, there seems to be a catch-22 involved: though the last four lines obviously state a view of what your poetry ought to do, by their own terms they can't clearly be interpreted to state anything. “All this writing” should be, if you succeed, “beautiful formed things caught at the wrong moment / so they are shapeless, awkward”—or, as you say in the first stanza, “not clarity but the sense of shift”. Therefore, even these lines that I've quoted, if they are successful, must necessarily be “blurred” themselves—“an unclear stir”—and not susceptible to a clear interpretation.

It seems to me that you're putting a radical twist on the reluctance of poets to provide questioners with the “meanings” of their poems. And this is not a bad thing; I don't disagree with you. After all, you've struggled long and hard to say with precision what you've wanted to say in the poem. So if you drop statements about the poem's meaning, you run the risk of having your poem damaged by school-teachers or critics who plaster these statements of meaning over the poetic structure you worked so hard on. I know all this—or at least you've told me all this—and I sympathize with your position.

However, it seems that your reluctance to commit yourself is extreme because of your radical view of the nature and function of poetry. You seem to be trying to write a poetry which is necessarily uninterpretable, without meaning. Yet I don't believe this is simply art for art's sake: there seems to be a fundamental seriousness of purpose here in which poetry is conceived as a necessary extension of your mind—and the world. You use the poem to create—create and discover at the same time—a freshness and vitality which can be found only midway between chaos and form: “My mind is pouring chaos / in nets onto the page.” “In nets”, because without form nothing is apprehensible; yet sufficiently “chaos” to be alive, not yet killed by the dead weight of absolute form—the canned, the tired, the repeatable. Thus, if you are successful, your poems must not be clear, but “moving to the clear”. I don't know what you would want to call such poetic events—Truth or Reality—but I think the important point is that it is what the speaker in the poem loves.

Now, I don't know whether you want to respond to that or not. It isn't really a question, anyway.

Yes, I think that's a pretty good interpretation of it. The thing here is to remember constantly that the poem is not real life; the poem is a poem, the poem is a work of art. It's an artifice, it's a chair, it was made by somebody, and what is involved is what happens when you put the chair into a room. What is involved also is how the person made the chair, and what is important is the other chairs the person has made. I think one can look at a poem by itself and appreciate the poem as an object of pleasure or pain or whatever, but for the writer himself what is important is something else; it's not just the poem because the poem represents a certain phase he has been through or something like that which appears in the poem later on. There is some kind of continuity in a writer's work and that is what is important for the writer. A poem is a passageway, in that sense, from what he felt before to what he feels at the end of the poem. He can't go back and write poem G after having written poem H—I mean, you can't go back to the state of mind or what you believed before you wrote the poem. Basically, that's it, I think.

A poem is a process of clarifying something? A process of discovery?

Both those things. But that's not all; there is something else there, too. I'd hate to think that a poem completed was a total canning of an incident or an event. It's something more; there has to be some kind of air in the poem that comes from… there's got to be an open door or something at the end of the poem, so that you can step out or the writer can step out and admit that this isn't everything.

Do you ever write a poem about something you already know?

No, I don't think so. I can't think of anything I've known before I wrote the poem.

So you would never sit down and write a poem about a certain deeply-felt belief or conviction or attitude?

Well, I think all those convictions and beliefs probably come out in the poem somewhere, but I didn't necessarily have those beliefs and convictions before I sat down and wrote the poem. If I have a very definite attitude about something, I'm not going to write a poem about it—because I already know what the attitude is. The poem is the way you learn something essential about yourself or about people—or about language—all those things. What I may appreciate about a poem could be simply the way the poem moves on the page, the way the poem looks on the page, the way the language is used on the page—it could have nothing to do with these other issues.

Does what we're been talking about have anything to do with the notion of a descent into the depths of one's self, a discovery of one's self, and a final “surfacing”? Several recent essays have suggested this as an important aspect of Canadian literature. Do you think this is the case in both Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter?

Yes, I think so, but I think that is true of all poems in a way. I think any poem has got a sense of that process of investigating something—an emotion, a problem, a feeling, a celebration.

In Billy and in Slaughter I think it's the same thing but on a larger scale—it's a discovery of someone… I could never write a formal detective novel. As much as I love Agatha Christie, I could not plot ahead and know who the murderer was until I got to ten pages before the end. The state that I ought to be in as a writer is the state of the reader in reading an Agatha Christie novel—going into a room blind. It's that sense of finding something out in the process of the poem or a novel. When I was writing these two books, I was in the state of trying to find out something about somebody else.

It's a process of unfolding?

It's a process of unfolding. If you already know the last line of the poem, how can you write the poem? You can't. But you can take the last line and make it the first line and go on from there. Anything else is boring, you know, if you know where it is going to end.

In both books, Billyand Slaughter, this technique of discovery leads to a pessimistic conclusion…

No, I don't think so.

But Billy is dead and Buddy Bolden lives the last twenty-four years of his life in a mental asylum.

I don't think that's pessimistic.

Why not?

Because other people in the book end up in a state that's worse. I think if Billy ends up as a convict figure—this is more obnoxious to me than ending up dead. Or if Bolden ends up as a rank amateur worrying whether Perry Como is going to record his other songs—this is worse to me. I don't find Slaughter depressing. There's a calm in Bolden that is justified for him. If it's justified for him, then that's all right. Obviously the book is not joyous, but I don't find it depressing at all. On the physical level, it is, and in a way he's somewhat limited in vision by the end, but I don't find it a depressing book… The whole process of writing books like that also is not a personal one and that interests me. I know when I was writing both Billy and Slaughter, I had a sense that it wasn't just my point of view that was writing the book; it was people around me that I knew, the interests of people around me, being aware of certain things—certain questions—from the point of view of people around me as much as myself. It doesn't matter who writes the book; the book is for me a kind of funneling of various people's ideas and emotions, between the years 1968 and 1973 or 1973 to 1976, who represent your age and your group and the book comes out that way. If I'd started to write a book about Buddy Bolden in the year 1984, it would be a totally different book, obviously, because the concerns of people around me would be different and my concerns would be different. It's just as important to consider the people around you as to have your own vision, even though they don't know you're writing a book about Buddy Bolden. And I tend not to tell anyone what I'm writing about until I've finished a couple of versions of the book. So I think in that sense that the book was almost written by a community, and this is very important to me. A friend tells a joke in 1969 and I remember that, and that will somehow become part of the organic movement of the book; to me that's important. Just as in a poem, the nicest poems are the poems that kind of take in everything around you—the time, the smell of the kitchen, the taste of the wine.. Once that process is finished—the actually writing of the book into a first official draft—I give it to my wife and three or four friends who look at it and I listen to them and get their reactions to the thing, and there the conversation is on the level of “What happened to Webb?” and “Don't you think Webb should come back in a bit more?” or “What exactly is Angela's relationship?” And that I love—I love that moment. Several people are important to me when a book is finished. Dennis Lee and B.P. Nichol have been very important to me both in Billy the Kid and Slaughter, and friends like Ken Livingstone and my wife and Stan Dragland—these people can read something cold and can say, “This character isn't really formed here”. Then you do a different kind of writing to make it clearer, which is separate from the process of investigating.

Are both Billy and Buddy artists, in a sense?

Some people have interpreted Billy as an artist, and on some level—on an instinctual level—he is an artist. But he isn't a portrait of the artist for me; I didn't intend to make a statement about the artist in Billy. In Slaughter I probably was—so I guess that's the only reason why I hesitate to answer questions about the role of the artist in society, because in a way I spent four years writing a book about the artist. But I can't make a general statement about the artist in society, because you can't make a statement like that through an individual and obviously the statement about Bolden is not a statement about you or me or about John Newlove. Every artist is different, every artist begins with a different smell from the fridge. You can't generalize from one person. Obviously, Bolden is a certain individual and I wanted to keep that.

How do you yourself feel about the role of the artist? You, as an artist? You, as an artist in our society?

First of all, I try not to think of myself as an “artist”. If I did, I simply wouldn't be able to continue to write. I think if people are conscious of themselves as artists continually, it would be a deadly situation to be in. One wants to be a real person and live in a real world, as opposed to being an artist. I certainly don't feel any kind of duty to society as an “artist” at all. God knows what the role of the poet is.

Let me ask you a further question. You've talked about some Canadian novelists and used the term “moral intent”. Are your intentions “moral” in your art? Do you write poems and novels that are intended to have some “moral” effect upon the reader? Do you have some kind of “moral” view?

First of all, it's very difficult to say what is “moral” and what is not “moral”—we've got a whole half-hour conversation there. “Moral” unfortunately has the suggestion of being either religious or political, but for me moral is much wider; moral is everything. The word “human” is better. Morality is just one per cent of a human to me. I certainly don't intend, when I write a poem, to be moral, or to say what is the right thing one should do in a certain situation. I'm more interested in what a human being will do in a certain situation. This involves good people and bad people. I'm not too interested in bad people; I don't seem to meet characters I dislike in my writing. Take a fictional work like the Bolden book: there are very few characters I think I can say are bad people, even if somebody else makes this character out to be a bad person. Human beings are sometimes screwed up, sometimes not screwed up, sometimes going in the wrong direction, but I don't find any of them evil or bad. I wouldn't go out of my way to talk about a person who is bad just so I can set him up as a symbol of badness. That kind of puppetry doesn't interest me very much.

You seem to be less interested in artistic and moral beings than you are in human beings. Is that fair to say?

I suppose so. In Slaughter, Buddy Bolden is an artist, but he's also a barber. Obviously, the book is about art, but the artistic element is just one aspect of Bolden's being human… I hate the term “artist”, I hate the term “poet”, it has so many connotations of someone who is separate from the real world, someone who supposedly “deserves” more, “knows” more, than the man on the street. It suggests someone who is superior to any other craftsman that exists around us today, and I think this is a real problem of artists. It's been created by artists who go around saying they are visionaries or they're prophets or they're noble figures. To me that's a corruption. I like the term “writer” simply because it's someone who does something, who is using words.

Like an artisan.

Yes, like an artisan. I think one can be professional in the way one writes, but to put one's self forward as a “poet” is so limiting—it cuts you off essentially from the real world.

Some people look at that whole matter from the opposite end. For instance, P.K. Page would say that it's not possible for one's ego to be enhanced by writing, because writing isn't done by P.K. Page; it's done only through her, it comes from somewhere else. But let me ask you one final question: why do you write?

I'm still not sure. I enjoy it, I think.

Isn't it hard?

Oh yes, but I think there can be pleasure in certain kinds of hardness or difficulty.

Yes, but is it not difficult to do it day after day, month after month, year after year?

Well, it keeps me busy; otherwise, I might be out robbing a Mac's Milk Store.

Principal Works

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The Dainty Monsters 1967

the man with seven toes 1969

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems 1970

Rat Jelly 1973

Elimination Dance 1978

There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning To Do: Poems, 1963-1978 1979

Secular Love 1984

All along the Mazinaw: Two Poems 1986

The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems 1989

Handwriting: Poems 1999

Leonard Cohen (nonfiction) 1970

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid [based on his poetry] (play) 1973

Coming Through Slaughter (novel) 1976

Running in the Family (memoir) 1982

In the Skin of a Lion (novel) 1987

In the Skin of a Lion [based on his novel] (play) 1987

The English Patient (novel) 1992

Sam Solecki (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “Point Blank: Narrative in Michael Ondaatje's the man with seven toes” in Canadian Poetry, No. 6, Spring/Summer, 1980, pp. 14-24.

[In the following essay, Solecki offers an explanatory overview of Ondaatje's the man with seven toes, arguing that the collection is “a pivotal book in Ondaatje's development.”]

In view of the acclaim and the attention received by Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and Coming Through Slaughter (1976) it is inevitable that his first book-length work, the man with seven toes (1969), is often overlooked in most discussions either of his work or of contemporary Canadian writing. This is unfortunate because this long sequence of poems is a complex work, interesting in its own right, and a pivotal book in Ondaatje's development. It is with the man with seven toes that we first see him moving toward the longer and more experimental form that will become characteristic in his two major works. And although the man with seven toes does not go as far as they do in the direction of a temporally discontinuous form, nevertheless, aspects of its style and structure clearly anticipate the later developments. The shift toward the longer forms that is first seen with the man with seven toes is of particular importance in Ondaatje's development as a writer because not only are his longer works more experimental than his lyrics but it is in them that we find a style and form fully expressive of his vision. This is not to denigrate his very fine lyrics but only to emphasize that he seems to need the longer form or structure in order to create a world embodying and expressing his vision.

The final section in Ondaatje's first book, The Dainty Monsters (1967), showed him to be interested in writing a longer poem but neither of its two medium-length sequences, “Paris” and “Peter”, captures, in form or content, what I take to be Ondaatje's unique way of looking at reality which is already there in some of the earlier lyrics in the collection—“Dragon,” “The Republic,” “Henri Rousseau and Friends,” and “In Another Fashion.” There is a sense in these early lyrics that material and psychological reality is fundamentally random or in a state of flux, and that poetry should communicate this particular quality of reality without, however, succumbing to either formalism or formlessness. These poems explore the borderline between form and formlessness, civilization and nature, the human and the natural, and the conscious reasoning mind and the unconscious world of instinct. They compel the reader to enter into and experience the mode of being associated with the second of the paired terms. But they do so primarily on the level of content by means of contrasted actions, settings or images. In the man with seven toes, on the other hand, it is the form as well as the content that pushes the reader into the unfamiliar ground of the work to the point that his reading of the sections of the text becomes roughly analogous to what is happening in the story, the heroine's harrowing journey through a wilderness. Beginning with this book Ondaatje turns to a variant of what Barthes terms a “scriptible”1 (as opposed to a “lisible”) text, one that demands the reader's active participation as an interpreter of a reality that is often not only ambiguous but even chaotic.

To achieve this Ondaatje attempts to “make new” both the form and content of his work so that neither will predispose the reader towards a preconceived approach to the text. I mention both form and content because at the same time that Ondaatje is creating a new form that will eventually develop into the radically discontinuous forms of his two later works, his choice of subject in the man with seven toes foreshadows as well the kinds of characters and themes to be dealt with in his later work. Where the medium-length narrative poems in his first book, The Dainty Monsters, had dealt with figures drawn from classical mythology (“Paris”) or who felt as if they belonged in classical myth (“Peter”), the man with seven toes is based on the experiences of a semi-legendary English-woman who, like Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden, existed on the edge of history and about whose experiences there are contradictory accounts.2 The life story of each of these characters provides Ondaatje with a ready-made but incomplete and ambiguous narrative straddling the border between fact and fiction, history and legend or myth. the man with seven toes shows Ondaatje turning towards myths or mythic poems based on materials not usually associated with traditional myths but rather on what we normally refer to as legends. Ondaatje's definition of myth will seem idiosyncratic to anyone nurtured on Fables of Identity but there is a consistency in his various references to the subject in his poems, prose works, critical writings and films. For him, a myth is any powerful story with an archetypal or universal significance; but in order for the story to become truly mythic, to have what in the article on Tay John he calls “the raw power of myth,” it must be represented in such a way that “the original myth [story] is given to us point blank.”3 What he means is that the reader must be exposed to as direct and unmediated a representation or, better, re-enactment of the original event as art will allow; he must become or feel that he has become a participant in it, a figure in the ground of the story.

In the man with seven toes, for example, the reader enters the night-marelike world of an anomymous white woman who spends a period of time living with a group of primitives before being rescued by a white man and taken back to civilization. A brief note at the end of the book indicates that the source of Ondaatje's story lies in the experiences of a Mrs. Fraser who, in 1836, was shipwrecked off the Queensland coast of Australia, captured by aborigines, and finally rescued by a convict named Bracefell whom she betrayed once they reached civilization. Ondaatje told me that this version of the story as summarized by Colin MacInnes and painted by Sidney Nolan in his Mrs. Fraser series (1947-1957) is the only account with which he was familiar at the time of the writing of his poem.4 In his hands the story becomes a mythic exploration, in the form of related brief and often imagistic poems, of how an unnamed white woman perceives and experiences a primitive and anarchic world totally alien to her civilized assumptions and mode of being. Like Margaret Atwood's Susanna Moodie she is compelled into a confrontation in which she must acknowledge violent and primitive aspects of life within and outside herself which she had previously either not known or ignored. This basic opposition between aspects of self, and self and land from which many of the poem's other antitheses develop is also central to Nolan's version. His first painting shows Mrs. Fraser naked and crawling on all fours with her white body placed against a setting of green jungle and blue sky; her face is covered by lank black hair, and her limbs are slightly distorted, indistinct, already on the point of becoming subtly dehumanized.5 Both the lack of clothing and the absence of identity remove her from civilization; the effect is rather like the first collage in Atwood's Journals where Susanna Moodie seems to be drifting down into the middle of the forest: the human being and the landscape are contiguous but there is no connection between them.6

Both Ondaatje and Nolan—and later Patrick White in A Fringe of Leaves—use Mrs. Fraser as the basis of a myth. In Nolan's series she becomes an Australian version of Susanna Moodie, gradually developing from a situation in which she is alienated from the land to the point where she is one with it, and can be represented as an aboriginal rock painting. In contrast to Nolan, Ondaatje universalizes the meaning of her experiences by creating her in the image of an anonymous white women. He further creates the potential for her development as an archetypal or mythic figure by moving the story from the Australian historical context in which he found it to an unspecified time and place. The overall effect of these changes is to focus attention on the story's essential content, the effect upon an individual of her confrontation with a totally alien landscape and mode of being.

But this story with a potentially archetypal dimension cannot become mythic, in Ondaatje's sense of the word, unless expressed in a form and style that make the reading of the story as unmediated a confrontation with the events as is possible. To achieve this Ondaatje relies on a form made up of brief self-contained, often cinematic, lyrics each of which explodes upon the reader with a single startling revelation. To read from one to the next as the woman moves from experience to experience is to encounter a series of sensory and emotional shocks until, finally, like the character herself, the reader is numbed into accepting this surreal world as real.7 Ondaatje has described the book's form as similar to “a kind of necklace in which each bead-poem while being related to the others on the string, was, nevertheless, self-sufficient, independent.”8 The continuity is implied rather than made explicit, and the terse almost imagistic poems are related by means of various kinds of montage (tonal, intellectual etc.) or juxtaposition as well as through the echoing of images from poem to poem. This kind of “bonding” (Hopkins' term) of essentially separate lyrics by means of recurring images is important to Ondaatje particularly as it relates to myth and mythic poems. He has written that “myth is… achieved by a very careful use of echoes—of phrases and images. There may be no logical connection when these are placed side by side but the variations are always there setting up parallels.”9 In the man with seven toes, for example, the woman is raped both by the natives and by the convict (32); she is “tongued” by the natives (14), Potter's fingers are “chipped tongues” (21); and he bends his “tongue down her throat / drink her throat sweat, like coconut” (35); the natives tear a fox open with their hands (16), Potter “crept up and bit open / the hot vein of a sleeping wolf” (29); the natives have “maps on the soles of their feet” (13), and at the book's end the woman lies on a bed “sensing herself like a map” (41). Ondaatje does not amplify his point to indicate how such echoes and parallels achieve a sense of the mythic but one of their effects is to create a common ground or structure—even the possibility of an unsuspected metaphysical order—underlying the separate lyrics. Contrasts and comparisons are established between individual characters, events and settings otherwise related only on the basis of a tenuous narrative line. But the structure remains deliberately indefinite and avoids becoming a constricting grid, just as the repeated images themselves stop short of shifting into a symbolic mode of meaning. It is almost as if Ondaatje is playing with the reader, undercutting his conventional notions about structure and symbolism. Most readers, for example, assume that an image, repeated often enough in a variety of contexts, will, at some point, shift in function and meaning from being simply an image and assume the status of a symbol. This is precisely the kind of expectation Ondaatje creates only in order to deny. Disoriented, the reader is compelled to reexamine the nature of his relationship to the text and to move more tentatively through it. This is as true of the individual lyrics as it is of the work as a whole.

A closer reading through the text will illustrate more clearly some of the general points I have been making up to now. The book opens with the following lyric:

the train hummed like a low bird
over the rails, through
desert and pale scrub,
air spun in the carriages.

She moved to the doorless steps
where wind could beat her knees.
When they stopped for water she got off

sat by the rails on the wrist thick stones.
The train shuddered, then wheeled away from her.
She was too tired even to call.
Though, come back, she murmured to herself.


Ondaatje's words describing the structure of Leonard Cohen's The Favourite Game also apply here: This is “a potent and enigmatic sketch rather than a full blown detailed narrative.” The opening lyric has a haunting and disturbing quality because it is so brief, because so much is left unexplained. As in one of Alex Colville's enigmatic and dream-like paintings there is no explanation of why the train leaves the woman behind nor why she is too tired to call. The situation is disturbing precisely because it occurs without an overall explanatory context to give it some kind of causal perspective. The character and the scene are isolated in space—“desert and pale scrub”—and time. The reader knowing nothing about the scene's past can make no valid conjectures about the future. By itself, and then in relation to the next lyric, this poem establishes how Ondaatje wants the man with seven toes to be read.10

Each poem in the sequence presents a new scene or a new experience with the effect that the reader follows the woman's path, and often point of view, as she moves from one shocking and inevitably defamiliarizing experience to another. The events of each new poem are literally unexpected because Ondaatje's structuring has increased the number of narrative possibilities that each lyric creates, to the point that the reader simply does not know what to expect from poem to poem. The very form of each lyric works deliberately against a predictable narrative continuity with the effect that each poem stands out separately as a complete scene. Ondaatje has written that myth is “brief, imagistic”11 and this certainly applies to his own poem. The revelations in the man with seven toes come in brief and enigmatic flashes which disappear and are then replaced by new ones; the effect is rather like that of a film in which the director cuts quickly and dynamically from scene to scene allowing the various kinds of montage to create the meaning. The second poem, for example, begins with a dog sitting beside her, the third with her entry into a native clearing. There is no temporal, spatial or syntactical continuity indicated between these opening lyrics.

entered the clearing and they turned
faces scarred with decoration
feathers, bones, paint from clay
pasted, skewered to their skin.
Fanatically thin,
black ropes of muscle.


A sense of immediacy is created by the elliptical syntax of the opening line. Because the terse poem begins with the verb—“entered”—the reader's attention is focussed on the action itself. The ellipsis of the subject—either “I” or “she”—achieves an abruptness and shocking directness which would have otherwise been lacking. The effect is then reinforced by the brief catalogue of images, one piled upon the other, exotic to both character and reader. The cumulative effect of the rhetoric is to indicate the disorientation of the woman and to achieve that of the reader.

The woman has entered a physical and psychological landscape or wilderness her reaction to which is caught in the violently beautiful imagery and dismembered rhythms of successive lyrics.

goats black goats, balls bushed in the centre
cocks rising like birds flying to you reeling on you
and smiles as they ruffle you open
spill you down, jump and spill over you
white leaping like fountains in your hair
your head and mouth till it dries
and tightens your face like a scar
Then up to cook a fox or whatever, or goats
goats eating goats heaving the bodies
open like purple cunts under ribs, then tear
like to you a knife down their pit, a hand in the warm
the hot the dark boiling belly and rip
open and blood spraying out like dynamite
caught in the children's mouths on the ground
laughing collecting it in their hands
or off to a pan, holding blood like gold
and the men rip flesh tearing, the muscles
nerves green and red still jumping
stringing them out, like you


The syntax, imagery and rhythm—the entire whirling movement of the verse—re-enact her complex response to an experience which prior to leaving the train she could not have even imagined. Her confusion is registered in her simultaneously positive and negative responses to her rape. There is a moving lyricism in the natural vitality of the men's “cocks rising like birds flying to you” and in the description of their ejaculations as “white leaping like fountains in your hair.” But the “fountains” suddenly dry on her “face like a scar” and the subsequent similes serve to reinforce the hinted at connection between her violation and the killing and ripping open of an animal. The cuts in the animal are “like purple cunts,” the knife pushed into the animal is also the phallus forced into her, and the bleeding animal body is also hers—“like you.” This kind of comparison allows her to dramatize her emotions by making them part of a response to an event outside herself—the killing of “a fox or whatever, or goats.” It is almost as if she cannot articulate directly the personal violation that took place; only through her empathic response to the animal's suffering can she describe her own experience. And her recourse to similes, here and in other poems written from her point of view, is an indication of an analogous attempt to appropriate in slightly more familiar images a primal landscape and a set of experiences she finds almost indescribable. A later poem, for example, begins as follows:

evening. Sky was a wrecked black boot
a white world spilling through.
Noise like electricity in the leaves.


The metaphor (“wrecked black boot”) and simile (“like electricity”) are imported from the world of civilization in order to render this wilderness slightly more comprehensible, to mediate between its natural language, so to speak, and the character's mode of comprehending and describing the world. But even as these more familiar images achieve the effect of mediating between the two worlds the sense of incongruity caused by their anomalous presence serves, paradoxically, to heighten our awareness of the distance between the two.

The woman's return to the world in which these words are appropriate begins with her rescue by the convict Potter whose striped shirt, in Ondaatje as in Nolan (see the paintings “Escaped Convict,” and “In the Cave”), indicates his connection, however tenuous, with civilization.12 He rescues her from the natives—never referred to as aborigines—but not from the violent existence she had led with them. All the expectations justifiably created by the rescue are immediately thwarted.

Stripe arm caught my dress
the shirt wheeling into me,
gouging me, ankles, manacles,
cock like an ostrich, mouth
a salamander
thrashing in my throat.
Above us, birds peeing from the branches.


Unexpectedly, for both reader and character, the rescue recapitulates the events of the period of capture. Her rape by the natives is a prelude to this one, and the imagery indicates that Ondaatje wants the two scenes compared: the natives had “cocks like birds,” Potter's “cock [is] like an ostrich;” the natives had previously been compared to “sticklebacks” while Potter's mouth is “a salamander.” Potter has replaced the natives as her keeper but the nightmare quality of her journey through a physical and psychological chaos has not changed. Her rape, for example, is simultaneously violent, terrifying and ridiculous. The “birds peeing from the branches” put it into a grotesque perspective. Our standard shocked response to the event is suddenly qualified by a new and unanticipated context created by the absurd last line. Yet in the man with seven toes as in so much of Ondaatje's poetry the unexpected, the absurd and the surreal gradually become the normal and the familiar: a dog runs away with a knife stuck in its head (27); birds drugged on cocaine stagger across the sand (28). As Potter says, “Sometimes I don't believe what's going on” (27). The woman's attitude to these kinds of experiences is finally one of numbed and passive acceptance of events which if they had occurred earlier would have both startled and horrified her.

So we came from there to there
the sun over our shoulders and no one watching
no witness to our pain our broken mouths and bodies.
Things came at us and hit us.
Things happened and went out like matches.


Because of the reference to “broken mouths” I assume that the speaker is the woman; it is her mouth that has been pried open by the natives (14) and by Potter (35). The poem's vagueness—“from there to there,” “Things”—is an effective register of her unemotional attitude at this point. The rhythmic and tonal flatness of “Things came at us and hit us / Things happened” is a fine preparation for the poem's unexpected closing simile. In poetry as in architecture, less is often more and the final image—“matches”—is a stunning close to a poem which is almost devoid of colour and metaphor.13 The poem's texture creates a simultaneous awareness in the reader of both the essentially shocking nature of what is happening and the paradoxical fact that this no longer surprises the woman.

After her return to civilization, this violently beautiful world seems to pursue her even into the safe Royal Hotel.

She slept in the heart of the Royal Hotel
Her burnt arms and thighs
soaking off the sheets.
She moved fingers onto the rough skin,
traced the obvious ribs, the running heart,
sensing herself like a map, then
lowering her hands into her body.

In the morning she found pieces of a bird
chopped and scattered by the fan
blood sprayed onto the mosquito net,
its body leaving paths on the walls
like red snails that drifted down in lumps.

She could imagine the feathers
while she had slept
falling around her
like slow rain.


The narrative itself closes with this ambiguous and densely allusive poem whose almost every image echoes some image or situation occurring earlier. Given the poem's position in the body of the text it is inevitable that we look to it to provide some kind of summarizing judgment upon the story. It does so but only through an ambiguous image or metaphor. The key to interpretation seems to lie in the image of the dead bird and the woman's attitude to it in the final stanza. I assume there is an implicit analogy between the bird's violent death and the woman's horrific and brutal experiences in the wilderness. If this is so then her response to the presence of the slaughtered bird should provide an insight into her attitude to her earlier experiences. Her reaction is either sentimental and romantic or it indicates a full acceptance of the violent natural world into which she had been thrust. I tend towards the second reading because this lyric follows a poem in which the woman's attitude toward the convict, now a memory from her past, is completely positive; and secondly, because the opening stanza seems to point to a physical and psychological awareness and acceptance of the self she has become (“sensing herself like a map, then / lowering her hands into her body”). This new attitude corresponds roughly with Nolan's later paintings of Mrs. Fraser and the land as finally indistinguishable one from another.14 In Ondaatje, this merging of self and wilderness is reinterpreted as a rediscovery of the instinctual world within the self; the experience of the physical wilderness has led to a reperception, or even an initial awareness, of the natural world within. Here as in D. H. Lawrence's “The Woman Who Rode Away” the physical journey away from civilization is simultaneously a psychological one as well. In fact, it is safe to say that here and in his other work Ondaatje is primarily interested in landscape in so far as it can be used to reveal inner states of being.15

The original Mrs. Fraser returned to England, married her ship's master, a Captain Greene, and keeping her marriage a secret, “was able to exhibit herself at 6d a showing in Hyde Park.” Ondaatje deals with this return to civilization in a ballad—perhaps sung by his central character—which functions as an epilogue offering another ambiguous summary. (It is worth noting that the man with seven toes, like Ondaatje's later book-length works, has more than one ending.)

When we came into Glasgow town
we were a lovely sight to see
My love was all in red velvet
and I myself in cramasie

Three dogs came out from still grey streets
they barked as loud as city noise,
their tails and ears were like torn flags
and after then came girls and boys

The people drank the silver wine
they ate the meals that came in pans
And after eating watched a lady
singing with her throat and hands

Green wild rivers in these people
running under ice that's calm,
God bring you all some tender stories
and keep you all from hurt and harm.


The original Scots' ballad “Waly, Waly” from which Ondaatje borrows his opening stanza is a song of regret and disillusion in which a woman laments having given herself to her lover:

“But had I wist before I kiss'd
That love had been sae ill to win,
I'd lock my heart in a case of gowd
And pin'd it we' a siller pin.”(16)

In “Waly, Waly” the apparent is not the real: a tree seems “trusty” but breaks, a lover seems true but is not. A similar duality exists in Ondaatje's version: the ostensible order and stability of Glasgow town rest upon people in whom “Green wild rivers” run “under ice that's calm.” The full force of the contrast between the two images can only be felt, however, if we place them in the context of the whole text; then the ice is seen as relating to consciousness, order, civilization—everything that was left behind when the woman stepped off the train—and the “rivers” represent everything that is unconscious, chaotic and natural—the world she stepped into. The ice does not crack in the ballad but the reader, keeping in mind the action of the book, realizes how tenuous civilization really is, how at any moment the ice could crack and melt letting through everything implied by the “Green wild rivers.” If the book has a theme, or what Ondaatje prefers to call a “moral”, it is summarized metaphorically in the interplay of these two images.17

But it is also important to note that although the ballad summarizes or comprehends the book's dualities and constitutive tensions it does not resolve them. This deliberate irresolution leaves the sequence with a sense of open-endedness re-inforce by the grammar of the last sentence whose verb (“God keep you”), in the subjunctive mood, points to the future. Like the present tenses in the endings of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (“I smell the smoke still in my shirt”) and Coming Through Slaughter (“There are no prizes”) this gives the book an ending without finality or resolution, an ending struggling against the closure inevitable in every work of art. The reader is left with a sense of the continuity of the story and its implications into present and future time. At the precise moment when the book is being finished and about to be put aside it forces itself into the reader's time. One aspect of the book's form—its various discontinuities—compelled the reader to enter the narrative as a figure in the story's ground, as a kind of character surrogate; another aspect, the lack of closure or resolution, reverses the spatial and temporal situation by having the book extend itself into the reader's world. A slight shift in the verb's mood or tense is the final aspect of a narrative form and a poetic rhetoric attempting to achieve a “point blank” and, from Ondaatje's viewpoint, mythic presentation.

Both The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter go further than the man with seven toes in bringing the reader into the text, in making his experience of its world as unmediated as possible.18 But the more ambitious and greater achievement of these later works should not prevent us from acknowledging this minor, though by no means negligible, poem which anticipates them in so many respects.


  1. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (Hill and Wang, 1975), pp. 5-6.

  2. For other accounts of the story see Bill Beatty, Tales of Old Australia (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1966); Bill Wannan, Legendary Australians (Adelaide: Rigby, 1974); Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves (New York: Viking, 1977).

  3. “O'Hagan's Rough-Edged Chronicle,” Canadian Literature, 61 (Summer, 1974), 24.

  4. Ondaatje quotes from MacInnes in a note at the end of the book. See the man with seven toes (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1969), p. 45. All future references will be to this edition and will be cited in the body of the essay.

  5. Bryan Robertson has described this painting as follows: “This animal-like figure conveys something of the shock and horror of a white, northern European body flung down in the wild bush of a Pacific island, and forced to fend for itself: a body that has not been exposed to the ravages of strong sun before, straddles horrifically across the land, isolated and lost. Her face is hidden by her hair and this device for anonymity is also employed in all the later paintings of Mrs. Fraser.” Kenneth Clark, Colin MacInnes and Bryan Robertson, Sidney Nolan (London: Thames and Hudson, 1961), p. 74.

  6. Margaret Atwood, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 8.

  7. Francis Bacon's comment about his paintings is relevant here: “we all need to be aware of the potential disaster which stalks us at every moment of the day.” John Russell, Francis Bacon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), p. 31. Other points of comparison that could be drawn between Ondaatje and Bacon relate to their interest in the beauty of violence, in their mutual attempts to describe motion, and the sense or colour of menace that pervades their work.

  8. “Interview with Michael Ondaatje,” Rune, 2 (Spring 1975), 51.

  9. Canadian Literature, op. cit., 25-6.

  10. Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970) p. 23.

  11. Canadian Literature, op. cit., 25.

  12. In White's A Fringe of Leaves the convict's name is Jack Chance and his status as a man existing between civilization and wilderness is evident from the fact that he has almost completely forgotten the English language. White replaces the striped shirt with scars, an image that Ondaatje would probably respond to since his own work—“A Time Around Scars,” Coming Through Slaughter—reveals a fascination with emotional and physical scars. “[She] realized that she was touching the scars she had first noticed on his first appearing at the black's camp, when their apparently motive-less welter distinguished them from the formal incisions in native backs,” (p. 290).

  13. Ondaatje quotes.the following sentence from Tay John in his article: “indeed, to tell a story is to leave most of it untold,” p. 30.

  14. “Woman and Billabong,” “Woman in Swamp,” “Woman in Mangroves.”

  15. In A Fringe of Leaves, the encounter with the wilderness is simultaneously an encounter with “secret depths with which even she, perhaps, is unacquainted, and which sooner or later must be troubled” (p. 20).

  16. See Willa Muir, Living With Ballads (London: Hogarth Press, 1965) pp. 224-225. For the earliest treatment of Mrs. Fraser's experiences see the ballad “Wreck of the ‘Stirling Castle,’” reprinted in Bill Wannan's Legendary Australians, pp. 47-49. As Wannan points out, “This ‘Copy of Mournful Verses’ was originally published in broadsheet form in 1837, by the printer of broadsides J. Catnach, of Seven Dials, London.” The last two stanzas should give sufficient indication of its quality:

    The chief mate too they did despatch,
    By cutting off his head,
    And plac'd on one of their canoes
    All for a figure head.
    Also, a fine young man they bound,
    And burnt without a dread,
    With a slow fire at his feet at first
    So up unto his head.
    When you read the tortures I went thro'
    ‘Twill grieve your heart full sore,
    But now thank HEAVEN, I am returned
    Unto my native shore.
    I always shall remember,
    And my prayers will ever be,
    For the safety of both age and sex,
    Who sail on the raging sea.
  17. In Leonard Cohen Ondaatje writes that the world of Let Us Compare Mythologies is one “where the morals are imagistic, as they always are in the context of dreams,” p. 14.

  18. There are two other particularly important differences between the man with seven toes and its more famous successors: the later works are more autobiographical, if obliquely so, and self-reflexive.

Further Reading

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Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993, 247 p.

Book-length study of Ondaatje's poetry and fiction with chapters devoted to early poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and Secular Love.

Bök, Christian. “Destructive Creation: The Politicization of Violence in the Works of Michael Ondaatje.” Canadian Literature No. 132 (Spring 1992): 109-24.

Analyzes the creative and destructive roles violence plays in Ondaatje's poetry and fiction, noting that while “Ondaatje's earlier texts appear to valorize violence enacted for purely idiosyncratic reasons, Ondaatje's later texts begin to reevaluate the ethics of such violence and suggest that it must ultimately serve a socially responsible end.”

Clarke, George Elliott. “Michael Ondaatje and the Production of Myth.” Studies in Canadian Literature 16, No. 1 (1991): 1-21.

Details the role of myth in Ondaatje's poetry and fiction. Clarke states that “From Monstersto Love, Ondaatje conveys the ambiguous effects of his constantly thwarted desire with metaphor which, producing myth, is obsessively dramatic.”

Grace, Dominick M. “Ondaatje & Charlton Comics' ‘Billy the Kid’.” Canadian Literature No. 133 (Summer 1992): 199-203.

Discusses Ondaatje's manipulation of source materials in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Grace concludes “Ondaatje leaves incomplete a story complete in his source to underscore his own thematic concern, the impossibility of finishing Billy.”

Heighton, Steven. “Approaching ‘That Perfect Edge’: Kinetic Techniques in the Poetry and Fiction of Michael Ondaatje.” Studies in Canadian Literature 13, No. 2 (1988): 223-43.

Linguistic study of Ondaatje's poetry and fiction, focusing on the kinetic nature of his language.

Hornung, Rick. “Exile on Bloor Street: Michael Ondaatje's Northern Exposure.” Voice Literary Supplement (October 1992): 29-31.

Biographical and critical overview of Ondaatje and his works through The English Patient.

Jones, Manina. “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Scripting the Docudrama.” Canadian Literature No. 122-23 (Autumn-Winter 1989): 26-38

Describes Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as a docudrama, asserting “Billy the Kid is seen as a body of texts; he becomes documentary material.”

Kamboureli, Sam. “Outlawed Narrative: Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.Sagetrieb 7, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 115-29.

Refutes earlier critical commentary of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, arguing that it is not narrative but discourse that choreographs the poem's movement.

Kelly, Robert A. “Outlaw and Explorer: Recent Adventurers in the English-Canadian Long Poem.” The Antigonish Review No. 79 (Autumn 1989): 27-34.

Compares Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid with similar works by poets Andy Wainwright and Paulette Jiles.

Additional coverage of Ondaatje's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 42, 74; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 14, 29, 51, 76; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 60; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 2

Judith Owens (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “‘I Send You a Picture’: Ondaatje's Portrait of Billy the Kid,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1983, pp. 117-39.

[In the essay below, Owens presents a thorough analysis of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, focusing in particular on the tension between order and disorder in the collection. Owens asserts that Billy “seeks or imposes order in the external world to compensate for a disintegrating inner world.”]


The reader finds in Ondaatje's Billy a strong desire for order, a rage for order, one might say, if Billy's style and voice were not so deliberately flat in so many places. From his opening words, Billy reveals an inclination to order his world as he neatly lists “the killed” by himself and “by them.”1 The precision and meticulousness of Billy's list stand in contrast to the qualities of those photographs enumerated by Billy's contemporary, L. A. Huffman, on the preceding page: “bits of snow in the air—spokes well defined—some blur on top of wheel but sharp in the main” (p. 5). Imprecision marks these “daily experiements” made by Huffman, a quality to be accounted for more by Huffman's interest in motion than by any lack of sophistication in equipment or technique. Not only does he choose moving subjects—“passing horses,” “men walking”—but he frequently shoots from “the saddle” when his horse is “in motion.” Whereas movement strikes the keynote in Huffman's paragraph, fixity characteristizes Billy's list. And Huffman's “movement,” given his paragraph's privileged position at the beginning of the volume and its lively, energetic rhythm, immediately impresses the reader as preferable to Billy's fixity.

Billy's attempt, in his opening “work,” to organize his world into a clear-cut pattern fails almost immediately. J. M. Kertzer points out that the initial distinction between friend and foe breaks down in the next poem when Billy reports killing Jim Carlyle “over some mix-up, he being a friend” (p. 7).2 In fact, in Billy's first entry itself, any distinction between adversaries seems fuzzy, at best, for Billy begins his list of those he has killed by including “Morton, Baker, early friends of mine” (p. 5).

The blurring of the lines between adversaries extends to Ondaatje's presentation of Pat Garrett as well. For, while Billy, on the one side, can kill friends, Garrett, on the other side, can “giggle” at the escapades of the men whom he pursues, imprisons, and kills (p. 28). Moreover, the relationship between Billy and Garrett, with its ambiguously sexual undertones, does not resolve simply into a question of “sheriff versus outlaw.”3 As Kertzer suggests, Ondaatje creates a world in which all categories “break apart as the imagery shifts and fuses.”4

Despite the apparent impossibility of fixing the world, Billy remains insistent in his urge to order. He sprinkles his account of the killing of Tom O'Folliard, for example, with “thens” and “nows,” words which lend the semblance of orderly progression to a narrative. The narrative mode itself presupposes some principle of order moving through time, of course.

Billy's “Boot Hill” poem illustrates particularly well the problematic aspect of his desire for a simple order since the poem points to natural forces which resist any imposition of order. The graveyard's path stubbornly “tangles,” mocking the aspirations of a formal and imposing gate designed to maintain order:

There is an elaborate gate
but the path keeps to no main route for it tangles
like branches of a tree among the gravestones.

(p. 9)

The choice of a natural metaphor to image the garveyard's disorder betrays Billy's belief that the natural world is unmanageable and messy, if not chaotic. He quickly counters this natural disorder with another list of the killed:

300 of the dead in Boot Hill died violently
200 by guns, over 50 by knives
some were pushed under trains—a popular
and overlooked form of murder in the west.
Some from brain haemorrhages resulting from bar fights
at least 10 killed in barbed wire.

(p. 9)

That two of Billy's opening three “works” involve lists tells us something about the strength of his need for order; that both are lists of the dead suggests something about order itself: perhaps only dead things can fit tidily into a list. (And even then the result may be only a semblance of order; Billy's first list, we recall, failed to adequately contain or fix clear distinctions between adversaries.) A curious detail from the prose section preceding the “Boot Hill” poem—a small incident in the list of the events which follow Garrett's killing of O'Folliard—also links death and orderliness. “Mason,” Billy reports, “stretched out a blanket neat in the corner. Garrett placed Tom O'Folliard down, broke open Tom's rifle, took the remaining shells and placed them by him” (p. 8: my italics). Again the suggestion is that only lifeless things can be so neatly placed. The association between order and death strengthens when we notice that Boot Hill's image of disorder, “the path [which] keeps to no main route,” also invests the graveyard with its only signs of life when it “tangles / like branches of a tree” (p. 9). In Billy's graveyard poem, living and growing become instances of disorderly conduct.

If Billy's first three works demonstrate his compelling urge to order things, events, and people, his fourth work sketches a reason for this obsession with external order: Billy's uneasiness with the radically disordered nature of his inner world. Billy, that is, seeks or imposes order in the external world to compensate for a disintegrating inner world, a state which he projects upon the world around him. Nightmarish visions of a world in deformation constantly plague him. When he looks up, he apprehends a vast metaphysical or divine injury, seeing “wounds appearing in the sky” (p. 10). Unable to place his faith in the heavens, he cannot cling to ideals of normality in the human sphere either, because what appears to be normal may deflate at any moment: “Sometimes,” Billy confesses, “a normal forehead in front of me leaked brain gasses” (p. 10). The human organism proves defective, faultily adapted to its world: “Once a nose clogged right before me, a lock of skin formed over the nostrils [he seemed] in the end to be breathing out of his eye—tiny needle jets of air reaching into the throat” (p. 10). So, “In the end,” Billy turns to non-human life, seeking relief from his vision of deformation in “the only thing that never changed, never became deformed,” in “animals” (p. 10).

Even as Billy is presenting his visions of deformation and disorder, however, his compulsion to order determines the development of the paragraph. His attention moves steadily downward, in orderly fashion, from sky to forehead, nose, mouth, mustache, teeth, to the body on the floor, finally coming to rest below the human level, on animals. At this lowest level, Billy finds, or imagines, that quality which, in a more traditional metaphysical view, would belong to the highest sphere—immutability. Clearly Billy desires not mere order, but unchanging, eternal order.

The notion of changelessness figures as well in the poem which follows the passage describing Billy's nightmarish perceptions, in a way which links the desire for immutability specifically to Billy's fear of mortality. Once again the disturbing fact of deformity confronts Billy, only this time it is the deformity wrought by his own hand when he shoots a man. Unwilling to consider himself at all responsible for such deformation, Billy advocates the “moral of newspapers or gun / where bodies are mindless” (p. 11). He constructs an argument that, with its “so then that is why” structure, bears at least the appearance of orderly, logical development:

so if I had a newman's brain I'd say
well some morals are physical
must be clear and open
like diagram of watch or star
one must eliminate much
that is one turns when the bullet leaves you
walk off see none of the thrashing
the very eyes welling up like bad drains
believing then the moral of newspapers or gun
where bodies are mindless as paper flowers you dont feed
or give to drink
that is why I can watch the stomach of clocks
shift their wheels and pins into each other
and emerge living, for hours.

(p. 11)

But beneath the seeming straightforwardness of Billy's argument lies a confusion of semi-articulated ideas and feelings revolving around a wish to deny the very fact of human mortality. (Thus, once again, we find Billy imposing a superficial order in an attempt to compensate for inward disorder.) Since an awareness of the inexorable, forward movement of time contributes so largely to the knowledge of mortality, Billy tries to deny mortality by qualifying the movement of time, by blocking any sense of the absolute passing of time. Toward this end, he introduces the image of a “diagram of watch” which can successfully “eliminate much.” What a diagram eliminates most effectively is movement, here, specifically the movement of time. When, at the end of the poem, Billy refers to his contemplation of an actual, working clock, he still has in mind a timeplace that does not tell the time. The clocks he chooses show only their inner mechanisms, their “stomachs”; they are faceless, handless, and therefore unable to register the passing of time. Billy can “watch the stomach of clocks” for hours and still “emerge living” because, despite the continual shifting of “wheels and pins,” time does not appear to move. More precisely, it seems to circle endlessly round and round rather than move forward.

In an earlier “work” (pp. 7-8), and in “works” to come, we see Billy relying expressly upon narratives, upon an orderly progression through time, in an effort to fix his world. His present attempt to stop the flow of time thus introduces a seeming contradiction or inconsistency in his responses to the world. In fact, though, what strikes us here as merely contradictory really operates in a quietly ironic way throughout the volume and especially in its last quarter. Briefly, if the narrative mode involves orderly movement through time, and if movement through time contributes to the knowledge of mortality, then the narrative mode must ultimately lead to confrontation with mortality. Ironically, then, two of Billy's strongest impulses, his wish to deny the fact of mortality and his urge to order his world, prove finally incompatible. When, toward the end of the volume, Billy wins a chronologically ordered world, he pays with his life. But this is to anticipate my discussion, as well as to imply, perhaps, that Billy himself is aware of the incompatible aspects of his approach to the world. At this early stage in the book, Billy shows no such self-awareness. Nor does he reason out the implications of his reactions to events and people; he simply responds according to the demands of the moment, imposing a narrative structure in one instance, for example, and refusing to acknowledge the passage of time in another instance.

The poem presently under discussion ends with a circling motion, as we have seen a moment of stasis, really, which stands in implicit contrast to the linear, forward movement which Billy emphasizes at the start of the poem when he tells of

moving across the world on horses
body split at the edge of their necks
neck sweat eating at my jeans
moving across the world on horses.

(p. 11)

These lines convey a sense of time entirely different from that suggested by diagrams or stomachs of clocks. Here, at the beginning of the poem, time presses inexorably forward. Indeed, the opening lines amount to a reworking of the conventional metaphor of “consuming time”: Billy feels the sweat “eating at” the jeans of his “split” body. The poem's closing moment of stasis, from which Billy claims to “emerge living,” relieves the acute physical discomfort described in the second and third lines, thereby strengthening, by contrast, the suggestion that the opening lines are playing with the idea of “consuming time.”

Once the reader sees the image of all-devouring time as even faintly operative in the poem, Billy's comparison of “bodies” to “paper flowers you dont feed” assumes another dimension of meaning. One “feeds” real flowers when one is wholly consumed by time, that is, dead and buried. Billy's preference for paper flowers thus grows out of his wish to deny mortality. Logically, of course, such a notion has little to do with the strict sense of these lines. My point is that the fact of mortality and the consequent fear of consuming time determine much of this poem's imagery and on a level which runs deeper than Billy's express horror of thrashing bodies and eyes that well up like bad drains.

Any attempt to deny the fact of mortality soon proves futile, as of course it must, as we see on the next page with its startingly vivid rendering of Charlie Bowdre's death. Although Billy begins his first of two accounts of the death of Charlie in good narrative fashion with the line “When I caught Charlie Bowdre dying” (p. 12), he cannot fulfill the expectations of the narrative mode. The “when… while” structure remains unfinished as Billy trails off into a long silence part way down the page. Overwhelmed by Charlie's dying, Billy can only register a sense of helplessness in the face of something which he clearly feels to lie completely beyond his control: Charlie's eyes, Billy remembers, grew “all over his body,” and his liver looked, sickeningly, like a headless hen jerking “all over the yard” (p. 12: my italics).

“Jesus,” Billy exlaims in response to Charlie's ugly death, “I never knew” that that's what happens. The reader might easily pass over Billy's “Jesus” as simply an expletive. However, Billy's use of this word is both infrequent and select enough to warrant our reading it as something more. Billy uses “Jesus” on only three occasions throughout the volume and in each instance he is speaking about a death (p. 12, p. 22, p. 73). Since it becomes associated in this way with his abiding fear of mortality, Billy's expletive perhaps expresses an unconscious hope that there exists a Jesus who offers life after death.

As if to cleanse himself of the messy details of Charlie's dying, Billy turns to the memory of a river-crossing:

Blurred a waist high river
foam against the horse
riding naked clothes and boots
and pistol in the air.

(p. 14)

The obviously phallic “pistol,” an image of general potency intimates that Billy has recovered from the feelings of powerlessness which attended the death of Charlie. Certainly the river memory affords him a measure of composure, as the regularity to the poem's rhythm indicates. The choppiness of the preceding “Charlie” poem now gives way to a greater evenness. Gone, too, is the quality of unmanageableness which characterizes the scene of Charlie's death, conveyed by such awkwardly run-on lines as: “tossed 3 feet by bang bullets giggling / at me face tossed in a gaggle” (p. 12). The still more regular rhythm of the second stanza of the river poem efficiently organizes Billy's perceptions and feelings into tidy, one-line units:

Crossed a crooked river
loving in my head
ambled dry on stubble
shot a crooked bird.

(p. 14)

Billy remains in control of himself in this poem, as unaffected now by the shooting of the bird as he was affected by the shooting of Charlie one page earlier. He records the distinction between these two responses imagistically, as the bird's distance from him, when he tells us that he “Held [the bird] in my fingers,” and that its eyes seemed to him “small and far” (p. 14). Charlie's more immediate eyes, in contrast, “grew all over his body,” and Billy's “hands,” pressed against his friend, felt Charlie “pissing into his trouser legs in pain” (p. 12).

Billy distances himself from the painful knowledge of mortality still more effectively in the passage describing the shooting of Gregory. (The absence of Gregory's name from Billy's opening list of those killed by him proves just how effectively.) As Dennis Cooley observes, Billy employs various devices which amount to a “verbal narcotic,” aimed at “minimizing his own responsibility and awareness.”5 Foremost among these devices stands the grimly black humour with which Billy recounts the actions of “this chicken” as it

paddles out to [Gregory]
and as he was falling hops on his neck
digs the beak into his throat
straightens legs and heaves
a red and blue vein out.

(p. 15)

Billy finishes his anecdote with a stroke of comic genius which not only renders Gregory's dying moment less than momentous, but which nearly absolves Billy from any blame in the matter of Gregory's death. For when we read that Gregory's “last words” were “get away from me yer stupid chicken,” we almost forget that Billy has killed Gregory, that he “shot him well and careful… under his heart” (p. 15). Billy thus shrugs off any personal complicity, implying, as Cooley says, that “these things just happened, rather comically, and they don't have much of anything to do with me.”6

That one can even speak of the “Gregory” passage as an anecdote gauges the extent to which Billy feels himself to be in control of circumstances once again. In the “Charlie” section, we recall, an inability to fulfill the expectations of the narrative mode signals Billy's utter helplessness in the face of his friend's death. No hiatus interrupts the narrative voice this time, however. The lines, “and the chicken walked away / still tugging… ” promptly follow the phrase, “Meanwhile he fell,” to the satisfaction of the demands of the narrative mode.

Control, order, impersonality, distance. Billy manages to achieve these goals—in defiance of the all-too-close messiness of Charlie's death—by the end of the “Gregory” passage, only to be thrust once again into the midst of turmoil when he turns his attention, in the next poem, to his sexual experiences with, presumably, Angie, The poem begins precipitously:

Tilts back to fall
black hair swivelling off her
shattering the pillow.

(p. 16)

Angie resembles a gigantic uncontrollable machine and clearly Billy perceives her as threatening. The poem's last four lines focus on a Billy who, in the aftermath of the violent love-making, feels maimed:

later my hands cracked in love juice
fingers paralyzed by it arthritic
these beautiful fingers I couldnt move
faster than a crippled witch now.

(p. 16)

Billy's extreme physical passivity forms a contrast to the violence of Angie's movements, in a way which reverses traditional notions of male and female sexual roles. Billy, we suspect, fears emasculation by Angie, feels that she has usurped his—the male's—role. His use of the word “beautiful,” an adjective cutomarily reserved for the woman, to describe not Angela, but his own fingers, suggests as much, as does his likening of himself to a typically female creature, a “witch.” That Billy in part images himself as female points to his feeling of helplessness in the face of Angie's onslaught.

One aspect of the poem, perhaps more than any other, exposes Billy's deeply-rooted fear that he does not have control over either Angie, or, more generally, the world he inhabits. This, the first of Billy's “love” lyrics, bears a telling relationship to the tradition of love poetry in which the beloved is identified with the world. Poems in that tradition typically image the beloved as a landscape. True to that form, we find Angie-as-landscape in the middle of Billy's poem. In keeping with his distrust of Angie and of his world, however, the landscape in Billy's version appears as a place of ambush: Angie

leans her whole body out
so breasts are thinner
stomach is a hollow
where the bright bush jumps.

(p. 16)

By this point in the volume, then, a picture emerges of a Billy who feels vulnerable, threatened by death, by the unleashed energy of sexuality, by the disorder of the natural world. Instinctively, he seeks to contain and restrain the forces ranged against him: he compiles lists, he tries to deny the passing of time, he distances himself from the knowledge of mortality. Fearing that there is no god, no divinely ordered universe, yet desperately wanting order in his world, Billy feels compelled to create order where he cannot find it. But it is not until well into the volume that Billy takes advantage of his role as the “author” of these “works” to create a more desirable world for himself, or a more favourable image of himself.


Billy's first clear declaration that he intends his “works” to tell his story occurs several pages into the volume. As if he has overheard Paulita Maxwell remark that a certain photograph “makes him rough and uncouth,” and does not do him “justice” (p. 19), Billy asserts that he will make his own image: “Not a story about me through their eyes then” (p. 20). The making of his story offers Billy the supreme chance to assume control over his world, to order the world to his liking. And immediately after he determines to take the matter of his story into his own hands, Billy reworks two incidents from earlier in the volume, presenting himself in a new and more favourable light both in relationship to Angie and in response to the killing of Charlie Bowdre.

The second of Billy's poems about Angela (p. 21) focuses on an incident essentially similar to, if not exactly identical with, the encounter described in the first “love” poem (p. 16). Both poems present a bedroom scene, but the circumstantial parallel only underscores certain changes in Billy's position. To begin with, although each poem closes with a physically inert Billy, the second poem makes a virtue of what now appears to be a welf-willed passivity. That is, in contrast to the first lyric's crippling paralysis, which strikes Billy independently of his will, passivity in the later poem becomes a matter of choice: “I am very still,” says Billy, “I take in all the angles of the room” (p. 21). “Angles” surely refers not only to the geometry of the room but also, given Billy's status as an outlaw, to the strategems which others might use to entrap Billy. Thus, stillness becomes the means by which Billy hopes to avoid being ambushed again, as he was in the first love lyric when the “bright bush” jumped (p. 16). Billy, then, at least appears to be in a position of control and dominance.

Billy certainly exercises greater control over Angie in the second of his love lyrics, tempering, for example, the violence of her movements. Angie's great physical strength, which so frightened Billy in the first poem by shattering pillows and nearly breaking his fingers, here remains restricted to one act:

she walks slow to the window
lifts the sackcloth
and jams it horizontal on a nail.

(p. 21)

Even this one aggressive movement of jamming the sackcloth loses some of its force, preceded as it is by Angie's slow walk and gentle lifting of the cloth.

Above all, a general lengthening of perspective gives Billy the control over Angie and over his own responses to her which he lacked in the first love poem. That first lyric began, precipitously, with Angie tilting back to fail next to Billy on the bed (p. 16). Billy starts the second poem at an earlier point, initially focusing on Angie at a distance as she “leans against the door” and “looks at the bed” (p. 21). Not until the penultimate stanza does Angie finally fall onto the bed, and even then Billy draws out this movement with the phrase “turns toppling slow” (p. 21). His lengthening of Angie's fall towards him does not betoken a lover's desire to linger over an especially tantalizing or pleasing moment of love-making, however. Rather, it signals a wish to purge the moment of its immediacy, a desire in Billy to distance himself from the event by rendering it impersonal.

One very slight change from the first poem further reveals Billy's distance from Angie. In the first lyric, Billy remembered Angie calling him—familiarly, intimately—“Billy” (p. 16). In the second poem, Angie calls Billy by his surname, “Bonney Bonney” (p. 21). The absence of intimacy in this form of address anticipates the psychological distance from Angie which Billy maintains in the poem's closing lines. Although Angela lies next to him on the bed, (having just “toppled” on the pillows after seductively tracing Billy's bones), Billy's eyes and mind move outward from her and the bed: “I am very still / I take in all the angles of the room” (p. 21).

Despite Billy's re-presentation of this episode, his re-working of events in a way which grants him greater control, a strong sense of his vulnerability emerges nevertheless. For while Angie's movements may no longer seem so violent, Billy still unconsciously perceives her as an overwhelming presence in the room and on the bed, as his choice of verbs indicates. The heavy, ponderous motion with which the sun “hoists itself across the room” becomes associated with Angie to some degree since it is she who lifts the sackcloth to let in the sun. Angie's subsequent act of “crossing the sun” offers an image which, if taken literally just for a moment, lends a cosmic vastness to this woman. Even her action of “sweeping off the peels” strikes us as a large gesture, larger, say, than would be mere “brushing.” And Angela's massiveness underlines Billy's diminutiveness. We sense this sharp contrast when Angela “traces the thin bones” on her lover(my italics). Perhaps we are even a little afraid that Angela, in “toppling slow back,” might crush Billy beneath her. Finally, Billy still seems vulnerable to us because the reversal of traditional male and female sexual roles effected in the first love poem carries over to this poem. Billy continues to embody a feminine passivity as he “take[s] in” the angles of the room.

Although, as we have just seen, Billy cannot entirely mask his vulnerability, he does appear as a more dominant figure in the second love lyric than in the first. Similarly, the second version of Charlie's death discovers Billy equal to the circumstances, not helplessly overcome by his friend's dying, as he was in the first recounting. As in the second love poem, Billy's bid to characterize himself as calmly in control involves a lengthening of perspective. Whereas the first “Charlie” poem, directed almost accusingly at Charlie for dying, began with the fact of Charlie's death, “When I caught Charlie Bowdre dying” (p. 12), the second version approaches the shooting from a slightly earlier point in the sequence of events, and in an emotionally neutral voice:

January, at Tivan Arroyo, called Stinking Springs
more often. With me, Charlie, Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh.
Snow. Charlie took my hat and went out to get wood
and feed the horses. The shot burnt the clothes on
his stomach off and lifted him right back into the room.

(p. 22)

This version grants considerably more dignity to the dying Charlie: here we read that the shot “lifted” Charlie into the room while in the earlier version we read that Charlie was unceremoniously “tossed… by bang bullets” (p. 12). But most importantly, the Billy who, in the first version, stood by, helpless, dumbfounded, while the “eyes grew all over [Charlie's] body” (p. 12), now takes prompt and practical action: “Get up Charlie, get up, go and get one… I prop him to the door, put his gun in his hand” (p. 22). And he tries to do even more: “Over [Charlie's] shoulder I aimed at Pat, fired, and hit his shoulder braid” (p. 22).

That Billy misses his target tells us, of course, that, far from being calmly in control of himself, he remains as shaken by the shooting of his friend as he appeared to be in the first version. His unadmitted feelings of horror and fear also express themselves in an unwarranted emphasis on “snow,” and in a curious obsession with the “straightness” of Charlie's walk towards Garrett. Billy's mind fixes on these two seemingly irrelevant details (especially the latter) with an intensity that belies his posture of emotional neutrality and control.


In the passages just discussed, Billy feels compelled to create (however unsuccessfully) an image of himself as strong and in complete control of circumstances. When he first writes of his visits to the Chisum ranch, however, he experiences no such compulsion. In fact, he surrenders to a sense of himself as weak and vulnerable, identifying implicity with “the tame, the half born, the wild, the wounded” animals who find sanctuary at the ranch (p. 36). Billy surrenders, lets down his guard, precisely because the ranch does seem to offer sanctuary, in that it appears to Billy as a perfectly ordered world. More accurately, Billy remembers or re-creates the ranch as just such a refuge. But just as in his role as the author of these works Billy could not entirely mask his feelings of helplessness in the face of Charlie's death or Angie's powerful presence, neither can he sustain the illusion of the ranch as refuge, as we shall see.

It is Sallie Chisum who introduces us to the ranch, in a reminiscence obviously solicited by some chronicler seeking to romanticize the “old west.” “Miss Sallie Chisum,” writes this historian, “later Mrs. Roberts, was living in Roswell in 1924, a sweet faced, kindly old lady of a thousand memories of frontier days” (p. 30). Sallie obliges the historian with a memory which is pat and conventional, right down to the little thrill of horror with which she mentions Billy:

Billy the Kid would come in often
and sometimes stayed for a week or two.
I remember how frightened I was the first time he came.

(p. 30)

Because of Sallie's note of casual insincerity, the depth of Billy's thoughts and feelings about the ranch impresses the reader all the more forcibly. “Forty miles ahead of us,” begins Billy, “in almost a straight line, is the house” (p. 32). We might well imagine this to be a voice from the Bible—“forty” is such a biblical number, after all, especially in connection with the kind of desert landscape over which Billy is travelling. At the very least, Billy approaches the ranch with reverence. In contrast to Sallie's memory which, from far away in 1924, generalizes about life at the ranch as an impersonal round of guests and busyness, Billy's memory, “Even now, this far away,” furnishes a wealth of particularities:

It is nine in the morning. They are leaning back
in their chairs after their slow late Saturday
breakfast. John with the heels of his brown boots
on the edge of the table in the space he cleared of
his plate and cup and cutlery, the cup in his hands in his
lap. The table with four plates—two large
two small. The remnants of bacon fat and eggs on the
larger ones, the black crumbs of toast butter and
marmalade (Californian) on the others.

(p. 32)

Billy revels in the sheer predictability of life at the Chisum ranch. It satisfies his longing for order to know that

Across the table on the other side is Sallie, in probably her long brown and yellow dress… By now she would have moved the spare chair so she too could put her feet up, barefoot as always… Her right arm would be leaning against the table and now and then she'll scrape the bottom of her cup against the saucer and drink some of the coffee… On other days they would go their own ways… On weekdays anyway, she'd sit like that on the bed…

(pp. 32-33)

Billy painstakingly shields his image of the ranch from disruption, weaving any changes that might have occurred into the fabric of his memory. “No I forgot, she had stopped that now,” says Billy in reference to Sallie's former task of emptying the lamps (p. 33). “She left the paraffin in the lamps; instead had had John build shutters… all she did was close and lock them,” he remembers, insisting again later “Yes… Yes I remember” (p. 33).

Sallie Chisum, especially, represents the immutability Billy needs so to badly. He imposes upon her the quality of unchangingness he fails to find elsewhere in the world when he sees her

like a ghost across the room moving in white dresses, her hair knotted as always at the neck and continuing down until it splayed and withered like eternal smoke half way between the shoulder blades and the base of cobble spine.

(p. 33)

Sallie's very ghostliness, her incorporeality, renders her immune to the mutability of the flesh and thus to the mortality Billy fears so much.

Temporarily released from the fears of mortality and of disorder which customarily grip it, Billy's imagination finds the time and space to expand. The slow rhythm and the long, leisurely recounting of details reflect such an imaginative expansion. So too does Billy's movement backwards in time from the present occasion to his second and first visits to the ranch. However, it is the nearly mythic quality informing much of the first “Chisum” section which best expresses this imaginative expansiveness. The following passage, with its description of cosmic forces and its subtle personification of sun and moon, approaches the level of myth; we might even hear a specific allusion to the Christian myth of regeneration in the reference to three days of deathlike stillness:

And I sat there for three days not moving an inch, like some dead tree witnessing the tides or the sun and the moon taking over from each other as the house in front of me changed colour—the night, the early morning yellow, the gradual move to dark blue at 11 o clock, the new white 4 o clock sun let in, later the gradual growing dark again.

(p. 34)

Two paragraphs later, Sallie strengthens the mythic element by seeming to repeat the movements of sun and moon. Billy witnesses Sallie

starting from one end and disappearing down to the far end leaving black behind her as she walked into the remaining light, making it all a cold darkness. Then in other rooms not seen by me.

(p. 34)

The sun tracks across the sky in a similar movement, leaving night in its wake as it goes on to light the other side of the world. Sallie then reappears, “vast in the thick blue in her long white dress,” like a white moon taking over from the sun at nightfall.

The quiet, reassuringly domestic scene with which the Chisum section opens thus yields to an increasingly mythic atmosphere. And in its turn, myth gives way to mystery. A sense of the fundamental mysteriousness of reality pervades Billy's description of cages of birds

In those dark cages the birds, there must have been 20 of them, made a steady hum all through the night—a noise you heard only if you were within five yards of them. Walking back to the house it was again sheer silence from where we had come, only now we knew they were moving and sensing the air and our departure. We knew they continued like that all night while we slept.

(p. 37)

Unknown and unknowable, these birds represent an absolute “otherness,” hence an absolute mystery. The sense of the inexplicableness of reality continues into the next and last paragraph, only now Billy consciously seeks to articulate this “strange” sense:

Half way back to the house, the building we moved towards seemed to be stuffed with something yellow and wet. The night, the dark air, made it all mad. That fifteen yards away there were bright birds in cages and here John Chisum and me walked, strange bodies.

(p. 37)

In his struggle to grasp the mystery confronting him, Billy turns finally to a language of pure description, deliberately eschewing the language of definition as he looks with new eyes at

a house stuffed with yellow wet light where within the frame of a window we say a woman move carrying fire in a glass funnel and container towards the window, towards the edge of the dark where we stood.

(p. 37)

Sallie's carrying of light towards Billy and the darkness exactly reverses her earlier walk “into the remaining light” which leaves “black” and a “cold darkness” behind her (p. 34). Billy represents that earlier activity of closing the shutters as “the sudden blacking out of clarity” (p. 34). As his uncharacteristic choice of so abstract a word as “clarity” indicates, he is referring to a degree of intelligibility rather than to a quality of light. And Billy, we understand, welcomes that state of darkness—of unintelligibility—because, like much else at the Chisum ranch, it releases him from the painful demands of reality, from having to make sense of the world. Perry Nodelman observes, in reference to another of Billy's works, that Billy likes to block out light because he fears “the world it allows him to see.”7

The absence of demands in the middle section of the Chisum passage manifests itself particularly in the unobstrusiveness of Sallie's presence. Specifically, Sallie seems sexually undemanding to Billy; she wanders rather plunges (as Angie does) into love-making:

Her shoes off, so silent, she moves a hand straying over the covers off John's books, till she comes and sits near me and puts her feet up shoeless and I reach to touch them… the brown tanned feet of Sallie Chisum resting on my chest, my hands rubbing them…

(p. 35)

It is almost as if Sallie's undemanding presence returns Billy imaginatively to a world before man, a world of emergent, uncomplicated lifeforms: touching Sallie's feet, Billy imagines “some semi-shelled animal” (p. 35). At the very least, Sallie returns Billy to a simpler time in man's history, to a fresher world in which Billy feels “like a carpenter shaving wood to find new clear pulp smelling wood beneath” (p. 35).

In contrast to such a soothingly dim and inchoate world which makes few demands upon Billy's consciousness, the mystery which Billy encounters at the close of the Chisum passage will not permit a lapse into mental indolence. It demands, as we have seen, that Billy adopt a different kind of language. In short, it demands a response. The passage ends with Billy poised, momentarily and, one senses, momentously, on “the edge of dark” as a woman carrying fire moves towards this verge. The moment is one of acute self-consciousness for Billy, a moment in which the unknowableness of everything that is other than oneself forces consciousness to turn in upon itself.

The reader's sense of the precariousness of Billy's positon on “the edge” finds confirmation on the very next page when Billy suddenly prophesies his own violent death: “(To come) to where eyes will / move in head like a rat / mad since locked in a biscuit tin all day” (p. 38). The self-consciousness of the preceding page has forced upon Billy the certain knowledge of his own mortality. Characteristically, Billy images his death as a loss of control:

sad billys body glancing out
body going as sweating white horses go
reeling off me wet
scuffing down my arms
wet horse white
screaming wet sweat round the house.

(p. 38)

On the formal level, Billy's inability to separate, either imagistically or syntactically, the vision of his death from the description of the rat mirrors the theme of loss of control. Specifically, Billy fears the loss of inner control, of control over his “eyes” which will move wildly, unable to maintain a steady vision of the world.

But, just as earlier in the volume Billy escaped from the painfulness of Charlie's ugly death to the cleansing river, so now he seeks immediate refuge from the knowledge of his own death in the memory of a pleasantly domestic scene “With the Bowdres” (p. 39). He goes on to speak, wistfully almost, of “beautiful machines” which realize his own unfulfilled desires for perfectly and effortlessly controlled energy: “The beautiful machines pivoting on themselves / sealing and fusing to others / and men throwing levers like coins at them” (p. 41). But neither evasion works completely. The Bowdres' kitchen grows suddenly “strange” when Billy feels “people / not close to me / as if their dress were against my shoulder,” or when he finds his “eyes / magnifying the bones across a room / shifting a wrist” (p. 39). The panegyric to “beautiful machines” begins with Billy's fear that the cosmos might explode into chaos:

I have seen pictures of great stars,
drawings which show them straining to the centre
that would explode their white
if temperature and the speed they moved at
shifted one degree.

(p. 41)

And this fearful sense of precariousness finally overrides even the “clean speed” and beauty of machines in motion, for “there is there the same stress as with stars, / the one altered move that will make them maniac” (p. 41).

Again and again throughout the next several pages of the volume, Billy encounters an increasingly disturbing world which assaults him with its uncontained, chaotic energies. “Bloated” flowers, “bursting” their “white drop of spend,” explode into entropy, anticipating the explosion of “great stars” which Billy feels to be inevitable (p. 55). This white chaos stuffs up Billy's nose so that he “can hardly breathe nothing / nothing thick sugar death” (p. 55). He recalls, for the second time in the volume, his twenty-first birthday, only now, instead of remembering it as a “celebration” (p. 7), he remembers the “angry weather in my head” (p. 58). Most significantly, each of the three passages on the Chisum ranch which punctuate the middle section of the volume centres around an unpleasant incident involving an animal. In the first, Billy must kill a rabid cat (pp. 44-45). In the second, he hears of a race of mad dogs who degenerate into

heaps of bone and hair and sexual organs and bulging eyes and minds which were chaotic half out of hunger out of liquor out of their minds being pressed out of shape by new freakish bones that grew into their skulls.

(pp. 61-62)

The last Chisum passage brings a “bloody dog” who “methodically begins to eat” Billy's vomit (p. 70). Early in the volume, we remember, Billy sought relief from his troubling vision of the world in animals, in “the only thing that never changed, never became deformed” (p. 10).

That the Chisum ranch should provide the setting in which Billy's trust in animals proves so ill-founded seems especially ironic in light of his presentation of the ranch as a pastoral world. At times, indeed, the ranch appears Edenic. For instance, the closest Billy comes to a moment of pure happiness is when he wakes at the ranch after a “bad night” into an idyllic world in which “silvery shadows roll across the ceiling” (p. 71). His sense of well-being finds its best expression in his image of Angela as a bountiful landscape:

Angela D is golden and cool beside… her arm out straight over the edge of the bed like a peninsula rich with veins… She is so brown and lovely her hip a mountain further down the bed.

(p. 71)

We remember Billy's earlier image of Angie as a landscape of ambush, of inhospital “hollows” and lurking “bushes,” contours shaped by Billy's deep distrust of the world (p. 16). In the present passage, the “mountain” and especially the “peninsula rich with veins” form a landscape of wealth and untapped abundance to mirror Billy's sense of well-being and his expectations of future happiness. This is as near as Billy approaches to a paradise. It is the nearest, too, that he comes to the innocence, or unself-consciousness, belonging to the state of paradise:

All the awkwardness of last night with the Chisums gone, like my head is empty, scoured open by acid. My head and body open to every new wind direction, every nerve new move and smell.

(p. 71)

As in all paradise stories, however, the moment of happiness and unself-consciousness proves short-lived. Billy looks up, and sees “the black hoster and gun… coiled like a snake, glinting also in the early morning white” (p. 71).


The burden of consciousness—specifically, consciousness of mortality—returns on the next page, with what is Billy's most searchingly introspective poem in this point in the volume. The poem works like a pendulum; Billy's mind moves from a belief in the vastness of human potential to a recognition of the ultimate limitedness of human nature. “I am here with the range for everything,” proclaims Billy at the start of the last stanza (p. 72). But the spectre of mortality rises, and the limitless “range” dwindles to the “body's waiting rut” (p. 72).

Billy's concluding realization seems all the darker since, earlier in the poem, he achieves, for the first and only time in the volume, his ideal of perfect, effortless control. In contrast to the first stanza, with its horses whose movements are blundering and thwarted, the second stanza describes how Billy's fingers can

control a pencil that shifts up and sideways
mapping my thinking going its own way
like light wet glasses drifting on polished wood.

(p. 72)

“Drifting on polished wood.” Not even the “beautiful machines” which Billy idolized for “pivoting on themselves / sealing and fusing” (p. 41) can match this dream of easy movement and effortless control of energy.

Billy's choice of the verb “drifting” to image his writing brings to mind his first declaration that he intends his collected works to tell his story. There Billy offers, as a beginning for his story, the image of “drifting” with Charlie Bowdre as they zigzagged across the Canadian border,

our criss-cross like a whip in slow motion, the ridge of action rising and falling, getting narrower in radius till it ended and we drifted down to Mexico and old heat.

(p. 20)

In both instances, the verb connotes a carefreeness of mind and spirit. However, in the first passage, Billy associates such carefreeness both with his movement through his story or “works” and with his passage through the world or external reality. (We can make the former assumption because the “ridge of action rising and falling… till it ended” not only refers to the travels of Billy and Charlie but, as well, aptly describes traditional notions of how a story should be organized around a plot whose action rises and falls to an ending.) In the later poem, Billy associates carefreeness exclusively with movement through an inner world, through his story of himself; movement through external reality has become a matter of “blunders” (p. 72). For, by this point in the volume, Billy has learned that he cannot move unimpeded through the external world. Just as the horses in this poem find it difficult to move surefootedly down their street on the “crowded” weekend, so too does Billy find it impossible to move surely and safely across the stage on which his story unfolds. A few pages earlier, for example, Billy complains about “crowdedness' in his world:

The thing here is to explain the difference of this evening. That in fact the Chisum verandah is crowded. It could of course hold a hundred more, but that John and Sallie and I have been used to other distances…

(p. 67)

Angie and Garret, the two newcomers, make Billy feel hemmed in. Garrett, in particular, represents a serious obstacle to Billy's progress through the world, of course, since it is Garrett who eventually imprisons and later kills Billy. In other words, the unalterable events of history close in on Billy, impeding his movement through external reality. The carefree optimism with which Billy spoke of travelling through the world with Charlie and drifting down to Mexico and “old heat” (p. 20) thus reverberates ironically against the fact that, in his movement through history, Billy ultimately meets with “old heat” in the sense of the “law,” as embodied by his old adversary, Garrett.

Billy has known all along, of course, what the final outcome must be. Indeed, at the outset of the volume, he tells us that “Pat Garrett sliced off my head” (p. 6). However, the same poetic license which allows Billy to speak to us from some point beyond his death also permits him both to know from the first what must happen yet still believe that somehow he can rewrite his story in accordance with his desires. Such a belief proves groundless, though. History catches up with Billy, and immediately following the second of his two poems of self-analysis, the strictly narrative line of Billy's story gains ascendance and events press quickly and inexorably forward to Billy's death. But before that happens, Billy reaches a point of self-knowledge in the poem beginning with the line, “This nightmare by this 7 foot high doorway” (pp. 74-75).

As in the first of the self-analytical poems (p. 72), a swing from one extreme pole to another best describes the progress of Billy's introspection. Specifically, Billy moves from a belief in his own cosmic vastness, his own godlike stature and power, to a recognition of his utter impotence. Billy's self-aggrandizement begins quietly part way through the first stanza. “I am on the edge of the cold dark,” writes Billy,

watching the white landscape in its frame
a world that's so precise
every nail and cobweb
has magnified itself to my presence.

(p. 74)

The imperialness in the word “presence” lends Billy a godlike stature, and that the world magnifies itself not “in” but “to” Billy's presence divines Billy's sense of the world as subservient to his wishes. In the next stanza, a kind of cosmic inversion, which finds “stars” likened to “flies in their black path,” contributes to Billy's godlike stature; one must be vast indeed to be able to see stars reduced to the size of flies. “[N]othing breaks my vision,” Billy claims, except these inverted stars. This claim offers a more telling index to Billy's state of mind if we recall that when Billy first prophesied his death, he did so largely in the imagery of broken vision, of eyes moving wildly, uncontrollably (p. 38). Billy's vastness continues into the third stanza, only now Billy adds godlike indifference to his godlike stature:

If I hold up my finger
I blot out the horizon
if I hold up my thumb
I'd ignore a man who comes
on a three mile trip to here.

(p. 74)

Such a purely arbitrary exercise of power rather poignantly reflects Billy's apprehension of his own universe as one completely indifferent to man. Very early in the volume, we remember, Billy perceived a divine injury or death when, looking upwards, he saw “wounds appearing in the sky” (p. 10). At the same time, Billy yearns for there to be a deity in the heavens, as we have seen, for example, in his use of the expletive “Jesus.” In the apparent absence of such a being, Billy now sets himself up as a godhead. In so imagining himself, Billy is making one last, supreme effort to assert himself, to place himself in complete control of his circumstances.

Given the excessive degree of this self-aggrandizement, the reader should not feel surprised that Billy proves slow to acknowledge his impotence. Forced to admit that “There is nothing in my hands,” Billy qualifies this admission of weakness:

though every move I would make
getting up slowly walking
on the periphery of black
to where weapons are
is planned by my eye.

(p. 75)

Similarly, even when Billy looks at himself as if through another's eyes and plainly sees not a god, but a “boy [who] blocks out the light / in blue shirt and jeans,” he still clings to his notions of power and greatness for he adds that he seems “young like some pharoah” (p. 75). The last two lines of the poem, however, undercut all postures of power and greatness: “I am unable to move / with nothing in my hands,” confesses Billy, in stark recognition of his ultimate impotence.

Billy's moment of self-knowledge, this recognition of powerlessness, receives immediate and ironic validation on the next page when the statement “We moved in a batch now” (p. 76) mockingly echoes Billy's confession of being “unable to move.” Bound and captured, Billy is moved by Garrett now rather than able to move himself. As if to insist indirectly upon this fact of bondage, the word “moved” occurs four times in the first paragraph of this section. Still more tellingly, Garrett and his prisoners zigzag across the desert, moving “back and forward, side to side over the county” (p. 76). Billy and Charlie, we remember, travelled in a similar style, though in perfect freedom and carefreeness, when they “criss-crossed the Canadian border” (p. 20). The repetition now of the earlier motion underscores the completeness of Billy's loss of freedom.


Beginning with the desert ride (p. 76), the narrative line, which has progressed only fitfully to this point in the volume, moves rapidly and fairly straightforwardly to its conclusion in Billy's death (pp. 76-95). Structurally, then, it is Billy's recognition of his powerlessness which frees the narrative line. Moreover, the strictly narrative mode reflects a world which, in one way, conforms to Billy's need for order. For a readily discernible order, specifically, chronological order, governs a substantial number of consecutive passages, and for the first time in the volume. That this group also happens to be the one sustained sequence of passages dealing exclusively with Billy's death—its details and the events immediately preceding it—draws attention once again to the relationship between “order” and “death.” The volume's opening works, we recall, established just such a relationship with their neatly compiled lists of the dead. Far more clearly now, this relationship exists at Billy's expense—Billy wins an ordered world, but at the price of his life.

With a still finer irony, Ondaatje grants Billy the god he wanted. The desert ride which begins so inauspiciously with Billy's bondage and powerlessness ends with a moment of ecstasy for Billy. Having travelled hatless for four days, a sun-struck Billy claims that, on the fifth day, the sun “turned into a pair of hands” and “fucked” him (pp. 76-77). It is with jubilation that Billy relates the news to Garrett: “Ive been fucked. Ive been fuckd Ive been fucked by Christ almighty god Ive been good and fucked by Christ” (p. 78). Rhythmically, it is nearly impossible to read these “by Christs” as mere expletives. On one level, Billy believes that “Christ almighty god” has “fucked” him. And this accounts for the jubilant—ecstatic—note: to Billy's sun-maddened mind, the experience proves that a god inhabits the heavens after all. Billy thus wins a presiding deity, but at the price of his sanity, of all inner control.


  1. Michael Ondaatje, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Toronto: Anansi, 1970), p. 6. Subsequent references will be indicated by page number immediately following the quotation.

  2. “On Death and Dying: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid,English Studies in Canada, 1, No. 1 (Spring 1975), p. 87.

  3. See, for example, p. 53 and p. 73.

  4. “On Death and Dying,” p. 89.

  5. “‘I am here on the edge’: Modern Hero/Post-Modern Poetics in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” (unpublished), p. 10.

  6. “Modern Hero/Post-Modern Poetics,” p. 10.

  7. “The Collected Photographs of Billy the Kid,” Canadian Literature, No. 87 (Winter 1980), p. 73.

Lucille King-Edwards (review date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1068

SOURCE: “On the Brink”, in Books in Canada, Vol. 13, No. 10, December, 1984, pp. 16-17.

[In the following assessment of Secular Love, King-Edwards heralds Ondaatje's break “from reason and control” in the collection, but laments what she perceives as inconsistency in his poetry, arguing “It is jarring… to go from the confessional poems of anguished, passionate love to the more mundane ones of friendship and fatherly love.”]

Once again a book by Michael Ondaatje, and the expectancy is qualified by the memory of one's first encounter with The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a book that swept one through it on an ever-cresting wave. Until Running in the Family and now Secular Love, the passion that Ondaatje has put into his poems and novels has been projected onto characters from the myths of his imagination: Billy of the Wild West and Buddy Bolden of Storyville. This imagination produced powerful books, but they were books that allowed their author a certain privacy removed from the scene of passion. Ondaatje questions himself in “White Dwarfs”

Why do I love most
among my heroes those
who sail to that perfect edge
where there is no social fuel
Release of sandbags
to understand their altitude—

Perhaps there is no answer to that question, or at least it is not for us to know the answer. What arouses interest in Secular Love is the opening quotation from Peter Handke, in which an actor is instructed to stop holding back and to learn to run and scream properly, without embarrassment. Although there is still the distancing of persona, as in any poetry, Ondaatje would seem to be that actor who must express his own true feelings and passions.

Running in the Family certainly opens the door for this book of poetry, for it takes Ondaatje back to his roots and the passions of his family, particularly of his father, a drunk and drowning man as he is portrayed in the book. It is almost as if Secular Love was written in order to get closer to the psyche of this father. The title comes from “Women Like You,” a poem set in the heart of Sri Lanka:

Seeing you
I want no other life
and turn around
to the sky
and everywhere below
jungle, waves of heat
secular love

I find this passage enigmatic, but would suggest that it opens the possibilities of the passionate journey that is the book.

Secular Love opens with “Claude Glass,” and the poem does embody the “luscious chiaroscuro” of the concentrated night imagery, but the focus is on the man flowing drunkenly through it. This man appears in the first person. He is called to the river; a river flows through his house, and finally the people of the poem exist for him underwater. It is also the stream of the unconscious that functions here; in that river he embraces nature as he would a woman, kissing both arm and branch with equal love. “Claude Glass” is a romantic poem, a poem of night and darkness, and one immediately recognizes its precursors in Lowry, in John Berryman, who pops up a couple of times later in the volume, and in the romantic strain from Keats on down.

Away from reason and control seems to be the main thrust of this book:

I wanted poetry to be walnuts
in their green cases
but now it is the sea
and we let it drown us,
and we fly to it released
by giant catapults
of pain loneliness deceit and vanity

(“Tin Roof”)

If the opening poem depends on drunkeness to achieve this letting-go of emotions, in “Tin Roof” it is the exposure of a man on the edge of the sea. He is facing whatever is in the blue beyond the volcanic shore. Alone he contemplates the loss of self:

How to arrive at this
on the edge of sea

The structure of “Tin Roof” is of individual poems that make up a long poem; the writing appropriately becomes spare. Dense long lines disappear. The writing has an acerbic quality, and bamboo as a talisman seems to be correct for this stripping away. Sparse as furnishings in the cabin in which he lives, the poet's pretensions are jettisoned. It is the poem of a man functioning on the brink who sees the plunge into the sea as a compelling magic. Through the poem he discovers this other, starker passion:

which puts your feet on the ceiling
this fist
to smash forward
take this silk
somehow Ah
out of poetry.

The third section of the book, “Rock Bottom,” is divided into two sections. The first is a series of poems that plays with the idea of exposure and the confessional mode. They are primarily a prelude to the second section, a testing of the poet's willingness to, as he puts it, go “whole hog the pigs testament / what I know of passion.” It has its ironic as well as its romantic moments, neatly described as

near the delicate
of Billie Holiday

The second part of “Rock Bottom” is more of a mixture of styles and types of poems than the previous parts of the book. There is the passion of a love affair as theme for part of it, but we bump into the domestic Ondaatje of children, suburbs, and friends as well. The dominant theme is that of a man painfully removing himself from a known domestic environment out onto the edge of the desert with Billy the Kid.

The early part of the book has led one into expectations of continuity of tone and timbre. It is jarring now in this last section to go from the confessional poems of anguished, passionate love to the more mundane ones of friendship and fatherly love, even a clever dog poem. This is not to say that these latter poems are not well-made, but that they appear gratuitous here. In real life one does linger on friends and children when life is in upheaval, but the whole hog of passion diminishes these poems, which would thrive better in a different book.

I would like to have seen Secular Love as pure as Coming Through Slaughter, or The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, but there is always that other side of Ondaatje that refuses the final leap

The tug over the cliff.
What protects him
is the warmth in the sleeve.

Sam Solecki (review date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Coming Through,” in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXIV, No. 745, January, 1985, pp. 32-4.

[In the following laudatory evaluation of Secular Love, Solecki describes the collection as “the ruthless and unembarrassed engagement with the self,” adding “Almost every page shows evidence of Ondaajte's brilliant visual imagination and his auditory sensitivity to the musical possibilities of free verse.”]

Although we don't usually think of it in this way, poetry, like life, has its historically significant dates: 1798, the first Lyrical Ballads; 1857, Les Fleurs du Mal; and 1922, The Waste Land are for us not just dates of publication but also demarcation points indicating that after that particular moment our conception of poetry changed and our view of human sensibility subtly altered. In our own time, perhaps the most significant year for many was 1959, which saw the appearance of Robert Lowell's Life Studies, a sequence of intensely personal poems and prose pieces dealing with Lowell's family background and his own life. Disconcertingly, even shockingly frank, the volume reveals a poet stripped of most of his defences and willingly describing the most intimate details of his life. In a later volume, savagely reviewed by Adrienne Rich, Lowell would even include parts of his estranged wife's letters in his sonnets. If Lowell inaugurated an era of what later came to be called confessional poetry, his book set a daunting standard in style and quality of experience that would be unmatched by most of his imitators. After 1959, anyone writing about the self would do so in the shadow of Lowell's intimidating example.

Because of Lowell's emphasis on his emotional and psychological problems—the whole sad history is described in detail in Ian Hamilton's recent biography—confessional came to be defined as synonymous with extreme states of being, and the most authentic poems and poetic careers were seen as those in which poetry and life most closely coincided. James Fenton's Letter to John Fuller, while mocking Al Alvarez's celebration of this school, notes some of its essential assumptions:

I tell you, in the sombrest notes,
If poets want to get their oats
The first step is to slit their throats.
The way to divide
The sheep of poetry from the goats
Is suicide.
Hardy and Hopkins hacked off their honkers.
Auden took laudanum in Yonkers.
Yeats ate a fatal plate of conkers.
On Margate sands
Eliot was found stark staring bonkers
Slashing his hands
For a poet to heave into view
To be emergent—
He must whine, as if he wants the loo,
“Please sir, I'm urgent.”

Although Lowell died of a heart attack in the back seat of a taxi, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton (both sometime students of his) and John Berryman all committed suicide. Just as Mark Rothko's suicide alters our conception of the Rothko chapel in Houston, completed just before his death, the deaths of the three poets seem, in retrospect, to offer an inevitable climax authenticating the claims of the poems. The breakdowns and suicides prodded literary criticism in pathology.

On the basis of Michael Ondaatje's first seven books, few readers would claim that he has much in common with Lowell or confessional writing in general. If anything, most of his work stands opposed to the constitutive assumptions of that poetry, although Coming Through Slaughter, his novel about a jazz cornetist whose obsessive art leads to silence and madness, and the crucial lyrics “Letter and Other Worlds” and “White Dwarfs,” certainly reveal a compulsive fascination with an intensely subjective and directly expressive art. The speaker in most of the lyrics seems to be Ondaatje but he's rarely interested in enacting or describing his darkest and most problematic emotions and situations: the voice is too laconic, the tone too detached and the attitude to the self is ironic, even self-mocking. Often we sense, however, that the artifice and control not only shape and present the material at hand but also hint at repressed or displaced experiences and aspects of the self the writer is unwilling or unable to deal with. Ondaatje's suicidal herons and artists, his fascination with the jungle, the various hints at autobiography in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter—both studies in pathological creativity—all point to personal events underlying the work. The publication in 1982 of the frankly autobiographical if often fictional Running in the Family seemed to confirm the impression that Ondaatje's work had, over the past decade, been moving towards a more direct engagement with his most intimate experiences and memories. In a manner of speaking Running in the Family is Ondaatje's equivalent of the early family-oriented sections of Life Studies: Secular Love is the ruthless and unembarrassed engagement with the self.

The book is made up of four chronologically arranged sequences telling the story of the break-up of a marriage and a way of life, the poet's own near breakdown and finally, after what one section calls “Rock Bottom,” his recovery and return through the love of another woman. The book should be read as a seamless poetic journal rather than as a collection of discrete lyrics. Some of the poems, like the lovingly nuanced and mutedly elegiac “To a Sad Daughter,” can be read by themselves, yet the volume is so closely organized with so much of the overall emotional and artistic effect depending on repetitions and echoes of sound, image, situation and emotion that the poems often seem more like the chapters of a novel than parts of a collection of poems (another equally significant context is provided by Ondaatje's earlier work, and sections of Secular Love often seem like rewritings of earlier texts).

The opening epigraph from Peter Handke's The Left-Handed Woman simultaneously warns us about the unexpected stylistic and experiential openness, even rawness of Secular Love, and offers an implied judgment on Ondaatje's earlier work:

Your trouble, I believe, is that you always hold back something of yourself. In my opinion you should learn how to run properly and scream properly, with your mouth wide open. I've noticed that even when you yawn you're afraid to open your mouth all the way.

In poetry, as in any art, holding back or opening up is obviously a matter of degree as well as of technique; by holding back the clutter of irrelevant detail and by compressing events and characters the writer can often create a greater impression of self-exposure and openness. Secular Love shows a writer who has found a style and a form that allows openness without sacrificing the economy and selectivity necessary for art.

A crucial aspect of that style is Ondaatje's delicate management of what I call the book's two voices or points of view: the first is that of Ondaatje the character in the story; the second of Ondaatje the poet and creative voyeur who watches his own life, reflecting and recreating it as art. This is the slightly guilty voice of the man who observes life even as he lives it always in the hope of turning “these giant scratches / of pain” into art; who when he writes that “I fear / how anything can grow from this” knows that in addition to the growing suffering and pain there is also the potential poem. This is the voice that knows that for the poet “Il faut que tu te voies mourir / Pour savoir que tu vis encore” (Paul Eluard). Although at one point we read that “There are those who are in / and there are those who look in” we know that this doesn't apply to Ondaatje—he's both.

The opening section is pervaded by images of merging, drowning, darkness, disappearance and drunkenness. This is the book's dark night of the soul, the son's rewriting in personal terms of the father's breakdown in “Letters and Other Worlds” and Running in the Family. At once, it's an apology, an hommage and the beginning of another story in which the central character—described here only as “he”—is shown at a party on a farm, surrounded by family and friends, and inexplicably but inexorably drinking himself into oblivion. A disturbing point of departure for the love story to follow, it sketches in a suggestive emotional landscape of unfocussed discontent and undefined anxiety and pain leaving the reader wondering why the central figure feels like an intruder, drinks so heavily and longs for the darkness of the surrounding fields. The answers can be inferred from some of the details available later in the book: a marriage and a family are breaking up.

In the midst of love for you
my wife's suffering
anger in every direction
and the children wise
as tough shrubs
but they are not tough
—so I fear
how anything can grow from this

Without self-pity, simplification or sentimentality, Secular Love follows the course of the one story of our time. It's a sign of Ondaatje's integrity as an artist (and as a human being) that he registers the impact of the break-up on everyone. The transitional lyric just quoted places the love affair within the full and necessary context, reminding us of a suffering other than the speaker's. And even in the final affirmative, celebratory section, “Skin Boat,” images and words repeated from earlier poems recall what has been lived through. The gentle, genial “Pacific Letter” celebrates friendship—and by the way shows Ondaatje's ability to deal with the domestic emotions of the middle range—but recalls that “After separation had come to its worst / we met and travelled the Mazinaw with my sons / through all the thirty-six folds of that creature river / into the valley of bright lichen.” The beautifully poignant “To My Sad Daughter” (which will bring to tears all fathers of all teenage daughters) offers advice about getting through while letting the images of swimming and drowning and “cuts and wounds” recall the earlier darker experiences against which the poem must be read. Telling his daughter that “If you break / break going out not in” Ondaatje takes us back not only to the earlier lyrics but also to “White Dwarfs,” a poem of the early 1970s about “imploding,” as well as to Coming Through Slaughter, whose hero “broke into” silence and madness. The book closes, although one aspect of the story is just beginning, with a tender prose piece in which a man and woman walk in and along a shallow creek in a scene recalled by him at night as he lies next to her. Walking he loses his balance, falls in, recovers and surfaces looking for her:

He stands very still and cold in the shadow of long trees. He has gone far enough to look for a bridge and has not found it. Turns upriver. He holds onto the cedar root the way he holds her forearm.

The entire section has a quiet inevitability after the perfervid panic of much of the book, a panic recalled in the slip into the cold water. Similarly the merging of “the cedar root” and “her forearm” reminds us why in his day-to-day life he no longer feels that he is drowning, why, in D.H. Lawrence's words, he has come through. Begun in darkness, drowning and panic, the unfinished story ends with light, surfacing and tenderness.

I began with Robert Lowell partly because it seemed to me that one of the creative problems Ondaatje faced in writing Secular Love—note the adjective, by the way, semantically allied with profane, phonetically with sacred—was how to stay out of the shadow of confessional poetry as well as how to be “open” without simply committing himself to nothing more than a loosely prosaic poetry dealing with intensely subjective or extreme states of being. He certainly points in that direction by telling us that “This last year I was sure / I was going to die,” or, referring to another poet's suicide, that

 …one is able now
in ideal situations
to plot a stroll
to new continents
“doing the Berryman walk”

His problem was how to transform an intensely subjective set of experiences into an artistic whole while avoiding, on the one hand, excessive subjectivity, solipsistic self-dramatization, and sentimentality—“These are my feelings and therefore they're important”—or, on the other, losing the full texture of emotional immediacy through a too impersonal and objective artistry. Ondaatje solves the problem, in part, by beginning the book with a sequence narrated in the third person and following it with one shifting among “I,” “you,” and the implicating “we.” Several poems even omit the subject, leaving us with the impression of a pure, unmediated if anonymous voice. Similarly, by omitting the names of the main characters Ondaatje generalizes the potential significance of the events so that what we read becomes something more than simply a chronological account of a particular set of experiences involving a specific group of people. The sources of the story may be as obviously autobiographical as those of Lawrence's Look! We Have Come Through! but the end result is a work of consummate poetry enacting a life and a love story transcending the individuals originally involved in it.

It's worth recalling that Bertrand Russell's response to Lawrence's poetic sequence about his love for Frieda was along the lines of: so they've come through; why should we care? The answer is obvious: because Lawrence transformed his love affair with Frieda into art it has become ours. As well, we no longer read it simply for the tale but also in order to linger over the telling, the sheer artistry of the thing. This is also why we reread it. The same is true of Secular Love, a book rich in human experience, carefully structured and beautifully crafted. Almost every page shows evidence of Ondaatje's brilliant visual imagination and his auditory sensitivity to the musical possibilities of free verse. Consider the following fragments:

At certain hours of the night
ducks are nothing but landscape
just voices breaking as they nightmare.
The weasel wears their blood
home like a scarf,
cows drain over the horizon
and the
vegetables hum onward

but the mouth
wants plum.

We know their type of course, local heroes
who take off their bandanas and leap naked,
night green, seduced
by the whispers of michelin.

sleeping like the rumour of pearl
in the embrace of oyster.

a flute
from the throat
of a loon

and most of all
small bamboo pipe
not quite horizontal
that drips
every ten seconds
to a shallow bowl

Those are a series of small but inimitable gestures that evoke reflective smiles and appreciative nods: “nightmare” surprisingly used as a verb; a casual surrealism recalling Mark Strand, “cows drain over the horizon”; the Getz-like sussuration of “whispers of michelin”; and the almost oriental, sculptural sense of form as something organic developing out of the relationships not only between words (“flute” / “throat” / “loon” or “small bamboo pipe” / “drips” / “seconds”/ “shallow bowl”) but also between the protracting and pregnant silences of white spaces.

Few do it better.

Gillian Harding-Russell (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3382

SOURCE: “A Note on Ondaatje's ‘Peter’: A Creative Myth,” in Canadian Literature, No. 112, Spring, 1987, pp. 205-11.

[In the essay below, Harding-Russell discusses Ondaajte's handling of both myth and the artist figure in the early poem “Peter.” The critic asserts that, with “Peter,” Ondaajte “deftly objectifies the artist's dilemma by representing him as ‘court monster’ in a fairy tale setting.”]

In “Peter” of The Dainty Monsters, Ondaatje explores the artist's ability or inability to rise above personality and experience.1 He creates a myth around a vindictive artist figure which recalls other implied analogues or figures for the artist in various of the “dainty monsters” that appear in this volume: the mad heron of “Birds for Janet” and “In Another Fashion,” the monstrously deformed Philoctetes of “The Goodnight,” the decadent Paris whose belly is an “undigested beast” or Prometheus who is “scientifically” “splayed” on a rock but fights back with ever-restored energy.2 Although all literature borrows from mythic or story elements as its essential understructure, the creative myth typically stylizes its material and reduces it to archetypal essentials so that a speculative element surfaces within the basic structure and development of the story. Thus Ondaatje in “Peter” (perhaps significantly the last poem in The Dainty Monsters) deftly objectifies the artist's dilemma by representing him as “court monster” in a fairy tale setting. Using images of surrealistic dislocation, Ondaatje jolts us into a psychological world where we recognize elements of ourselves through what must be considered a post-modern extension of the artist as everyman.

Rather than following any one borrowed mythological structure, “Peter” as a creative myth which is built around the tale of the beauty and the beast echoes The Tempest, the Golden Fleece, and Minotaur stories.3 Here the artist as Caliban and Minotaur figure expresses his sense of persecution and personal frustration at physical handicaps (literally inflicted by society in this story) first through his art, and later by victimizing the young beauty Tara, who has been the one person to treat him with kindness. Accordingly, Tara may be seen as an Ariadne or Miranda figure.

As with Ondaatje's “Potter” of The Man With Seven Toes, the artist in “Peter” is ambivalently presented as victim and victimizer. This precludes our complete sympathy, and he finally proves himself a figure more negative than positive.4 The convict, Potter, who gains the distinction of “seven toes” through brutalizing experience, provides a parallel for the court monster Peter, who, having been deprived of his tongue, must express himself against all odds in a particularly literal and physical manner. Since the number seven is traditional in fairy tales, it is perhaps no coincidence that the number (also notable in reference to the convict's seven toes) comes up again.5 The series of poems entitled “Peter” unfolds in seven notable instalments.

In the first section of the series (71), Peter is discovered in the gruesome act of reconstructing a cow from its skeleton through ice sculpture. A significant ambiguity in the syntax surounding “freezing,” and a manipulation of line-endings implies the ambivalent role of the artist as both victim and victimizer:6

That spring Peter was discovered, freezing
the maze of bones from a dead cow,
skull and hooves glazed
with a skin of ice.


This somewhat disturbing activity tells us that Peter is a perverted individual, a suggestion that does much to undermine our sympathy, even at this early stage. Ondaatje thus links art with morbid behaviour in which the ice surface, the medium of Peter's art, is considered a “skin.” On the night villagers attempt to capture him, Peter retaliates in a vicious manner. He defends himself with “three throats and a wrist.” Suggestive of the artist's intensity and his need to express himself orally and manually, this symbolic evocation carries the implication of monstrosity. The villagers retreat and return at night to discover, significantly, the cow “frozen in red, and Peter / eating a meal beside it.”

In the second section (72), the hunting party manage to snare Peter and subsequently torture him. A “brown bitch,” a familiar symbol in Ondaatje's poetry representing a survival instinct, dispassionately “nose[s] his pain” and “stare[s] in interest.” Peter is “froze[n] into consciousness,” or distanced from his own pain. Here we identify a “freezing motif” which reflects an attitude necessary to the artist if he is to transcend his own pain through art.

In the third section (73), Peter in captivity expresses his resentment. Although his words, which are composed of “growls,” seem “meaningless,” “disgust in his tone burn[s] everyone.” After the passage of a year, society retaliates by cutting out his tongue. As an analogue for the persecuted artist, Ondaatje with particularly visceral effect introduces the tableau of a baited fish which loses matter in its throat when the hook is removed:

to unpin a fish's mouth
without the eventual jerk
to empty throat of pin and matter.


Having escaped being caught but maimed in this way, the fish (which carries ambivalent spiritual and phallic connotations) is thus aligned with the artist, Peter.7 Following this cruel chastisement, Peter endures several months of silence. But eventually he overcomes his speech impediment by learning to express himself more fantastically in grunts by using the air in his body:

There followed months of silence,
then the eventual grunting;
he began to speak with the air of his body,
torturing breath into tones; it was despicable,
they had made a dead animal of his throat.


The line ending “it was despicable” jolts our sympathy by registering the villagers' point of view about this human gargoyle but, merging with the following line which establishes the extent of Peter's chastisement, returns the blame with equal force to society. Since society has “made a dead animal of his throat,” the artist who is reduced to a “monster” by society's persecution of him is not entirely responsible for the cruel intensity expressed in his art. Society's restraints speak through him, and his art is autonomous. It is an “animal” whose features and size are determined not only by “genetic” (traditional genres) but also by “organic” (internal form in the individual work) necessity. Typically, Ondaatje reflects his ambivalence concerning this interesting problem of the artist's relation with society and with his art.

The spiritual connection in the fish symbol is apparent when Peter is associated with his Biblical namesake. Of course, “Peter” translates as “the rock,” and this artist, Peter, is described as a “marred stone.” Interestingly, Cirlot cites an instance of the stone image as a symbol for reconciliation with the self since it connotes removal from biological processes of decay.8 The “marred stone,” therefore, might imply the inner turmoil and antagonistic feelings which Ondaatje identifies in the artist. As himself an imperfect “creature,” the artist must “create” to compensate for this deficiency. A complementary analogy of the “baited gargoyle” to the stone association, moreover, adds the suggestion of perverted monstrosity to this artist figure:

He was little more than a marred stone,
a baited gargoyle, escaped
from the fountain in the courtyard:
his throat swollen like an arm muscle,
his walk stuttered with limp, his knees straight,
his feet arcing like a compass.


Peter's throat which is enlarged like “an arm muscle” and the “stuttering” metaphor convey the extent of the artist's compensation for a personal deficiency. An application of a psychological metaphor to the throat, an organ of speech for transcending the physical world to register meaning, and the unusual language metaphor that describes his physical activity effectively suggest the state of the frustrated artist and his need for expression. The fact of “his feet arcing like a compass” makes implicit a writing metaphor using mathematics (as opposed to the oral language metaphor of “stuttering”), which indicates the artist's striving for an absolute east and west direction equivalent to dialectical truth. Also, the compass's circumscribed movement suggests the artist's paralysis.

In the fourth section (74), the occupants of the castle build a “hive” or sanctuary for Peter.9 Jason, representing a man of action and an idealist, provides the artist with “bones,” or basic ideas, with which to reconstruct real-life forms. As a projection of the artist's own psyche, this Jason figure in Ondaatje's poem suggests MacEwen's sacred figure of the king or dancer.10 Jason's daughter, “Tara,” at once recalls the Irish home of kings and a Buddhist deity who provides essential life energy to everyman.11 Appropriately, she grows fond of this artist figure, Peter:

 …tousling in detail
the hair that collapsed like a nest
over his weaving eyes.


In her “bored innocence,” Tara with unconscious condescension dotes on Peter, “pet[ting] him like a flower” and “plac[ing] vast kisses on his wrists.” Because she is “delighted at sudden grins / that [open] his face like a dawn,” she tolerantly makes allowances for his “scowls and obscenities.” The artist's moments of sincerity and insight, therefore, compensate for his vulgarity and illtemper.

In this position of resentful subservience, the shackled artist remains “bouldered” at the feet of society. The stone metaphor implies his situation on an ambivalent pedestal of prospective immortality and death-in-life existence:

He ate, bouldered at their feet,
vast hands shaping rice,
and he walked with them on grit drives—
his legs dragged like a suitcase behind him.


An image of Peter's “hands shaping rice” suggests the artistic process of casting amorphous reality into form.12 Paradoxically, “grit” representing immediate circumstances of intractable reality, however, impedes his way so that his legs drag “like a suitcase behind him.” As in Gwendolyn MacEwen's “Manzini: Escape Artist” or Eli Mandel's “Houdini,” the artist ultimately cannot escape his own physical limitations. His art, therefore, expresses this basic deficiency over and over.

In the fifth section (75), Peter is seen as an artist of “violent beauty,” first as an artisan, but later as an expressionist artist. Accordingly, we may trace the evolution of art from its function as useful craft and its part in religious ritual to its modern autonomy:

He carved death on chalices,
made spoons of yawning golden fishes;
forks stemmed from the tongues of reptiles,
candle holders bent like the ribs of men.


Since death is carved on chalices, the sacred takes on a new profanity in which the absurdity of death is represented in art. Other sacred objects such as “golden fishes,” and “candle holders” are also distorted and given a new function to justify their desecration for art's sake: “spoons” are made from “golden fishes,” and “forks” from “tongues of reptiles.” The second stanza describes a selection process implicit in producing artistic impression:

He made fragments of people: breasts
in the midst of a girl's stride,
a head burrowed in love,
an arm swimming—fingers heaved
to nose barricades of water.


In representing “fragments” such as “breasts / in the midst of a girl's stride” and “a head burrowed in love,” Ondaatje's view of art not only becomes one of selection but of expressionistic exaggeration. The tableau in the final stanza of the section describes a figure comparable to Buddha or Coleridge's Kubla Khan. Ironically, a romantic conception combines with or provides a point of departure for Ondaatje's expressionistic and often surrealistic techniques:

His squat form, the rippled arms
of seaweeded hair,
the fingers black, bent from moulding silver,
poured all his strength
into the bare reflection of eyes.


Although “the fingers black” and “bent” suggest that the artist's expression is influenced by perverting experience and that he is “bent” in the effort of creation, the “silver” of his art concentrated in the “bare reflection” of his eyes implies a transcending of his own barren perversion through this artistic process of “moulding silver.”

In the sixth section (76), Tara's development from girl to woman parallels the development of society. As an awkward girl “ungainly as trees,” she is entranced by Peter's creation of “golden spiders” and “silver frogs, with opal glares,” As in “Spider Blues,” the “golden spiders” are an image for the artist who spins his web of creation. Through a traditional association of the frog with metamorphosis, the “silver frogs with opal glares” suggest transformation in which attributes of the moon or nature are purified by the “silver” of the civilized arts.13

When Tara outgrows Peter's control, and as his resentment also grows, we find a parallel to the modern artist's alienation from a social reality which has grown fat and soft or shapeless with an increasing complexity that can no longer be contained in conventional or, seemingly, any other forms.14 In a surreal description of this period of literal and figurative adolescence, Ondaatje, however, describes a splendid autonomy of the girl's body, which reflects his essentially Heraclitean attitude to a chaotic but rich and self-sufficient universe:

And as she grew, her body
burned its awkwardness.
The full bones roamed
in brown warm skin.
The ridge in her back broadened,
her dress hid seas of thighs,
arms trailed to adjust hair that paused
like a long bird at her shoulder;
and vast brown breasts
restless at each gesture
clung to her body like new sea beasts.


A dramatization of the growing process within Tara's body has a surreal effect that complicates this portrait using images of Classical simplicity and economy. Impressionistic touches such as the image of the “long bird” for her hair and her breasts “like new sea beasts” in this context establish a relation between the selectivity of romantic impression and the expressive agency of selective distortion. Ondaatje achieves a unique idiom that reflects his interesting position as a post-modernist artist who must combine the techniques of his predecessors in his own way.

In the seventh section, in which Peter mistreats his only benefactor, Tara, Ondaatje introduces Christian imagery to dramatize the vindictiveness of the artist.15 In an implicit fishing metaphor complicated by a mention of the Cross, Peter baits Tara and ignominiously exposes her:

An arm held her, splayed
its fingers like a cross at her neck
till he could feel fear thrashing at her throat…


Tearing off her skirt and lifting her brutally by “buttock and neck,” which suggest her physical mass and vitality, Peter places her on a table (a secular form of the sacred altar) where he proceeds to “mould” her with his “stub of tongue.”16 Accordingly, Tara takes on a third significance as the female counterpart for the sacrificial bull:17

while his bent hands tore the sheet of skirt,
lifted her, buttock and neck to the table.
Then laying arm above her breasts
he shaped her body like a mould… 


As in MacEwen's vision, we identify an inherently destructive element in the creative process, which perhaps accou9nts for the suggested spitefulness of this artist prototype. Peter thereupon vents his fifteen years of resentment on Tara, the number fifteen significantly associated with the erotic and diabolic:18

the stub of tongue sharp as a cat, cold,
dry as a cat, rasping neck and breasts
till he poured loathing of fifteen years on her,
a vat of lush oil, staining
the large soft body like a whale.


The “stub of a tongue” which is “sharp” as a cat and “cold” again suggests the artist's distance from his work of art. Moreover a tactile metaphor of the cat's tongue “rasping” her neck and breasts together with the archetypal metaphor of the whale combine to fulfil the requirements of an experiential post-modern art that looks for and finds deep-seated psychological precedent in the human mind.

A suggestion of the crucifixion in this final scene aligns the sacrificial victim of the girl with the cow in the opening scene. Although Peter has caused the girl all this suffering, his guilt and sorrow identify him with his victim, even as the artist is identified with the subject matter of his art:

Then he lay there breathing at her neck
his face wet from her tears
that glued him to her pain.


Here is an almost ritual view of mourning in which the artist's “face” or identity is “glued” to the girl's neck through his tears of remorse. A certain redemption attends the artistic process even if it is not strictly therapeutic.

Because the dominant whale image (at the end of the penultimate stanza) not only connotes sexual containment but also represents the body and grave of the world, this image serves to direct meaning from the literal and allegorical levels of myth to an anagogical level. Accordingly, Ondaatje on a literal level provides us with a psychological drama of the beauty and the beast, on the allegorical level with a paradigm for the alienated artist in his society and, on an anagogical level, with a myth about the artist in his relations with reality at large.19 Here is a series of poems having incisive imagery that works on many levels through metaphoric incongruities. With a psychological force that draws us, “Peter” reflects the perennial concerns of the artist.


  1. The Dainty Monsters (Toronto, 1967), pp. 71-77; rpt. in There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (Toronto, 1979), pp. 26-32.

  2. Sam Solecki in “Nets and Chaos: The Poetry of Michael Ondaatje” rpt. in Brave New World (Windsor, 1977) describes these analogues as a “metaphoric shorthand” to disorient the reader, pp. 25-27.

  3. Stith Thompson distinguishes between the motif and the tale-type in the following manner: Whereas the motif refers to “the smallest element in a tale having power to persist in tradition” and may refer to single “actors,” “items in the background of the action” or “single incidents,” the tale-type is “a traditional tale that has an independent existence.” The Folktale (New York, 1946), pp. 415-16.

  4. On the whole, Ondaatje develops the convict Potter of The Man with Seven Toes as a more positive figure than Peter.

  5. A Dictionary of Symbols (London, 1962), p. 223. Cirlot cites Papus' Traité Méthodique de Science Occulte concerning the number seven.

  6. A freezing motif can be related to Ondaatje's interest in photography.

  7. Ibid., p. 102. Regarding the fish as spiritual and phallic symbol, Cirlot cites Marius Schneider's El Origin.

  8. Ibid., p. 229. Here Cirlot cites Marius Schneider's La danza de espadas y la tarantela.

  9. The “hive” which implicates the bee of immortality (itself associated with the preservative honey) suggests a removal of the artist from society on a kind of glorified pedestal of dubious implication. (Cirlot cites Enel's La Langue Sacrée in A Dictionary of Symbols, pp. 22-23). In an interview with Jon Pearce, Ondaatje remarks on his dislike for this kind of artist's alienation—“it cuts you off essentially from the real world.” “Moving to the Clear,” Twelve Voices (Ottawa, 1980), p. 141.

  10. The role of the “king” in MacEwen's poetry is best dramatized by “Nine Arcana of the Kings” of The Armies of the Moon which, in effect, provides a paradigm for her mythology.

  11. Arthur Cotterell describes Tara as “the energy of [bodhisattva's] essence,” and points out her democratic qualities in Buddhistic tradition: “she transcends social distinctions and offers a personal relationship to her devotees unmatched by any other single deity.” A Dictionary of World Mythology (New York, 1979), pp. 82-84.

  12. In “Elizabeth: a slight ache,” we encounter a related rice image in reference to “the blood brown men” who represent raw nature.

  13. Cirlot refers to Marius Schneider's El Origin musical de los animales—simbolos on la mitologia y la escultura antiguas: since the frog is a lunar animal and because it represents a transition from earth to water, it is a symbol of metamorphosis.

  14. A likeness between the words “terra” (earth) and “Tara” perhaps becomes significant.

  15. Like Peter, Theseus maltreats his benefactor, Ariadne. After taking her away from King Minos, he abandons her on the way to Athens. Paul Diel examines the story from the psychological point of view of the idealist who mistakes the meaning of life because of personal deficiencies. Symbolism in Greek Mythology, p. 164.

  16. Peter's lifting Tara by the “buttock” has sexual implications, and his hoisting her by the “neck” implies a violent and potentially destructive tendency in the creative process.

  17. The cow of the initial scene prefigures Tara's eventual sacrifice. Although in The Man with Seven Toes the artist becomes the sacrificial figure, the artist here “crucifies” his subject-matter as represented in Tara.

  18. A Dictionary of Symbols, p. 244. Cirlot cites Oswald Wirth's La Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen Age concerning the number fifteen.

  19. Hypothetically, Frye's tropological level can be identified in relation to the moral problem of creative-destructiveness. The Great Code (Toronto, 1982), pp. 221-33.

Ray Wilton (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Narrative in Michael Ondaatje's ‘the man with seven toes’,” in Canadian Literature, No. 137, Summer, 1993, pp. 63-74.

[In the following essay, Wilton analyzes Ondaatje's narrative technique in the man with seven toes, particularly the unconscious and conscious participation of the reader in the text.]

The man with seven toes may be seen as Michael Ondaatje's first major narrative. However, reading this text as narrative presents numerous difficulties, not the least of which is the tendency of the individual poems to elicit lyric expectations that in fact resist narrative continuity. The design of the book, with its broad pages, visually emphasizes the independence of the poems, and the poems themselves tend to contain short flashes of imagery or meaning, resembling photographs or paintings hung in a series. The poem's evocation of conflicting lyric and narrative expectations disorients the reader, compelling her or him into an active awareness of the role of those expectations in the text's production of meaning.

Sam Solecki, in his essay on the man with seven toes,1 explores the form of the text concentrating primarily on imagery and texture, finding that “echoes and parallels” in phrases and images “create a common ground or structure—even the possibility of an unsuspected metaphysical order—underlying the separate lyrics.” However, he notes that that order is ambiguous and “avoids becoming a constricting grid.” He finds that the structure built around imagery and metaphor pulls the reader towards a static spatial apprehension of the reality depicted, but one with unresolvable ambiguities, and one that fragments when we examine the text as a whole and discover the contradictions. The resulting discomfort for the reader roughly parallels that of the heroine, the anonymous woman, in the poems:

In the man with seven toes… it is the form as well as the content that pushes the reader into the unfamiliar ground of the work to the point that his reading of the sections of the text becomes roughly analogous to what is happening in the story [and] demands the reader's active participation as an interpreter of a reality that is often not only ambiguous but even chaotic.2

However, while Solecki astutely cites ambiguities and discontinuities in the text, and also the tendency of the work to draw the reader into coming to terms with these difficulties, he says little or nothing of what the “reader's active participation” contributes to the narrative. How is our awareness of our participation significant? Perhaps answering this question requires our becoming more sensitive to what Solecki calls “the tenuous narrative line.”

Roland Barthes offers a theory on the general operations of narrative which aptly applies to Ondaatje's work. He says that narrative is the working out of a “logic” that is “exposed, risked and satisfied.” This working out is “a process of becoming.”3 Such a process strikes me as having important similarities to what Ondaatje refers to in the poem “a gate in his head” as “moving to the clear,”4 the difference being that Barthes is referring to narrative as a recreation of the process, while Ondaatje is referring to the lyric as “exposing” the logic and freezing it in mid-process. In both cases, the end of the process, whether it be a logic “satisfied” or the achievement of intellectual clarity, implies a static apprehension of the content, or cohesion. In the man with seven toes the individual lyrics suggest a static apprehension of “a process of becoming” while the continuity developed through recognizing narrative convention draws the reader into enacting the process. Solecki, it seems to me, ignores the latter process, and thereby precludes the possibility of discovering order in the text to be, at least partially, a temporal phenomenon, which seems to me central to Ondaatje's poetics.

In the opening lyrics of the narrative Solecki finds “no temporal, spatial or syntactical continuity.” Of the first poem he says, “The character and the scene are isolated in space—‘desert and pale scrub’—and time.”5 Yet the content to some extent suggests an adherence to narrative convention:

the train hummed like a low bird
over the rails, through
desert and pale scrub,
air spun in the carriages.
She moved to the doorless steps
where wind could beat her knees.
When they stopped for water she got off
sat by the rails on the wrist thick stones.

The train shuddered, then wheeled away from her.
She was too tired even to call.
Though come back, she murmured to herself.(6)

At the risk of stating the obvious, each time “she” is mentioned in the above poem, we assume that the pronoun refers to the same person, and that each action has a causal link with the other actions: she is on a train and when it stops she gets off, then is left behind. Convention leads us to believe in the consistency of the existents (characters, items of setting), in this case “she” in “desert and pale scrub,” through a series of events.

The principles of connection and coherence assumed in the first poem at the level of ‘naturalized convention,’ that is convention so familiar it is no longer consciously noted, continue in the next poem. It is not too much for us to assume that the same person from the opening lyric falls asleep, and then in the second poem awakes: “She woke and there was a dog / sitting on her shoulder” (10). Despite the narrator's reticence when it comes to offering context, there is here in the first two poems sufficient cause for the assumption of “story.”7 Granted, much of that story is left out of the discourse, but in reconstructing a story from a fragmented discourse, as readers we actively participate in a narrative process, even if in making assumptions based on naturalized convention we do not participate at a conscious level.

Ondaatje jolts us into awareness of our participation when in the fourth poem he undermines narrative convention by changing the identity of the narrator without warning or seeming acknowledgement: the natives “laughed, / then threw / the red dress back at me” (12, my italics). This shift throws into doubt our previous assumptions of consistency. We are forced to reconsider those assumptions and in the process of doing that discern that the shift may actually occur between the second poem (“she woke and there was a dog… ”) and third poem (“entered the clearing and they turned… ”), where the identity of the missing pronoun before the verb “entered,” which narrative convention initially led us to assume to be “she,” becomes ambiguous. The shift in point-of-view, clearly indicated by the use of the pronoun “me” in the fourth poem, throws into doubt our assumptions maintained throughout the first three poems, and leads us into an awareness of those assumptions and the narrative process instigated by them. Clearly, such undermining of narrative convention simultaneously risks and foregrounds the narrative process. By initially allowing the possibility of conventional narrative continuity, Ondaatje lures us into expectations which he subsequently denies, compelling us into an awareness of our participation in the process of ordering.

However, more than an obvious shift in pronouns marks the transition occurring in the opening four poems. A shift from external to internal focalization also occurs. The first and second poems, where the train leaves the woman and she later follows the dog, could easily be rewritten in the first person without significantly changing the sense. The difference between the narrative in the first two poems and that which follows resides in the increasing emphasis on the woman's response to her situation. In the second poem Ondaatje provides little or no indication of how the woman thinks or feels about her situation, he simply states that situation:

She woke and there was a dog
sitting on her shoulder
doing nothing, not even looking at her
but out over the land.
She lurched and it sauntered
feet away and licked its penis
as if some red flower in the desert.
She looked away but everything around her was
Sat for an hour.
Then the dog moved and she followed,
flies prancing at her head.


Ondaatje as narrator situates the woman in proximity to the dog and in relation to the desert while a specified “hour” passes. By thus locating her in space and time he provides us as readers with a point of reference in the story. Furthermore, the narrator is essentially transparent, emphasizing the story and not his discourse. For instance, the language is more metonymic than metaphoric; of the two metaphors brightening the text, the first is introduced with the explanatory “as if,” where the explicit identification of the trope suggests the narrator does not wish to confuse the story's events with their depiction. The second metaphor occurs in the last line perhaps as a hint of the change in focus about to occur. In any case, we gain an unobstructed view of the heroine's actions and her location, the story's existents and events, as well as our relation to them, without noticeable intervention from the narrator.

However, in the third poem the language becomes much more terse and metaphorical, while also providing less indication of the woman's location spatially and temporally:

entered the clearing and they turned
faces scarred with decoration
feathers, bones, paint from clay
pasted, skewered to their skin.
Fanatically thin,
black ropes of muscle.


In effect the text shifts from an emphasis on story to an emphasis on discourse, from an emphasis on what is seen to how it is seen, which results in the increased prominence of the narrator. The discourse in fact obscures the story and thereby, as readers, our point of reference. Thus, coinciding with the change in narrator, a shift that undermines the narrative process, is the growing prominence of the narrator. As we become aware of the narrative process and our role in it, we also begin to notice the presence of the narrator, and through the clouding of our view of the story as well as our point of reference, begin to identify with her disorientation.

Our participation occurs at the level of narrative act, in the act of reading, where the real action is.8 The shift away from story induces us to seek from the increasingly discontinuous discourse the continuance of a coherent story line. This participation in the process of ordering, paralleling the woman's situation of being lost, is a temporal activity. Thus the time consumed in the narrative act parallels the implied passage of time in the story. However, as our location both temporally and spatially in the story grows more indefinite, we gain a sense of moving in time and being lost in time simultaneously; events occur with seeming randomness, without causal order.

In the next series of poems the coherent story line we saw in the earlier poems continues to fade to the point where no temporal connection exists:

not lithe, they move
like sticklebacks,
you hear toes
crack with weight,
elbows sharp as beaks
grey pads of knees.


We have here a description of an ongoing situation, given in the present tense. The use of the present tense (or in more precise narrative terms, “simultaneous” narration, wherein story and its articulation occur simultaneously) locates the narrative instance within the scope of the events narrated, but as the events are ongoing the narrative instance remains indeterminate. Although time passes, we as readers participating in the search for coherent order based on the story line, are effectively losing that sense of order.

The next two poems likewise lack temporal location. The first poem describes a rape and the second a ritualistic dance. In them, the foregrounding of the narrative process, instigated a few pages earlier by Ondaatje's undermining of convention, intensifies, while the increased discontinuity in the story threatens the narrative process altogether. A tension builds as the fragmented discourse threatens to destroy the continuity between the poems, the continuity derived from our awareness of a story line. The weakening of the connections between the poems emphasizes the structural ambiguity built into the text, the conflict between our expectation of lyric and narrative conventions. The sequence of poems threatens to fragment into individual, self-enclosed units, while we strive to link them together by providing some system of relatedness.

The impossibility of reconciling conflicting perceptions intensifies almost unbearably, and finally provokes an almost cataclysmic release. As the order offered by a continuity in story fails, and as the emphasis increasingly tips over onto the side of discourse, the discourse finally breaks free from the story line, and thereby relinquishes any temporal reference in the story. However, an alternative order offers itself, one derived spatially through imagery and metaphor.

goats black goats, balls bushed in the centre
cocks rising like birds flying to you reeling on you
and smiles as they ruffle you open
spill you down, jump and spill over you
white leaping like fountains in your hair
your head and mouth till it dries
and tightens your face like a scar
Then up to cook a fox or whatever, or goats
goats eating goats heaving the bodies
open like purple cunts under ribs, then tear
like to you a knife down their pit, a hand in the warm

the hot boiling belly and rip
open and blood spraying out like dynamite
caught in the children's mouths on the ground
laughing collecting it in their hands
or off to a pan, holding blood like gold
and the men rip flesh tearing, the muscles
nerves green and red still jumping
stringing them out, like you


The shift to spatial articulation accompanies a complex change in narrative voice. The woman, the narrator, separates herself from her environment, begins to perceive herself as a distinct entity outside the events of her story. We see this in her repeated reference to herself as “you.” She, in fact, makes a conscious separation of her discourse from story, as the repeated introduction of metaphor with “like” indicates, showing her awareness of the distinction between reality and her depiction of it, and her need to distance herself from her story and rewrite it in a way that allows her some immunity. We see in her a growing disregard for the facts of the story: “[t]hen up to cook a fox or whatever, or goats. … ” She manipulates the story to fit the pattern of discourse, attempting to give the chaos of her experience in story an order derived through imagery and metaphor.

The difficulty of sustaining a subjective position distant from the events of the story is shown in the chaotic energy of the “goats” poem, the frantic pursuit of an adequate metaphor that will capture the experience and dissipate its threat. The narrator leaps from one metaphor to the next seeking one that will hold and still that wild energy, but that energy always exceeds the attempt at its articulation. The reason for this is, of course that what the poem tries to capture at this point is its own process of ordering. To clarify this we need to note a number of processes at work.

In the “goats” poem the woman narrates an event that has already occurred in the two previous poems. At least she perceives the events as sufficiently similar to establish a sense of repetitiveness. This perception allows her to deny the difference, change, and in effect slows the narrative giving her more time to process the events. She can then begin to articulate patterns. But what becomes clear is that these patterns belong not to the events themselves but to her articulation of them. As we have already noted, the focus of the narrative shifts from story to discourse, from the action in the story to the activity of narrating. The narrative act becomes the subject of the “goats” poem as it seeks to capture that activity within lyric stasis.

Her attempt almost succeeds. Through metaphor and a distancing of herself from her story the woman as narrator develops a conceptual framework in which to articulate the violence and chaos of her experience. That articulation to some extent gives her control over the violence, the story, and she achieves a sense of order that, although uncertain and ambiguous, provides a tentative point of reference.

and put their heads in
and catch quick quick come on
COME ON! the heart still beating
shocked into death, and catch the heart still running
in their hard quiet lips and eat it alive
alive still in their mouths throats still beating Bang
still! BANG in their stomachs


The word “still” is rendered ambiguous in all its occurrences in this context, through having both temporal and spatial connotations, meaning both ‘continuing’ and ‘not moving.’ Mrs. Fraser thus expresses through the image of eating the heart alive a need to capture movement, and thereby expresses an inner reality in a constant state of flux that will not completely succumb to that need. That is, to a degree she fulfills her wish. She articulates her experience and finds within it a point of reference in the ‘here and now’ however ambiguous and unstable that point might be. In the poem that follows, Mrs. Fraser experiences at least partial acceptance of her situation:

at night the wind
shakes in your head
picks sweat off your body

yards away, they
buck out the night
The sky raw and wounded


She perceives herself in the second person, she perceives “they” at some distance away from herself “at night,” and then there is the sky “raw and wounded,” a projection of her own pained but accepting response to her environment. The important point is that she has found a tentative but temporal location: not within the story, but within her articulation of it, the discourse.

As we, as readers, participate in the woman's dislocation in the earlier poems, we also now participate in her sense of relocation in the here and now. As the discourse breaks away from the story line, the connection between where we are now and where the narrative began, beside the tracks after the train left, gives way. At the same time, the sense of certainty that such a connection offers is lost. The combination of the loss of a point of reference in the story line, with a shift to internal focalization as well as simultaneous narration,9 evokes the sense of being in the here and now, a position relative to our location in the traversing of the foregrounded discourse. In other words, instead of relating where we are now in the narrative act to our position in the story, we are compelled into the inverse position of relating that story to our position in the narrative act. Like Mrs. Fraser we seek in the movement across the discourse, the narrative act, an order. After the order offered by story fails we seek a spatial order in terms of metaphor and imagery that will give coherence to our movement. Ordering becomes a temporal movement through space: time orders space and space orders time. We find ourselves, with Mrs. Fraser, compelled into an ontological position without a stable foundation, into accepting coherence as a movement within a fluctuating and uncertain reality.

As the woman escapes from the natives, we escape from our conventional notions of narrative and share her renewed sense of location in the present. From here, with the help of a convict escaping from civilization, she finds her way back to civilization. Meanwhile, for us a vague sense of the story line returns to the narrative: events occur from lyric to lyric which, although surprising, are both temporally and spatially located: Mrs. Fraser and the convict spend days and nights in a journey across streams, through swamp and trees, until they finally move into the plain and along a river.

Although the return of a discernible story line suggests a returning to conventional narrative, that conventionality continues to be undermined by vast ellipsis between individual lyrics, and as well by random but significant changes in the identity of the narrator:

he had tattoos on his left hand
a snake with five heads
the jaws waiting
his fingernails chipped tongues;
crossing a stream
he steadied her elbow
and she tensed body
like a tourniquet to him.


Ondaatje apparently narrates here, but unlike his narrative at the beginning of the text, now there is a different focalization. As narrator he is more prominent, registering through metaphor and imagery his reaction to the story, emphasizing the discourse while not losing sight of the story. In fact, this kind of internal focalization remains constant throughout the remainder of the text, regardless of who actually narrates. For instance, no change in focalization occurs in the next poem, although we find a change of narrator.

in grey swamp
warm as blood, thick
with moving. Flesh
round our thighs like bangles.
Teeth so sharp, it was later
he found he'd lost toes,
the stumps sheer
as from ideal knives.


It would seem the fluctuations in the identity of the narrator enact a melding of points of view, where different points of view share a common discursive reality. The effect is a sense of moving toward coherence or intellectual clarity.

Coinciding with the shifting point of view and the emergent sense of clarity are subtle but important shifts in narrative instance. In the above poem, for instance, the absence of not only the subject pronoun at the beginning of the poem, but the verb as well, renders the narrative instance indefinite. If such an ellipsis suggests anything, it is that of immediacy, a sense of present tense or simultaneous narration. Yet in the third sentence of the poem the narrative instance turns out to be an imperfect form of subsequent narration: “ …it was later / he found he'd lost toes. … ” In other words we have a form of interpolated narration. A clear instance of this occurs in another poem.

lost my knife. Threw the thing at a dog
and it ran away, the blade in its head.
Sometimes I don't believe what's going on.


The narrator clearly narrates the event subsequent to its occurrence, but when is not clear. The concluding comment suggests the narrative instance exists within the journey back to civilization, rather than outside that journey, thus rendering the narrative instance, like the narrator in this passage, indeterminate.

Positioned in the indeterminate here and now, having relinquished the certainty of a coherence beyond her articulation of it, the woman finds that events take on a renewed brilliance so very unlike her experience on first leaving the train. Lacking the absolute order of time or space, “Things happened and went out like matches” (38). She now sees the convict “striped and fabulous / like beast skin in greenery” (33).

eyes were grey beetles
toes were half gone
chest was a rain sky
shirt was a rainbow
mouth a collyrium that licked my burnt eyes


Those “burnt eyes” receive the salve that enables renewed vision.

In the process of moving through the text we develop a sense of continuity between the poems that is not based upon a clear story line, but upon a process of discursive ordering both spatially and temporally. We maintain throughout a sense of our participation in the process of ordering, our participation temporally in connecting a collection of disparate verses together. In the latter portion of the narrative this sense grows increasingly intense as the narrators seem to drop away; or more accurately, we merge with them, dissolving the borders between subjectivities, including the one between ourselves as readers and those depicted in the narrative. At the same time we experience a movement towards clarity. The achievement of this goal appears in sight when we arrive back in civilization and at the end of our journey:

She slept in the heart of the Royal Hotel
Her burnt arms and thighs
soaking the cold off the sheets.
She moved fingers onto the rough skin,
traced obvious ribs, the running heart,
sensing herself like a map, then
lowering her hands into her body.

In the morning she found pieces of a bird
chopped and scattered by the fan
blood sprayed onto the mosquito net,
its body leaving paths on the walls
like red snails that drifted down in lumps.


Sam Solecki notes that here “the narrative closes with the ambiguous and densely allusive poem whose almost every image echoes some image or situation occurring earlier.”10 These echoes give the impression of the imagery taking on a coherent form, or of the narrative's logic “being satisfied,” or as Solecki puts it a sense of “some kind of summarizing judgement upon the story.” The sense of impending closure, and the reference through “echoes” back to the events of the narrative, give the illusion of arrival at the point of coherence and order in the text. A static apprehension of the narrative's content seems for the first time within reach as the narrative slows.

She could imagine the feathers
while she had slept
falling around her
like slow rain.


The slowing, calming effect of this image evokes the sense of arriving or concluding. Nevertheless it is an ambiguous conclusion, as Solecki says, for however much the image of “slow rain” succeeds in taming or civilizing the violence, the violence remains within.

The last poem provides the real sense of closure, post-narrative summation, and at the same time reconfirms our awareness of static order as illusion. The cliched sentiments of the final stanza in the poem conventionalize, even trivialize, as they attempt to capture within metaphor an experience that has only been grasped temporally within the narrative act.

Green wild rivers in these people
running under ice that's calm,
God bring you all some tender stories
and keep you from hurt and harm


It hardly does the story justice. Rather, it reflects ironically on our need for the illusion of static order. While it may be the end of the process of ordering, it eliminates too much to be satisfactory. The sense of cohesion it attempts fails: the narrative remains an ambiguous sequence of disparate fragments, the order of which can only be tentatively grasped in the temporal process of traversing the text. In fact, the sense of movement towards cohesion results as much from our need for order, as it does from any absolute order built into the text.

Or, an alternative reading of the conclusion offers itself, and perhaps one even more to the point. The cliched “green wild rivers” could be said to take on new meaning within the overall context of the man with seven toes. Gaining specificity, the dead metaphor is revitalized and meaning reproduced.


  1. Sam Solecki, “Point Blank: Narrative in Michael Ondaatje's The Man With Seven Toes,” Canadian Poetry 6 (Spring-Summer 1980): 14-20. Rpt. in Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, ed. Sam Solecki (Montreal: Véhicule, 1985); 135-49.

  2. “Point Blank” 15.

  3. Roland Barthes, “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative,” trans. Stephen Heath, A Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) 294-95.

  4. Michael Ondaatje, “The Gate in his Head,” Rat Jelly (Toronto: Coach House, 1973) 62. “And that is all this writing should be then. / The beautiful formed things caught at the wrong moment / so they are shapeless, awkward / moving to the clear.”

  5. “Point Blank” 18.

  6. Michael Ondaatje, The Man with Seven Toes (Toronto: Coach House, 1969).

  7. Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978) 19. “[E]ach narrative has two parts: a story, the content or chain of events (actions, happenings), plus what may be called the existents (characters, items of setting); and a discourse, that is, the expression, the means by which the content is communicated.”

  8. By “narrative act” I mean the actual event of narrating or enunciating, which by extension necessarily includes the action of both sender and receiver. See Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980) 26-27.

  9. Genette, p. 219. He points out that simultaneous narration produces an unstable situation wherein the emphasis can tip either way, onto the story or the discourse. Context determines the direction the emphasis takes.

  10. “Point Blank,” 21.

Douglas Barbour (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15403

SOURCE: “Poetry and Maturing Poetics,” in Michael Ondaatje, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 67-98.

[In the following essay, Barbour traces Ondaatje's poetic development from his first collection through There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do. Barbour discovers a trend in Ondaatje's writing toward more experimental and personal poetry.]

An edition of selected poems, especially when published by major presses in a poet's own country, the United States, and the United Kingdom, signifies both achievement and recognition. For Ondaatje, the Governor General's Award-winning There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979) also provided an opportunity, again especially for the larger international audience that knew him most for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter, to pare away some of the perceived chaff in his oeuvre and thus present a particular overview of the maturing of a poet. The poems dropped from The Dainty Monsters section appear more modernist and given to closure or too dependent upon a dictionary of mythology than his later practice allows. The selection from Rat Jelly1 is larger, as befits a more mature collection, yet the poems kept, aside from the central series of poems about art and artists, tend to foreground questions of ordinary life, friendship, and family love. If, as so many critics have pointed out, Ondaatje seems obsessed with figures who violently and often self-destructively immerse themselves in the chaotic world of the senses, the choice of poems in Trick with a Knife reveals another and equally powerful obsession: the need and desire to “deviously [think] out plots / across the character of his friends” (RJ, 56; TK, 58). In the context of the selections from the first two books, this other obsession is best imaged in the delicate yet tough recognition of communion among friends in “We're at the Graveyard,” a poem I now see as central in Ondaatje's work. The “shift” of friends' “minds and bodies… to each other” (RJ, 51; TK, 47), with all its implications about community, communication, and communion, is the emerging theme of Ondaatje's work as he matures from romantic young poet-hero to more complex and subtle poet-survivor. The new poems in the third part, “Pig Glass,” with their increased insistence on the necessary and complex intimacy with family and friends, reveal how carefully Ondaatje has selected and reordered the earlier poems in terms of this emerging theme. Not that Trick with a Knife denies the other aspects of Ondaatje's work; rather, it newly contextualizes them in an emerging order that emphasizes a greater complexity of response within its various speakers and a more profound and difficult vision than that of romantic egoism.

Ondaatje wrote the poems of Rat Jelly “before during and after two longer works—the man with seven toes and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid—when the right hand thought it knew what the left hand was doing” (RJ, [72]). Many of its poems deal with the question of art's relation to life, which is why critics continue to study them as central statements on poetics and creativity. These include “Letters & Other Worlds,” “Burning Hills,” “The gate in his head,” “Spider Blues,” and “White Dwarfs,” often considered among his finest poems, as well as “Dates,” “Taking,” and “King Kong meets Wallace Stevens.” All appear in Trick with a Knife. This group makes up one-fifth of the titles in Rat Jelly and contains the only poems that stretch out to three pages in length. Although they present the best clues to his poetics at the time, I would not read them as absolutely prescriptive, except insofar as “The gate in his head” suggests a direction the later work might take: toward ever greater openness and exploration, “seeking the unrested form he requires, and the realization that it is in form that we present what we deem the real” (Bowering, 164).

Although Ondaatje's shorter poems seem to become more and more autobiographical as he matures as an artist, he actually “places himself directly before the reader as a character instead of an attitude” (Glickman, 73): the “I” who speaks in these seemingly “confessional” poems is purely inscribed, exists in each poem as a subject but alters his subjectivity from poem to poem. While it would be foolish to try to reconstruct the “real” Michael Ondaatje's life from the written ones of the poems, the writer has chosen, especially in the reordered selected poems, to shift the emphasis of his work away from the suffering and violent individual toward the communication and communion that are possible only in community, a community that begins in the small tribe of immediate family and close friends. Although this shift can best be seen in the works that follow Coming Through Slaughter, the poems on family and friends in Rat Jelly mark its beginning. The opening poem, “War Machine,” appears later in Trick with a Knife, yet, despite its explicit expression of generalized hatred of the world “out there,” it points to family and friends as necessary buffers against that world: “Think I dont like people no / like some dont like many / love wife kids dogs couple of friends” (RJ, 11; TK, 48). The poem is a savage comic turn, a performance, in which the “I” expostulates at length about wanting “to live mute / all day long / not talk // just listen to the loathing,” but only after telling us at great length how he hates art, likes certain sports, films, and scandalous gossip. Indeed, he represents himself as not too likable, definitely sexist, and willing to hurt to get attention. Perhaps he would like to escape into silence, but for now he sounds like a stand-up comedian desperate for one last laugh. The double edge of his rhetoric—cutting himself as much as his audience—should warn us to be very careful of whom we identify him with, or how we identify with him.

“Gold and Black,” with its images of dreams and nightmares as “gold and black slashed bees come / [to] pluck my head away” (RJ, 12; TK, 37), turns to the beloved, although she, too, is presented in disturbingly ambiguous imagery: “In the black Kim is turning / a geiger counter to this pillow. / She cracks me open like a lightbulb.” The lightbulb simile catches us off guard: does she break him into darkness or enter into his light? The final stanza presents an argumentative conclusion as if to a syllogism: “Love, the real, / terrifies / the dreamer in his riot cell.” The turn to the third person, as it generalizes from the extremely personal imagining of the first two stanzas, suggests that this is not just “my” problem but everyone's. But is it? Some readers feel “the dream was not meant for me” (Bowering, 164). The third-person dreamer's “riot cell” implies everybody's utter lack of control in the realm of the unconscious, but the poem is not about everybody, and it has resolved nothing. That it appears to do so may be its weakness.

“Letter to Ann Landers” utterly disrupts any biographical reading we may have been constructing, as it is in the voice of a harried housewife who has found an outlet for her frustrations: “I get really / turned on by flies / crawling over my body” (RJ, 13). This could be one of the stories the speaker in “War Machine” tells; certainly it is a casually cruel bit of black comedy: “It is true Ann I do feel worn out / it is the flies (I mean it are the flies).” As it shifts to the necessary ending of a letter to an advice columnist—Ann's reply would help the husband “feel / not so left out of things”—it perhaps suggests just how difficult dealing with “Love, the real” can be. The cruelly accurate pastiche of the awkward style of such letters somehow invokes compassion as well as superior disdain, making us oddly complicit in this contradictory lyric joke. At any rate, entering Rat Jelly in an orderly fashion leads us through a misanthropic rant, a chilling dream, and a comically outrageous image of desire. Only after these three alternate visions does the book turn to its first major poem, which explores with compassion and complexity the complications of a domestic situation, “observed with the most intimate affection, out of which the reader can reconstruct the fabric of a whole relationship” (Scobie 1985a, 50).

The title, “Billboards,” points to a central image in the poem, but one that emerges only after a mazelike trip through anecdotal images of “[m]y wife's problems with husbands, houses, / her children that I meet / at stations in Kingston, in Toronto, in London Ontario” (RJ, 14; TK, 34). Overlapping discourses compose the language of this poem: there are seemingly traditional similes, witty metaphors, the occasionally pretentious diction of the high lyric, but they never quite mesh into a conventional lyric sensibility. Or: that sensibility is corrected, dissipated, as an effect of the overlapping. The first two stanzas establish the terms of difference between these two lovers in a tone that mixes gentle exasperation and loving humor: “All this, I was about to say, / disturbs, invades my virgin past.” This image of the speaker as a youthful tabula rasa, his “mind a carefully empty diary” waiting to be written on by the experienced older woman, seems unproblematic until a sudden shift of metaphor making her a “barrier reef” opens toward subtler and more complex possibilities. As an empty diary changes into a bright fish among the coral, we realize that the fictional world of the poem is one of sudden transformations, in which nothing may be what it seems. Images associated with writing—her “anthology of kids,” his “carefully empty diary”—are continually interrupted by images of raucous, chaotic life, of which the ocean is a major symbol (Cirlot, 241). In a poem essentially domestic and comic, this is not too unsettling a discovery, but it provides a sufficient reminder that the world of the shorter poems is the same as that of the longer works.

The complications increase, for “the locusts of history— / innuendoes she had missed / varied attempts at seduction (even rape),” etc. (RJ, 15; TK, 35), seem to point to a naïveté on her part that almost equals his. The locusts might in some way be equivalent to the bees that invade his dreams in “Gold and Black,” the dark other side of this domestic comedy. Here sexual violence is quickly paralleled by the deaths of pets, and all are reduced to the same level as “[n]umerous problems I was unequal to.” Although its inconsistent discourse denies it a stable lyric sensibility, the “I” asserts primacy in “a neutrality so great / I'd have nothing to think of, / just to sense / and kill it in the mind”; but that primacy cannot attain lyric superiority because of the inherent dialogism of the situation: “Nowadays I somehow get the feeling / I'm in a complex situation, / one of several billboard posters / blending in the rain.” The lyric “I” is essentially selfish, an ego expressing only itself. Paradoxically, however, this “I” had nothing to express to the degree it sought to “have nothing to think of.” As the only referent for “it” is “nothing,” the neutrality he sought is the nothing he would have killed with his mind. Solipsism like this has nowhere to go. In fact, to write at all he must be written upon. History does that as it rains experiences, his own and others', upon him. The image of the “several billboard posters / blending” overwhelms that of the empty diary, but both depend upon the concept of writing for their effect. Writing as the marking of experience upon the self is what allows the writer to focus the final stanza on the complex feelings his engagement with other complicated lives evokes. The act of writing itself becomes a sign of the communication love both allows and is: “I am writing this with a pen my wife has used / to write a letter to her first husband.” Until this stanza, the poem has concentrated on memories, bits of information gathered from other sources, historical and anecdotal, moments of generalized encounters. Now the writer writing engages the physical presence-in-absence of the other, through the sense most often associated with the erotic—smell—and does so with the generosity of spirit associated most strongly with love. He does not “attempt to reconstruct” (TK, 17) and “freeze” the moment, as he did in “Four Eyes,” but rather imagines the possible process of the actions he did not observe: “She must have placed it down between sentences / and thought, and driven her fingers round her skull / gathered the slightest smell of her head / and brought it back to the pen.” Empathetically gathering her actions out of the empty air and placing them on the page, he demonstrates an antilyric dialogism by staying out of the action. The poem ends focused on her incomplete act, which we now feel touched by.

Other poems within the “Families” section move in different directions and engage different moods. The very title of “Notes for the legend of Salad Woman” (RJ, 18; TK, 38) suggests the direction much of the “autobiographical” writing takes here: toward a kind of comic myth-making, to be trusted, like autobiography, no more than a tall tale. I think it significant that the figure of “my wife” in these poems is never given a name: she is representative, not particular, another aspect of the performative orientation of these poems. “Notes” joins with “Postcard from Piccadilly Street” and “The Strange Case” to make up a delicately slapstick triptych. A line from “Postcard”—“We have moved to elaborate audiences now” (RJ, 19; TK, 39)—provides the clue to the performative nature of these poems. In them, the poet and the wife take little vaudeville turns for the entertainment of whatever “elaborate audiences” may read them.

In “Notes,” the luggage “my wife” brings to the marriage expands to suggest “she must have eaten / the equivalent of two-thirds / of the original garden of Eden” (RJ, 18; TK, 38). The poem elaborates this conceit at some length, moving from images of that “eradicated” garden to “flower decorations” in their house and their own small garden, now “a dust bowl.” The final stanza offers them both new roles, as Adam and Eve, and turns eviction from Eden into erotic comedy. From “Notes” to a “Postcard” is not too big a step in this comic textual world. In “Postcard,” dogs, as “the unheralded voyeurs of this world” (RJ, 19; TK, 39) assume a parodic relation to the suffering animal world of his other poems: “irate phone calls from the SPCA / … claim we are corrupting minors / (the dog being one and a half).” The comic timing emphasizes the light tone of this poem, especially the offhand statistic of the parenthetic line. The hint of spying, in “sparrows / with infra red eyes,” the importance of performance, the slight spice of danger, all combine to turn the poem just slightly aside from mere slapstick, but the basic tone is comic—as it is in “The Strange Case,” where the speaker's dog is an “alter ego” displaying raw sexual desire and “nuzzling / head up skirts / while I direct my mandarin mood” (RJ, 20; TK, 40). This mood could be taken as both devious and exploitative, but the domestic comedy of father and baby-sitter in the car, with the dog in the back seat suddenly licking her ear, plays off the conventional satiric comedy of “indiscretion.” The final stanza again presents the stand-up comedian: “It was only the dog I said. / Oh she said. / Me interpreting her reply all the way home.” Being forced to do the interpreting breaks his “mandarin mood” and alleviates any tension we might have felt about the intentions of the poem. It remains part of the domestic comedy, after all, with no real danger in it. All three poems sustain just enough ambiguity to resist any simplistic reading. So, although “[t]heir humour is not there just for its own sake, but plays a functional role in establishing the tone and credibility of the domestic image” (Scobie 1985a, 50), part of that credibility lies in the hint of darkness that is always nearby.

A suggestion of that darkness, and of the depth of empathy parenthood confers, occurs in a poem that provides another view of the domestic scene, nearly the only one in the book with children present. “Griffin of the night” creates a mise-en-abyme effect as “my son in my arms” becomes “small me / sweating after nightmares” (RJ, 23; TK, 43). The poem is minimal in its gestures, which partly accounts for its power, but it is at least as much about “me” as it is about “my son”: fathers and sons slip into one another's roles here, preparing the reader for the following poem, in which a son attempts to slip into the nightmare his father had come to live and die in.

“Letters & Other Worlds” has long been considered “one of Ondaatje's finest poems: the control of tone, as the poem moves from comedy to deeply moving simplicity, is breathtaking” (Scobie 1985a, 51). Ondaatje's first attempt to place and placate his father's ghost (or “his” “father's” ghost—the quotation marks signalling the essential fictionality of all autobiography, the fact that even memory is a shaping and a making, that it can never be an innocent representation), it anticipates Running in the Family by almost a decade.2 Precisely because “My father's body was a globe of fear / His body was a town we never knew” (RJ, 24; TK, 44), the youthful writer finds it difficult to see his life from the inside. The poem moves from a tragic chant to a frightening image of death, and then shifts into a kind of comic gossip before returning to the imagery of isolation, self-destruction, and death with which it began. The “terrifying comedy” of his father's life is represented in fragments of narrative that look forward to the full-blown novelization of Running in the Family, but the beginning and ending of the poem resist such carnivalization and insist on a lyric and romantic intensity of vision in which terror and despair overwhelm all other possibilities. The poem manages to juxtapose farce with despair, the two modes of discourse clashing and contradicting, acquiring a dialogic equilibrium “my father” could not maintain, finally. Its emotional power resides in the tension between the two moods.

While elsewhere in his first two volumes of verse, Ondaatje praises the painter Henri Rousseau for creating “the ideals of dreams” (TK, 10), here he finds in Alfred Jarry the paradigm by which to measure his father. An infamous poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright, who seemingly devoted his final days to drinking himself to death, Jarry included among his last writings “this visionary description of the hero's approaching death: ‘But soon he could drink no more, for there was no more darkness for him and, no doubt like Adam before the fall… he could see in the dark.’”3 This quotation is the unacknowledged epigraph to the poem, while the comment that “Jarry's death resembled nothing so much as drowning” (Shattuck, 223) is echoed in the line, “He came to his death with his mind drowing.” The discovery of such a paradigm apparently gave the poet metaphors by which to tentatively explore the meaning of his father's death.

The first two stanzas of the poem form a litany set apart from the narrative that follows. Through a series of near repetitions, the poet creates a complex keen of loss on behalf of himself and his siblings, in which the use of the first-person plural pronoun implicates us in the emotional turmoil the poem enacts. The father's body is represented as “a globe of fear,” “a town we never knew,” and then “a town of fear.” “He hid that he had been where we were going” changes into “He hid where he had been that we might lose him,” while “His letters were a room he seldom lived in” becomes “His letters were a room his body scared.” The total effect is unnerving, as the father becomes a kind of incredible shrinking man, retreating from world to town until, finally, he is only an inscription in the letters that are a room he seldom lives in yet which is the only small place in which “the logic of his love could grow.” In this convoluted argument, the man hid the truth about himself precisely in order that his love might free his children from the troubled inheritance he brought them. Apparently he sought to become the letters, in an attempt to erase his own early behavior and write a new figure in its place. But to do so, he had to shrink his body, his physical ability to engage the world, from “globe” to “town” to “room,” a final hidden and written space in which no one else could witness his “fear dance.” The “logic” of his love inevitably led to a kind of lying (a rewriting of his story that Running in the Family will demonstrate was a behavioral pattern for his whole generation), a loss of balance he could not maintain. His body frightened the room his letters became because the truth they sought to hide was written boldly upon it. Moreover, as the poem will demonstrate, he failed in this endeavor because gossip had inscribed him in the social history of his community, and “we” had heard all the stories already.

The narrative part of the poem leaps proleptically to the climax, as “brain blood moved / to new compartments / that never knew the wash of fluid / and he died in minutes of a new equilibrium.” Equilibrium is a key word here; but it is ambivalent in the extreme, and the mood of isolation and loss continues the lamentation of the first two stanzas. The immediate shift into anecdotal farce suggests that the father's life was continually off balance, yet he somehow kept moving, kept going, stayed alive. The “new equilibrium” is death, a stasis he fell into when he stopped moving and hid in the small room with his bottles and the duplicitous loving writing that finally failed him.

Yet writing is the only way to bring him back. The writer takes an almost possessive delight in various scenes from the “terrifying comedy” of his father's “early life,” remarking ironically that “my mother divorced him again and again.” The implications of his behavior are more important than the actual stories, some of which appear in Running in the Family. Explanations take on an almost baroque deadpan earnestness. Of the drunken halting of a “whole procession of elephants dancers / local dignitaries,” the writer adds: “As a semi-official, and semi-white at that, / the act was seen as a crucial / turning point in the Home Rule Movement / and led to Ceylon's independence in 1948” (RJ, 25; TK, 45). He points out that “[m]y mother had done her share too,” but the poem quickly stifles any laughter such comic stories might induce:

And then in his last years
he was the silent drinker,
the man who once a week
disappeared into his room with bottles
and stayed there until he was drunk
and until he was sober.

(RJ, 25-26; TK, 45-46)

Of this period there neither are nor can be any stories: the silence swallowed them up. The room and “the gentle letters [he] composed” (RJ, 26; TK, 46) were the same; they were both a place of hiding, in which he could write with “the most complete empathy / … / while he himself edged / into the terrible acute hatred / of his own privacy.” The syntactical ambiguity of that final phrase suggests the awful difficulty of actually explaining how and why he came to his death. He found the hatred in the hated privacy he could not escape precisely because he had created it. In the letters he achieved a kind of balance, as well as the “articulate emotion” (RJ, 25; TK, 45) he once envied his wife, but he could not maintain it; instead, even as “his heart widen[ed] and widen[ed] and widen[ed] / to all manner of change in his children and friends” (RJ, 26; TK, 46), he slowed to a stop, “balanced and fell” dead, “the blood searching in his head without metaphor.” Paradoxical images, of balancing and falling as one act, and metaphors, of “blood screaming,” “blood searching,” an “empty reservoir” of skull, are the only means by which to argue the end of metaphor. A positive way of reading this ending suggests that, for the father “as for Jarry, the self-destruction of alcohol provided a new vision; but unlike Jarry, what he created … were expressions of love rather than of contempt. When Jarry died, he became completely Ubu; when Ondaatje's father died, he became completely himself” (Scobie 1985a, 58-59). We share the writer's pain because his father is, notwithstanding, dead, lost, an enigma he can never solve.

To this point, Ondaatje has seldom presented the figure of the writer in his shorter poems. In The Dainty Monsters, the writer appears only in “Four Eyes,” where he desires to stop time, while thus far in Rat Jelly, he reappears, altering his stance, only in “Billboards,” although he is also implied in the comic history of “Dates.” There, the writer “console[s] [him]self with [his] mother's eighth month” when he lay in his mother's “significant belly” while Wallace Stevens wrote and watched “the page suddenly / becoming thought where nothing had been” (RJ, 21; TK, 41). A series of present participles invokes the process of control and balance that writing should be: “his head making his hand / move where he wanted / and he saw his hand was saying / the mind is never finished, no, never.” In his “speeches, head dreams, apologies, / [and] gentle letters” (RJ, 26; TK, 46), his father too made “his hand / move where he wanted,” but he apparently could not believe “the mind is never finished.” The difficulty and the emotional power of “Letters & Other Worlds” derives from its inchoate recognition that the father is the kind of romantic artist Ondaatje's writing obsessively loves yet must reject in order to keep on happening. As such, he is a paradigm of all such figures one encounters in the poet's work: Peter, Billy, the “heroes” of “White Dwarfs” “who sail to that perfect edge / where there is no social fuel” (RJ, 70; TK, 68), and Buddy Bolden, for example.4 In the figure of the father, this romantic artist appears as a writer, but it is as a writer that his son must come to terms with what he means. The paradoxical conflict is too powerful and transgressive to be contained within the limits of a single poem; it demands the space and dialectic of a novel, where other voices can provide sufficient perspective upon it. Ondaatje had not yet found the proper “architecture of tone as well as of rhythm” (Solecki 1984, 324) by which to juxtapose document and fiction, prose and poetry, into the complex “gesture” that is Running in the Family. With an enigmatic and contradictory central figure who transgresses every attempt at containment, “Letters & Other Worlds” at least recognizes the need to mix genres as it mixes feelings. Ondaatje's first attempt at articulating the contraditions of “other people, another age” (Solecki 1984, 331), and another place probably had to be a lyric one. Yet lyric cannot do the subject justice precisely because that subject is the lyric self. The poem is emotionally successful to the very degree that it articulates its own failure to understand, and that is what the paradox of the final metaphor denying metaphor does.

“Live Bait,” with an epigraph on the self-destructive power of lying,5 is a catchall section evoking the dangers of the jungle as a “necessary complement” (Scobie 1985a, 50) to the domestic security of “Families.” “Rat Jelly,” later paired with “War Machine,” brings back the nasty vaudevillian of that poem. “Breaking Green,” a poem about killing a snake, reveals how the destructive power of even constructive technology comes to control the actions of the human operator and influence “our” responses to them. If there is a thematic connection among the various animal poems it is only that there is no way to understand the other. The only message the “beautiful animals” (RJ, 35; TK, 23) can send is a bite, which humans can interpret as love or as attack, or “a parabola of shit” (RJ, 37) which puts all interpretation out of mind.

The gulf cannot be bridged—which may be why “Loop” returns to the writer only to have him insist that it is his “last dog poem” (RJ, 46; TK, 53). This opening assumes our knowledge of past poems and their possible autobiographical intent only to suggest how they could so easily slide into sentimentality: “I leave behind all social animals / including my dog who takes / 30 seconds dismounting from a chair.” Against the easy humor of this too domestic image, the poem exhorts the reader to “[t]urn to the one / who appears again on roads / one eye torn out and chasing.” The antisocial animal survives; “transient as shit,” he cannot be fixed—in either sense of the term—for there is “magic in his act of loss” as the “missing eye travels up / in a bird's mouth, and into the sky.” Like the other animals of these poems, this dog is “Live Bait” precisely because he tempts the romantic in writer and reader to join him in “[d]eparting family.” As he tears “silently into garbage” the “bird lopes into the rectangle nest of images / / and parts of him move on.” Parts of the dog or parts of the bird? It doesn't matter because neither is a social animal in this poem. The temptation is to escape, even if it is into a form of fragmentation. The poems of domesticity and friendship not only stand against such poems in Rat Jelly, but remain when those are let go in Trick with a Knife. The antithematic reading of Ondaatje that I am proposing here simply acknowledges the many mood swings and changes of vision any writer can go through while exploring the possibilities of the next, new, poem.

The epigraph to “White Dwarfs,” like the other two, is about lying and truth telling, and the dangerous border between the two.6 Most of the poems in “White Dwarfs” explore the problems of art's relation to life. This is true even of the lovely and moving “We're at the graveyard,” which is shifted to join the other domestic poems in Trick with a Knife, but which also specifically alludes to the last and title poem in the section—for many readers a central statement on the temptations of one kind of art. In contrast to the other poems here, its title also acts as the first line: the poem is in process before we're fully aware of having entered it. Those old standbys “Birth and copulation and death”7—in reverse order, and with “love” substituting perhaps for “copulation”—are the basis of the poem's discourse. Beginning with the reference to the graveyard, the poem invokes the far reaches of the universe and the inner workings of mind and heart: “Stuart Sally Kim and I” are “watching still stars / or now and then sliding stars” (RJ, 51; TK, 47). The stars move and do not move, they are part of “clear charts, / the systems' intricate branches / which change with hours and solstices, / the bone geometry of moving from there, to there.” Clarity dissipates in motion and lack of reference, which are rooted in “the bone geometry” of the human subjects. An equilibrium between stasis and change, which the poet's father could not find, exists in the universe as perceived by “friends / whose minds and bodies / shift like acrobats to each other.” The next two lines deepen the necessary equivocation of the poem: “When we leave, they move / to an altitude of silence.” This seems to refer to the stars, but grammatically it refers to “friends.” It could be the silence each pair enters when the two pairs are not together, an implicit silence of separation. Stars and friends, the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, are suddenly equal here, where “our minds shape / and lock the transient” in an artistic process that “parallel[s] these bats / who organize the air / with thick blinks of travel.” This paradoxical metaphor, where organized motion is a momentary blindness, implies the utterly exploratory nature of the act of shaping, the act of art. Finally this poem about both friendship and art returns to the first of these, yet maintains its dedication to the latter as the final three lines point back to the opening. Here everything is held in lovely tension, an equilibrium in which stillness contains the implicit movement of growth and a single human subject contains the universe the poem evokes: “Sally is like grey snow in the grass, / Sally of the beautiful bones / pregnant below stars.”

“Heron Rex” offers a supplementary vision of Ondaatje's favorite bird. While “Birds for Janet—The Heron” simply insists that “Heron is the true king” (DM, 13; TK, 3) and tracks the path of one heron's suicide, “Heron Rex” sets up a series of paradoxical generalizations to create an image of a twistedly symbolic species: “Mad kings / blood lines introverted, strained pure / so the brain runs in the wrong direction // they are proud of their heritage of suicides” (RJ, 52; TK, 55). This heritage of self-destruction transcends mere madness—the poem revels in its contradictions—to emerge as a kind of artistry, as the lengthy anaphora suggests. At the end of the epic list of suicidal acts, the phrase “and were led away” is repeated three times to suggest that the death sought is as much of the creative mind as of the body. Indeed, “Heron Rex” anticipates Coming Through Slaughter at least as much as “White Dwarfs” does, especially in its climactic fourth stanza: “There are ways of going / physically mad, physically / mad when … you sacrifice yourself for the race … celebrity a razor in the body” (RJ, 53; TK, 55-6).

The sudden shift of the pronoun here expresses the implied author's own investment in the argument. Is this “you” simply “Heron Rex” or is it (also) the artist as such? For both, the act of public display is both dangerous and tempting. Celebrity is the danger here, as it is “for people who disappear” and who “hover and hover / and die in the ether peripheries” of silence in “White Dwarfs” (RJ, 70; TK, 68), as it most certainly is for Buddy Bolden. For such people, self-destructive acts seem to be the only, if terrifyingly extreme, way out, and “Heron Rex” initiates a sequence of poems projecting images of the self-destructive artist who seeks to escape into an inviolable silence. If the poem ended at this point, it would leave its readers in an open space of speculation, wondering if or how the birds had disappeared into their meanings. The final stanza returns to the material objects of “small birds so precise … 15 year old boys could … break them … as easily as a long fingernail” (RJ, 53; TK, 56). This terse brush-off grounds the metaphysical symbolism of the rest of the poem at the expense of a certain seriousness of purpose. As self-destructive artist, the heron assumes a kind of glamour that the final stanza tries to maintain and undercut at the same time. It also strives for a sense of closure that the previous stanza resists. While the poem would feel incomplete, now, if it ended after the fourth stanza, the fifth stanza's diminution of the symbol the poem has so crazily expanded is disturbing. Perhaps this is the poet's deliberate effort to distance himself from such artists, as he begins his deepest exploration of their psychology in Coming Through Slaughter.

“Taking,” a poem on the artist as audience, insists on “the formal need / to suck blossoms out of the flesh / in those we admire / planting them private in the brain” (RJ, 55; TK, 57). Taking paradoxically becomes a kind of giving, or rather they continually replace and replenish one another. “To learn to pour the exact arc / of steel still soft and crazy / before it hits the page” is an image of this process, and it is an act of the writer as reader. If having “stroked the mood and tone / of hundred year dead men and women” and “tasted their brain” smacks of taking, it is also a way to give their art its due. Although “Their idea of the immaculate moment is now” might imply that art can only “freeze this moment” (TK, 17), “the rumours pass on / are planted / till they become a spine” argues the other half of the paradox. A spine is both a solid object and something that grows and changes with its body, here perhaps the body of writing itself. Such poems on the nature of the work of art resist explication precisely because they are written on the margins of their own discourse, where nothing and everything makes sense simultaneously, and where the writer cannot hold to one side of the argument only and still keep writing.

With “Burning Hills,” the writer turns from imagining how art works in others to registering how he works in art. A seemingly complex narrative, it continually finds ways to deny normal narrative movement by creating a palimpsest or literary archaeological dig in which to uncover remembered layers of writing that contain further “layers of civilization in his memory” (RJ, 57; TK, 59). This extremely self-conscious piece of writing first sets its narrative voice apart from its “autobiographical” subject: “So he came to write again / in the burnt hill region.” Paying extraordinary attention to mundane detail, the poem plots out the “schizophrenic season change, June to September, / when he deviously thought out plots / across the character of his friends.” Already the adverb begins to subvert the apparent commitment to autobiographical “truth” that the realistic details imply. Although the poem expresses the fear that some “year maybe he would come and sit / for 4 months and not write a word down,” it is also the writing that fear engenders.

Readers, especially male readers, are invited to identify with the protagonist as he makes a time machine of his writing room and thinks “of pieces of history” (RJ, 57; TK, 59), especially his own teenage sexual history. The details have a marvelous nostalgic intensity, but what makes them work is the continual switching back and forth between them and the writer remembering. These shifts yield that sense of process that elsewhere the poems have desired and denied. The constant commentary of the mind remembering is what the poem's about, not the memories themselves, however evocative they are. Ambiguity remains the most powerful and seductive aspect of the process, as subject and object slide into one another. “The summers were layers of civilization in his memory / they were old photographs he didn't look at anymore / for girls in them were chubby not as perfect as in his mind.” The summers in his memory become the old photographs he no longer looks at, but the old photographs are not as perfect as his mind even though the memory exists only in that mind. In fact, it seems that both photographs and memory are propelling the poem's narration along, as “he” assumes uncertain mastery over them. The games of sex, representing the chaotic changes of growth, haunt the protagonist, yet evade any summary comment. Memory and photography join in the “one picture that fuses 5 summers” (RJ, 58; TK, 60). Here “summer and friendship will last forever,” although he is “eating an apple” and “oblivious to the significance of the moment.” But in photographs even more than in poems, significance is what we read into them. Photograph and poem contradict each other as “[n]ow he hungers to have that arm around the next shoulder. / The wretched apple is fresh and white.” Here the layering of memory mixes a present-tense “now,” which is already the past of the earlier stanzas, with the deeper past tense of the picture in which, nevertheless, the apple remains in the present tense. Such a “complex tension” can be expressed only as a process, the act of remembering discovered in the act of recording.

The final stanza again insists upon the process that writing both captures and is. Yet it also acknowledges that something of life must be lost even as the writing tries to hold on to it. Present participles in the first two sentences create a contradiction, contrasting the act of writing the poem we are reading with the action of the Shell Vapona Strip mentioned at the beginning of the poem: “Since he began burning hills / the Shell strip has taken effect.” Is the poem like the insecticide? The lowercase of the title phrase implies that he has perhaps been destroying rather than making, or at least in some way razing memories to make a poem. Yet the present participle suggests that doing so is an ongoing process, which never stops, never achieves a frozen stasis, perhaps because each new reading re-creates both poem and subjects. The final lines may not even be the true confession they appear to be: “He has written slowly and carefully / with great love and great coldness. / When he finishes he will go back / hunting for the lies that are obvious.” To the extent that all his poems were written this way, they may contain nonobvious lies. The greatest of these may be that confession. The “hunting” is itself a continuing process, which may or may not change the poem. Although the final line appears straightforward enough on first reading, it is as indeterminate as the whole poem: a troubling yet engaging performance that insists on having its ambivalent cake and eating it, too.

If writing must take place “in the murderer's shadow” (RJ, 61; TK, 61), then it will pay that price, as “King Kong meets Wallace Stevens” intimates. Looking at photographs of the two figures, the writer asks, in parentheses, “(Is it significant that I eat bananas as I write this?)”—a comic aside loaded with implications of identity. While Kong wreaks destruction “in New York streets again,” that “again” evoking the repetitive powers of art, “W. S. in his suit / is thinking chaos is thinking fences.” This ambiguous creation-in-destruction, in which the “lack of punctuation equates the two activities,” recalls the writer's activity in “Burning Hills” (Scobie 1985a, 56). Stevens is the exemplar here because he can write “the seeds of fresh pain … the bellow of locked blood” into his poems. While Kong is “at the call of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” “the naked brain / the thought in” Stevens exercises the control self-destructive artists repudiate.

“Spider Blues,” which is moved back one to directly follow “King Kong meets Wallace Stevens” in Trick with a Knife, uses macabre comedy to undermine, though not utterly deny, any trust of such artists of control earlier poems might have engendered. If the writer must write and therefore cannot join his “heroes” in silence, he certainly feels too ambivalent about his art to underwrite it unequivocally. “Spider Blues” allows the subjects of such art their voice. The spider, “his control classic,” is a “kind of writer I suppose” (RJ, 63; TK, 62), says this writer, the man with a wife whose “smell spiders go for.” Already black comedy and speculative poetics are merging into a tall tale of écriture. Spider/writer is an explorer who “thinks a path and travels … to new regions / where the raw of feelings exist” (RJ, 63-64; TK, 62). This sounds positive, but “[s]piders like poets are obsessed with power” (RJ, 64; TK, 62) does not. Such power can “kill” the subject, as the poem demonstrates in a scene of allusive black comedy where “spider comes to fly, says / Love me I can kill you,” but “fly says, O no … you spider poets are all the same / you in your close vanity of making” (RJ, 64; TK, 62-63). These contradictory voices provide a dialogical view of the writer's situation: the tautology that clarity only “comes when roads I make are being made” reveals the solipsism into which the artist may fall while working; “close” sounds enough like “closed” to suggest a making that process poetics would wish to transcend; the spider's desire to crucify “his victims in his spit / making them the art he cannot be” implies that the controlling artist hates the life he wants to turn into art (with the further implication that artists who turn to silence make their own lives into works of art, which yet must finish in their death?).

In this scene, the spider artists get no respect, but the poem isn't over, and in “[t]he ending we must arrive at … Nightmare for my wife and me” (RJ, 65; TK, 63), they put on a performance, the past-tense narration of which itself suggests its success, in which “they carried her up—her whole body / into the dreaming air so gently / she did not wake or scream.” The writer is lost in admiration of their art, but he is not alone, and the poem concludes on a note of certainty, which only underlines the uncertainty of the whole project: “Everybody clapped, all the flies. … all / except the working black architects / and the lady locked in their dream their theme.” The flies seem to be “everybody” here, a designation of the audience that should make any reader wary. They cry and gasp, which they might also do if they were dying. The final paradox is art's central one: the artists are in process, as the present participle implies, but the firm adjectival form of “locked” equally implies the freezing of the subject of that process. It seems there is no escaping the contradiction at the heart of art, yet the essentially comic mode of this poem suggests that the paradox is, finally, acceptable—at least to the writer writing.

Artistic control is simultaneously sought and denied in “The gate in his head,” which is dedicated to Victor Coleman, a poet of process, whose “shy mind / reveal[s] the faint scars / coloured strata of the brain, / not clarity but the sense of shift / / a few lines, the tracks of thought” (RJ, 62; TK, 64). The transformation from personal wounds to written trace occurs through a metaphoric “shift” that conflates reading and tracking. But, in a poem about the problem of netting chaos in language, the imagery undergoes continual metamorphosis. A tracker might move across a “[l]andscape of busted trees,” but in a poem of transformations, that landscape melts surrealistically into “Stan's fishbowl / with a book inside … the typeface clarity / going slow blonde in the sun full water” erasing its bibliographicity.8 Only after the first half of the poem has presented a series of rapid and confusing transformations does the writer argue its case for doing so, by enunciating what he always tries to do. The writing mind pours the inchoate materials of experience onto the page, but it must capture—net—them to do so. This contradiction manifests both the terror and the glory of art, but the glory is that the writing does come from love perceived as an act of exploration. Moreover, it can be communicated, as the “blurred photograph” of the “stunning white bird / an unclear stir” demonstrates. Writer-as-reader receives the other's “[c]aught vision” and understands the ideal he should seek in his own writing. The final stanza is necessarily paradoxical. Form is present in chaos even as chaos is present in form: what the writer seeks to catch is not the dead thing but the actual movement of the living, and he can do so only by allowing words their own indeterminate ambiguity. The poem desires clarity, but it also admits that too much clarity can stop the necessary movement that art seeks to illuminate. What the photograph is, and what the “writing should be,” then, is a clear vision of the “beautiful formed things” in the process of escaping closure, “shapeless, awkward / moving to the clear.”9

“White Dwarfs”10 is central to Ondaatje's oeuvre precisely because it evokes so many themes associated with his work. “Ondaatje's most radical gesture in the direction of indicating that there are times when ‘all the truth’ cannot be stated, described, or re-enacted … [this] variation on T. W. Adorno's ‘No poetry after Auschwitz’ … is a profound meditation on both life and art. It is a tribute to those who have gone beyond ‘social fuel’ and language” (Solecki 1985a, 106-7). A tribute, yes, but not an uncomplicated one; if it “is for people who disappear” and “who shave their moral so raw / they can tear themselves through the eye of a needle” (RJ, 70; TK, 68), it not only cannot share their silence but must speak in order to praise them. Given the reference to Jesus' parable about the rich man and heaven,11 “moral” has a positive connotation, but the violence required to achieve “heaven”—which is perhaps simply “the ether peripheries” where they “hover and hover / and die”—savagely undercuts any sentimentalization of their behavior.

The “heroes” of silence—a silence the poet insists he fears—“sail to that perfect edge / where there is no social fuel / Release of sandbags / to understand their altitude.” They join the stars of “We're at the graveyard” in “an altitude of silence” (TK, 47) completely cut off from humanity. Beyond the ordinary connections of life, they achieve a “perfect edge,” but “perfect” has the negative connotation of stasis, completion, and implies the end of living. Like the herons of “Heron Rex,” these heroes (note the shift of only one letter between the two) have chosen a kind of suicide, if only of their art. The poet admires them, but he does not, finally, seek to join them; he cannot, for he still believes in words. Their silence has an aura of romance about it, and it is based on real pain, but someone has to speak for them if they refuse to speak for themselves: “3rd man hung so high and lonely / we dont hear him say / say his pain, say his unbrotherhood.” But perhaps it isn't they who refuse but we who “dont hear.” The poem is riddled with ambiguity. Some choose not to speak, like “Dashiell Hammett [who] in success / suffered conversation and moved / to the perfect white between the words” (RJ, 71; TK, 69), and that is their privilege; others are forced into silence, and perhaps need someone else to acknowledge their suffering. It may be “Ondaatje's recognition of the adolescent fatuity of the code ‘White Dwarfs’ addresses, its spurious glamour, which makes him deflate it even as he continues to explore its romance” (Glickman, 79), but this is not the only contradiction at work in the poem. Of the mules with their tongues cut out, the poem asks, “after such cruelty what could they speak of anyway,” and the image implies other tortures, of humans as well as animals. But mules never could speak, and always needed someone to speak on their behalf. That “perfect white” is both static, as the adjective suggests, and “can grow” into various possibilities, even into “an egg—most beautiful / when unbroken, where / what we cannot see is growing / in all the colours we cannot see.” But such growth depends upon “us,” who use the power of imagination to “see” the colors hidden in the white.

The whole poem maintains a delicate equilibrium, balancing silence against speech, the romantic otherness of the heroes who sail beyond society into silence against the classic responsibility of the poet as witness. There is poetry after Auschwitz because the horror had to be confronted. This poem affirms writing by denying it: that is the paradox the poems of poetics have approached over and over again. We would never “know” about “those burned out stars / who implode into silence / after parading in the sky” unless the writer told us and in telling evoked our compassion by insisting that “after such choreography what would they wish to speak of anyway.” The poem honors the silenced ones by speaking. In that ambivalent balance,12 poetry continues to explore what “writing should be then” (RJ, 62; TK, 64), as it must.

The new poems in the third section of Trick with a Knife were written during and after the writing of Coming Through Slaughter. They present themselves as more strictly autobiographical, and the “I” who speaks them seems to have much more in common with the living writer, Michael Ondaatje, than before, while the references tend to be less mythical or literary and more seemingly “real.” If, previously, “[w]hat Ondaatje d[id wa]s invite the expectations of confession and the exhilarations of parable, but leave the identity of the speaker hovering between himself and another” (Chamberlin, 38), now the speaking voices of his poems still hover “between” possibilities, but they are the various possibilities of place, stance, and attitude found under the single “name” of the implied author. Poems of Canada, mostly of rural Ontario and its history, which he comes to as an immigrant, are balanced against travel poems of Egypt, India, and Sri Lanka.13 Because the Ceylon he returns to is a place he left too young to have truly inherited a sense of his place in its history, the poems set there are as arbitrary and float as free of/from historical referentiality as the Canadian ones. The final poems return to Toronto, children, parents, and friends, and include a re-vision of Billy the Kid from the point of view of another “actor” in the story.

The apparent refusal of history and historically grounded culture that some critics find disturbing in a postcolonial writer (see Mukherjee, 33-34)14 may equally be a choice that reflects, and reflects upon, twentieth-century rootlessness and nomadism. Moreover, the ways these poems refuse to engage with historical and social representation paradoxically call attention to it; like much postmodern writing, they accept the past as such but suggest that, “however true [the past's] independence may be, nevertheless the past exists for us—now—only as traces on and in the present. The absent past can only be inferred from circumstantial evidence” (Hutcheon 1989, 73). Even the poems that invoke history insist that it is only the invocation that can be inscribed, not the “actual” history; this is especially apparent in “Pig Glass” itself.

The epigraph to “Pig Glass,” from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, says that, lacking the language, “Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures or with objects.”15 It thus emphasizes the difficulties of communication, and the comedy of physical expression that arises from those difficulties. A later part of the passage, not quoted by Ondaatje, adds that, “obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused” (Calvino, 20-21). One way of discussing many of these poems is in terms of how they either present emblems or become them. Their power often lies in the emblematic force of their images, rather than in the argumentative force of their narratives.16 This is certainly true of “The Agatha Christie Books by the Window” (TK, 72) and the beautifully indeterminate “Moon Lines, after Jiménez” (TK, 74-75).

“Buying the Dog,” “Moving Fred's Outhouse / Geriatrics of Pine,” and “Buck Lake Store Auction” invoke the specific life of rural Ontario. The air of autobiography is palpable in them, and the narrative voice, studiedly realistic, “artlessly” anecdotal, seems to buttress that air of personal narrative, until the sudden illumination of poetic rhetoric just slightly undermines the apparent naturalness of the idiom. The first poem enters the world and speech of the farmer Buck McLeish only to push hard at a comic edge with the introduction of “the dog who has been / in a religious fit of silence / since birth” (TK, 76). Despite the attention to detail and a somewhat grandiose attempt to make the dog symbolize this world they (the “we” of the poem—speaker and family) wish to become part of—“Towns the history of his bones”—the end comically undercuts the pretensions the poem has created, as the dog “takes off Jesus / like a dolphin / over the fields for all we know / he won't be coming back.” The use of the first name in “Moving Fred's Outhouse” establishes a friendly intimacy, inviting us to assume it as well. The ordinariness of the events—here moving an old outhouse across a property to make it “a room thorough with flight, noise, / and pregnant with the morning's eggs /—a perch for chickens” (TK, 77)—argues the autobiographical “truth” of these poems as opposed to the “mythologizing” of The Dainty Monsters. But if not mythical, these events are charged with something more than banal ordinariness, which is signaled once again through a comic gesture: “Fred the pragmatist—dragging the ancient comic / out of retirement and into a television series / among the charging democracy of rhode island reds.” Unlike the previous poem, which ended in a question, this ends with an apparent summary statement—“All afternoon the silent space is turned”—that nevertheless turns interpretation aside. We are left with the images of dog or outhouse and chickens, not with an argument at all.

“Buck Lake Store Auction,” the most socially conscious of these poems, maintains the autobiographical perspective, but only to provide a personal response within the poem to the scene of loss it witnesses. Beginning in minimal description, it soon puts a price on the items it lists. In the fifth stanza, the speaker finally identifies himself with either a family or everyone there in the “we” who “have the power to bid / on everything that is exposed” (TK, 78). Admitting this power over others seems to clarify his vision and move him to a kind of angry sarcasm: “I expected [the old woman] to unscrew / her left arm and donate it / to the auctioneer's excitement.” This excitement is responsible for whatever is being done here, and engenders both political awareness and impotence: “In certain rituals we desire / only what we cannot have” (TK, 79). The false logical connection of “While for her, Mrs Germain, / this is the needle's eye / where maniacs of heaven select” only underlines that impotence. Where, in “White Dwarfs,” that Biblical allusion implied reckless romantic courage among those who choose to “tear themselves through the eye of a needle” (TK, 68), the obvious lack of choice here suggests some reevaluation of the earlier vision. The tone here replaces the awe of the earlier poem with compassion, the uselessness of which is made clear by the subjunctive mood of the final three lines: the speaker “wanted to say” something useful, if only in a bid, but could and did not. Confronting an economic situation that is also political, this highly problematic poem can only offer the “liberal” act of witness in response. Even as it limns the liberal predicament, it also continues the autobiographical work of situating the writer in the country he has chosen to make home and whose life he seeks to enter. Its success in both endeavors reveals how postmodern Ondaatje's writing has become, in that it can self-reflexively balance these oppositions within the one text.

“Farre Off” (TK, 80) appears to be a traditionally lyric poem, with a self-conscious sense of beauty and personal engagement that fits the conventions of lyric utterance, even if the utterance is directed to, or through, other poems rather than a particular beloved person. But its deliberate intertextuality suggests something of its subversive nature. The lyric “I” represents himself specifically as a poet and a reader of poetry, speaking of a new discovery and translating the experience of the reading into his own rural setting. This is an engaged reader who desires what the poems of Campion and Wyatt, “who loved with the best,” inscribe as desirable: “suddenly I want 16th century women / round me devious politic aware / of step ladders to the king.” While the sudden rush of emotion and expression of personal desire are essentially lyric, the arresting encapsulation of the imagery of the earlier poetry is highly self-reflexive. Such narrative self-consciousness deepens in the deliberately ambiguous reference of the second stanza, which also links this poem to the previous poems of local place: “Tonight I am alone with dogs and lightning / aroused by Wyatt's talk of women who step / naked into his bedchamber.” Ancient poetry is suddenly extraordinarily effective here, arousing not only the speaker but also the dogs and even the elements. But what is the nature of this highly contagious excitement? Rather than answering such a question, the poem presents a variety of illuminations and confounds any sense of literary or cultural inheritance by returning attention to the speaker. “I have on my thin blue parka / and walk behind the asses of the dogs / who slide under the gate / and sense cattle / deep in the fields.” These lines veer wildly from Wyatt's traditional lyric vision to an antilyric naturalism and reinforce the syntactical ambiguity erasing the difference between dogs and speaker. Finally, the speaker seems to move toward an epiphany only to reverse the literary expectation of “illumination” from a text, and perhaps confess that opacity is all that poetry can offer: “I look out into the dark pasture / past where even the moonlight stops / / my eyes are against the ink of Campion.” Literature, which is supposed to bring light, is inscribed in darkness, in ink, a material barrier to understanding, but one that readers understand in its physical presence: ink, poem, book connect, but do not explain. The mystery of the reader-writer relationship at the center of this poem is not new in Ondaatje's work, but seldom has it been presented in such a “natural” manner. The poem argues nothing; it simply demonstrates by a kind of handing on its complex sense of cultural inheritance.

The complexities both attract and repulse the poet, and “Walking to Bellrock” examines modes of escape from the responsibilities of inheritance that weigh the artist down. It presents a process, not simply a single act, over and done with. Like Depot Creek, the syntax twists and turns, pronouns slipping into each other, tenses shifting, different stories sliding over and under each other. “Two figures in deep water. / / Their frames truncated at the stomach / glide along the surface” (TK, 81): this is the motivating image of the poem. Two friends are taking this crazy walk, yet they are not all there; or they move along a mirror that reflects both too little and too much, and thus refutes analysis. History is present only to be ignored, yet the paradox of writing assures the affirmation and elucidation of meanings that the poem itself appears to claim are lost or tossed aside in egocentric, romantic adherence to the now of walking and talking that the poem celebrates. But even the now is lost in the welter of impressions the river, and the poem, throws up. The various images of “[l]andscapes underwater” that the “torn old Adidas tennis shoes” encounter are sharp yet indecisive, and the questions that follow cannot be answered. “Stan and I laughing joking going summer crazy / as we lived against each other” (TK, 82) announces the autobiographical nature of the poem and its exploration of the notion of male friendship. This companionate summer craziness might stand as an alternative to Buddy Bolden's isolated retreat into insanity, but the preposition, echoing “Farre Off,” suggests how opaque the communication in even the closest friendships is. Perhaps this sense of opaqueness explains why the speaker insists “there is no history or philosophy or metaphor with us,” although the rest of the poem denies this assertion with complex metaphors and historical allusions that depend upon a certain degree of documentation constantly erupting into the narrative.

The poem desires to become no more than a record of immediate perception, yet in the process of ordering experience comes up short against the questions the action raises, of which “Stan, my crazy summer friend, / why are we both going crazy?” (TK, 83) is only the most obvious. But “in the middle of this century / following the easy fucking stupid plot to town,” there are no answers beyond the crazy act of walking the river. The poem generates excitement in its representation of the “crazy” actions of the two friends, while undercutting their romantic heroism. “Walking to Bellrock” celebrates an act of friendship but denies it any cultural viability; its insistence on denying history consistently resists the conventional attractions of tradition while failing to erase tradition itself from the text. “Walking to Bellrock” denies history and tradition only to affirm their necessity; it revels in romantic escapism only to hold it up to question.

“Pig Glass,” perhaps the most stringently emblematic of the new poems, suggests their problematic relation to history and inheritance. “Bonjour. This is pig glass / a piece of cloudy sea” (TK, 84): while the colloquial opening addresses the reader as subject of what is said, the demonstrative pronoun points to an object that exists only in its name and in the shifting descriptions inscribed in the poem. As further transformations occur, indeterminate reference confuses “my hand,” “a language,” and the “pig glass” in a gesture intimating a complex intimacy, and seducing us into joining the speaker in his meditation: “the pig glass / I thought / was the buried eye of Portland Township.” The line breaks imply the speaker is thinking the glass into existence as “slow faded history / waiting to be grunted up.”

Only after he has allowed for such uncertainties does the speaker finally name the family who once “used this section” and describe some of the objects he has found in their “midden.” Naming them places him in relation to a history, but not one he has inherited by any family right. Having said as much, he returns to the “pig glass,” which the repeated demonstrative “this” self-reflexively makes identical with the text “Pig Glass” as both object and context. The next stanza shifts back to other objects in the land, and, more troublingly, to the letters and journals “I / disturbed in the room above the tractor shed” (TK, 85). The “I” of the poem has become his own “eye” of the township through documentary invasion of a family's privacy, and, as if recognizing the impropriety of the act, the poem leaps back to the seeming objectivity of the glass. But as glass and poem are one, there can be no objectivity, and the text implodes into the present tense of the action that broke the glass: “This green fragment has behind it / the booomm when glass / tears free of its smoothness.” Past and present are also one in the transition to subjective perception in the final stanza, where the speaker insists on his possession of an emblem of “[D]etermined histories of glass.” But we possess “indeterminate histories of the poem,” for it is impossible to say who or what determined those histories, only the vaguest allusions to which the poem has provided. It is “cloudy sea” (TK, 84) because it allows all the possibilities of both cloud and sea to float around it: it says there is history but it cannot tell what histories there are. “Pig Glass” is the perfect emblem of the indeterminacy of knowledge that so many of these poems delineate.

The next five poems are from travels, but they neatly evade the usual problems of travel poems, where the lyric and romantic “I” reports back with a privileged commentary on the places and si[gh]t[e]s seen. The speaker of these poems performs a kind of perceiving and even meditation sometimes, but does not presume to report or comment on what he sees; he simply registers its presence in as imagistic a language as possible or allows it to tease his mind into other thoughts. The results are poems in which various forms of discourse slide over and continually interrupt one another, providing no easy place of rest or closure. “The Hour of Cowdust” opens with a “we” rather than an “I” not so much displaced as unplaced: “It is the hour we move small / in the last possibilities of light” (TK, 86). Still unplaced, the “we” becomes a specific “I,” thinking first of his children elsewhere and then focusing on the present moment of dusk “here by the Nile,” which seems to specify place and time only to let metaphors of illusion undercut any sense of “reality” that might be building up. “Everything is reducing itself to shape” seems a generalization of sense impressions, but the impression is of loss of specificity: nothing can be named. Sliding to the second-person pronoun, the poem evokes the air and the changing color of the scene only to switch suddenly in memory to “Indian miniatures” and commentaries and stories of high romance he can allude to but “cannot quite remember.” The conclusion of such fallible meditation is an offhand and oxymoronic “So many / graciously humiliated / by the distance of rivers” (TK, 87). This returns the poem to the particular river at a particular hour, but only to introduce other questions and engender a series of syntactic ambiguities that reinforce the sense of illusion. Duplicitous, the scene becomes a dream, in which the final stanza's assertion that with no “depth of perception / it is now possible / for the outline of two boats / to collide silently” seems perfectly natural. But it is not natural, and the grammatical slippage from singular “outline” to implied plural verb self-reflexively reaffirms the textuality of the whole experience, in which the titular hour creates illusions of romance and of violence, only to prevent anything from actually happening. By inscribing its own imagining, the poem provides a sense of the mystery of the alien space that is Egypt, without resorting to commentary or egocentric “insight.” Egypt remains as opaque as the “pig glass,” and as beautiful.

A similar kind of defamiliarization occurs in “The Palace,” which renders an Indian dawn to match the Egyptian dusk. This time “I am alone / leaning / into flying air” and “red daylight” (TK, 88), but this “I” is only one site of discourse among many, looking at the place and its animal life, and eventually its waking population. The stanza on the ancient king stands alone; lacking any personal introduction, it might be dreamed, heard, read. A kind of document inserted into the poem, it splits the singular voice of lyric meditation apart. Where history and myth once joined in story, now a startling image of international technology makes a strange mythic moment when “a beautiful wail / of a woman's voice rises / 300 street transistors / simultaneously playing / the one radio station of Udaipur.” Contradictory political ironies suggest that multinational technology imposes alien knowledge on local or national culture, yet the use of such imperial gifts can be a form of resistance even as it is a sign of colonization. But the poem refuses to argue any case. It does not presume to speak for the people of Udaipur, only to register the moment of ostranenie they provided.

“Uswetakeiyawa” is a good introduction to Sri Lanka, for the very word is utterly alien, and as the first word of the poem it sets the tone of strangeness for “the dream journey / we travel most nights / returning from Colombo. / A landscape nightmare” (TK, 90). The poem traverses illusion and paradox, as even the senses prove untrustworthy, and “lesser” senses like smell have to make up for the failure of vision (possibly implied as a pun). The sense of transformation is central, and in the final stanzas, the poem itself turns “trickster,” rendering an over-whelming sensual confusion that confounds “you” as “you” encounter “something we have never been able to recognize” (TK, 91). “There was then the odour we did not recognize. / The smell of a dog losing its shape” is the oxymoronic conclusion of an argument against rationality: what it recognizes as an unrecognizable odor is the final sign of a frightening transformation of something known (and in most of Ondaatje's poetry, dogs are both known and loved) into the unknown. In this night journey through a nightmare landscape, what other known shapes are lost? Although he can be read as a returning prodigal of sorts, this poem establishes the writer as outsider, a tourist lost in an alien landscape who can sense its power but never know or understand it.

“The Wars” presents a series of images of natural life and death in this mysterious place that is Sri Lanka. The title suggests the violence implicit in the natural cycle the poem perceives, yet its tone is essentially light, as the image of “hundreds of unseen bats / tuning up the auditorium / in archaic Tamil” (TK, 92) reveals. That they sing a song of exile connects them to the speaker. The poem's quick shifts of attention reveal the outsider's inability to know what is and what is not “real” in this place of continual transformation; all he can do is render, in a series of typically sensuous images, the rich paradoxes of what he experiences: in “noon moonlight” (how the sun appears underwater?), “only [the Ray's] twin” (his shadow on the seabed?) “knows how to charm / the waters against him” (TK, 93). This seems a conclusive gesture, but all it manages to suggest is that nothing is quite certain in these landscape nightmares.

“Sweet like a Crow,” which is dedicated “for Hetti Corea, 8 years old” (TK, 94) is a jeu d'esprit, all light wit and comedy, emerging from its epigraph by Paul Bowles: “‘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.’” An increasingly bizarre set of similes shifts among images of odd auditory events, signs of pop culture, and specifically local references. Rhetorical overkill deliberately pushes the trope of simile beyond bounds to achieve a new comic decorum of delight and, finally, even beauty, as the final couplet returns to quotidian event by using the trope to undercut its tropicality: “like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep / and someone walked through my room in ankle bracelets” (TK, 95). To suggest that the exotic range of the similes attempts to match the exotic sensual impact of Sri Lanka itself is not, I hope, to give in to an ethnocentric blindness to the culture and people that Ondaatje, too, may be ignoring (see Mukherjee, 33), for it is precisely the chaotic combination of comparisons that marks the whole “description” as culturally contextualized by the complex juxtaposition of Sri Lankan heritage and international pop iconography. Mostly, however, the poem takes pleasure in its own fertile inventiveness.

The final poems return to Canada, but only to perceive from that perspective various aspects of the world as they impinge upon a singular individual anywhere. “Late Movies with Skyler” is precisely domestic, but insists that even in the midst of domesticity we are connected to the larger world of personal and public dreams by the media that dominate our imaginations. It can be read against “White Dwarfs” only to the extent that both visions coexist in the writerly imagination. Skyler, the 21-year-old stepson visiting “home,” has come back from an unromantic reality of “logging on Vancouver Island / with men who get rid of crabs with Raid” (TK, 96) to watch films of romantic escapism. But he is himself romantic and is represented as being essentially alone. When the writer joins him to watch, “The Prisoner of Zenda / a film I saw three times in my youth / and which no doubt influenced me morally,” the young man demonstrates a desire for the aesthetic purity of craft, practicing guitar during commercials. In its apparently casual articulateness, the way it slides from one small event to another, the writing seems to deny that it is a poem, yet the careful rhythms and the jumps from stanza to stanza all contribute to a specifically poetic effect. From simply describing the situation of the two men watching, the poem slips into a kind of double commentary that envelops the mood of the film within the mood of the watchers. But the “perfect world [now] over” (TK, 97) cannot coexist with the mess of “the slow black rooms of the house,” except in the imagination. If “Skyler is Rupert then the hero,” he is also the boy-man who will shortly leave for somewhere unspecific. All the writer can realize and offer is the ironic coda that “[i]n the movies of my childhood the heroes / after skilled swordplay and moral victories / leave with absolutely nothing / to do for the rest of their lives.” But the real world goes on, and although the final lines of the poem argue closure for the films, they in fact deny it for both the writer and his stepson. The writer cannot know what Skyler will do, nor even where he will go. That is an open question, as is the poem.

If “Late Movies with Skyler” undercuts the romantic vision of old adventure movies, “Sallie Chisum / Last Words on Billy the Kid. 4 a.m.” does a somewhat similar job on Ondaatje's own western adventure, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Sallie's apparently random thoughts are based on memory engaging desire and its concomitant sense of loss, yet the whole process of remembering begins with a chance image of the moon as Billy's head. The tone throughout is dramatically precise as it shifts with the attention of its subject from comment to memory to comment again. There is a double sense of audience as both the moon-Billy and another “you” are addressed. She remembers that he taught her to smoke, shifts back to a moment of intense body awareness of “Billy's mouth … trying / to remove a splinter out of my foot” (TK, 98), and then converses in her mind with the moon-ghost. The memories imply a strained intimacy that remains—as it was in the book—mysteriously opaque, even to one of the participants. But the degree of her intimacy with Billy is not as important as the power he still exerts over her despite her denials of it. The poem captures her contradictory feelings as she slides from memories of his presence as an object of desire to her present-day assertions that “Billy was a fool,” a comment many readers of Billy's life might agree with, but which The Collected Works does not support. Like “those reversible mirrors,” Billy resists both Sallie's attempts at analysis and her own continuing resistance to his charm. Thus her repetitions of key images and phrases only serve to undermine their authority even as they underline her continuing obsession with him. The poem simultaneously undercuts the romance that The Collected Works allowed but did not exploit and adds a further glamour to it. The final stanza captures all the pent-up frustration of 37 years of remembering in a gesture of complicity and denial, as she squashes her cigarette “against the window / where the moon is. / In his stupid eyes” (TK, 99). The poem does not offer information so much as an opportunity to hear emotions work in memory as it works in her. Her anger reveals other, deeper, unacknowledged feelings, yet is also properly her own and completely true. Like the text it is a pendant to, “Sallie Chisum / Last Words” cannot determine a single view of its subject(s).

The ten prose fragments of “Pure Memory / Chris Dewdney” suggest that memory itself is a form of fiction making.17 The epigraph quotes Dewdney himself, although it is not clear if it is something he wrote or something he said to the writer: “Listen, it was so savage and brutal and powerful that even though it happened out of the blue I knew there was nothing arbitrary about it” (TK, 100). While there is no reference for this forceful “it,” we read each fragment in terms of the unnamed catastrophe it represents even as the whole poem resists dealing with it. That is why writers tell stories, sometimes, to evade the catastrophe that cannot be written.

The poem begins in a comic mode, as the writer cannot pronounce the title of one of Dewdney's books on a radio show. This comic opening shot establishes the difficulties associated with Dewdney as writer, while part 2 represents him as full of laughter and energy. With part 3, the poem turns to concentrate upon a series of stories specifically designed to put off dealing with the core experience of Dewdney's life, as the writer perceives it. Yet, paradoxically, the stories all point to the ways in which Dewdney's behavior in every situation reveals a person whose whole life is based upon an intuitive understanding of catastrophe theory. Dewdney seems to live ostranenie, as the stories of his childhood, or of “[h]is most embarrassing moment” (TK, 101), demonstrate. Although the various fragments build up a sense of Dewdney's resourcefulness in situations both ordinary and farcical, their humorous tone seems somewhat fragile beneath the weight of the epigraph. In part 7, the writer, seeing Dewdney after some time, notices the signs of a dark change: “Something has left his face. It is not that he is thinner but the face has lost something distinct and it seems like flesh” (TK, 102). The stuttering repetitions make palpable the writer's inability to come to terms with the change he perceives, while that vague noun something signals what the poem will not, cannot, tell. Although he tries to turn away from these signs of pain, the writer cannot avoid returning to what he doesn't understand, his friend's face. The fragment ends with a reiteration of Dewdney's serious interest in all “important rare information like the history of rocks,” and the next fragment takes another comic turn to say “[h]is favourite movie is Earthquake” and describe Dewdney's apartment full of beautiful fossils and other exhibits. Part 9 then describes the writer's return to Toronto with a drawing of Dewdney by another friend. Parts 7, 8, and 9 are in fact a single story of the writer's meeting Dewdney, then visiting him in London, then returning to Toronto; they suddenly bring all the memories into a single time frame in which the catastrophe, still not spoken of, looms ever closer. In a delicate metaphor, the image of the drawing on the luggage rack above the writer suddenly metamorphoses into the person, as he says, “[w]hen the bus swerves I put my arm out into the dark aisle ready to catch him if it falls” (TK, 103). The “dark aisle” reinforces the disturbing undertone that the epigraph cast upon the whole poem, while the personal pronoun implies that “catching” his friend is exactly what he could not do; nor could anyone. Part 10 attempts to confront what the whole poem has evaded: “His wife's brain haemorrhage. I could not cope with that. He is 23 years old. He does. Africa Asia Australia upside down. Earthquake.” What cannot be said is what turns everything upside down. As the images of previous fragments gather into a kind of litany of catastrophe, the single statement “He does” seems to suggest his ability to cope as the writer cannot. Or does it only imply the writer's hope that he can? The emotional power of the poem depends on how it both demonstrates friendship and empathy and reveals their limits.

Dedicated to the poet's mother, “Light” serves as a kind of prolegomenon to Running in the Family, where “the expanding stories” (TK, 107) implied by the photographs that are the poem's subject finally get told. The “amazing light” (TK, 72) of day in the first poem of “Pig Glass” now becomes a vaster, more complex series of night lights, including the lightning as well as the electric light that projects slides. Thus, the first image of “[t]rees walking off across the fields in fury / naked in the spark of lightning” (TK, 105) suggests movement in stillness, just as the photographs do. The writer watches the midnight storm as the “past, friends and family, drift into the rain shower.” The sense of “drift” is the essence of this poem; it suggests the evanescence of both the light-projected images, and the stories conjured out of them, both of which “now stand / complex ambiguous grainy on my wall.”

The long second stanza points to some of the figures in the implied gossipy tales. It further establishes the tone of casual, intimate conversation that deliberately uses the indicative pronoun to include us in the small circle listening to the writer as he points out one relative after another. But a text can only point to itself; the “pictures” exist only in the words describing them, yet the verbal gesture implicates us in the implied story of the writer's telling stories. After pointing to aunts and uncles and the gossip attached to their names, he then turns to his mother and her brother, linking a picture of their childhood to the story of their deaths. Complex narrative shifts of time occur throughout these two stanzas, as when the writer recalls his mother recalling her brother's death and her earlier memories at that time. Over and over again, he speaks in precisely personal tones about his own feelings for the people in the photographs, insisting that photographs provide a way of touching the past.

When he says “[t]hese are the fragments I have of them, tonight / in this storm” (TK, 106), the indicative appears to refer to the photographs, but, in the midst of the storm, it can also refer to the stories, or to the memories the photos and stories recall and create. The layers of fictional invention memory makes are implied in that single word, “these.” Repeated, it emphasizes the ambiguous hold memory has on the past: “These are their fragments, all I remember, / wanting more knowledge of them” (TK, 107). Memory is not knowledge, yet it is all we have, and so “[w]herever we are / they parade in my brain and the expanding stories / connect to the grey grainy pictures on the wall … / coming through the light, the electricity, which the storm / destroyed an hour ago.” That “we” once again intimately includes us in the writer's perspective, but the passage creates images only to dissipate any sense of “reality” they might create. The pictures are no longer on the wall; even they are no more than memories, part of another expanding story now being written, and read. In fact, the passage, a single, long, winding, and complex sentence, slips and slides from images and stories to the hour-old accident, to the kids playing dominoes now, and finally to the writer meditating as he smokes, watches the lightning, and returns to the image that began the poem only to deny it: “and the trees across the fields leaving me, distinct / … when in truth like me they haven't moved. / Haven't moved an inch from me.” The play on “light” throughout the poem complicates and undercuts any symbolic meaning it might have. Yet the slides offer a peculiarly technological “illumination” in which the silent past does communicate with the present. The slippage of syntax in the final passage signals the fusion of and the fluctuation among photographs, stories, memory, imagination, and desire that the poem invokes. Neither trees nor storied memories (or remembered stories) really move away, yet this confirmation of the deception of appearances reminds us that the whole poem may not be what it appears to be.

“Light” is a rich collage of moments in time laid over one another in a complex metaphoric relationship. Like many of the other poems in “Pig Glass,” it is deceptively anecdotal, casual in tone, and seemingly artless in narration. Here, the poet says, let me just lay out these quite ordinary random memories or impressions before you; have I told you about the time. … But analysis of these poems not only reveals the complicated interlocking of analepsis and prolepsis in their structures but also the subtle music of their language. Written as Ondaatje gradually involved himself in the task of writing Running in the Family, they provide glimpses of that larger work as well as of the other contexts of his life while he pursued it. In their more relaxed, less symbolic, approach to the idea of the lyric, itself undergoing a kind of deconstruction in both his own mind and other poets' works at the time, they also point the way toward the personal poem sequences of Secular Love. Certainly, as a summing up of where his writing had led him thus far, they provide a fitting and open-ended conclusion to There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do.


  1. Michael Ondaatje, Rat Jelly (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1973), hereafter cited in text as RJ. Where the poems appear in Trick with a Knife, I will cite TK as well.

  2. Ondaatje let Stephen Scobie and me have the poem to publish in White Pelican 1, no. 2 (Spring 1971) when we interviewed him on 3 March 1971; so it was written at the very latest in February 1971. I suspect it had been written earlier, as he usually waits a while before publicly reading or publishing his work. He began serious work on Running in the Family when he traveled to Sri Lanka in the spring of 1978.

  3. Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France 1885 to World War I, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 221; hereafter cited in text.

  4. Susan Glickman argues that his father “is evoked continually in Ondaatje's work” (78), and that, like Bolden, he “becomes one of those ‘people who disappear’” (79), commemorated in “White Dwarfs.”

  5. From Howard O'Hagan, Tay John (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1960), 28, which Ondaatje would have been reading when he wrote many of these poems, as the publication of his article on the novel in the summer of 1974 indicates.

  6. See RJ, 49; Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, ed. Hershel Parker (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1971), 57-58. The ambiguous relation between “confidence” and “truth” in Melville's fiction plays across all the poems in “White Dwarfs.”

  7. T. S. Eliot, “Sweeney Agonistes,” in Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 131.

  8. I could also describe this passage as “magical realist,” in that there was such a fishbowl full of book in the editorial office of Coach House Press, which was founded by Stan Bevington. The effect in the poem is definitely one of defamiliarization.

  9. Solecki makes some similar points in his reading of the poem, insisting that it represents “an ideal which [Ondaatje] feels he has not yet achieved. I would suggest that it is a mark of Ondaatje's integrity as a poet that his most successful poems raise this kind of question” (Solecki 1985a, 105). Solecki's reading of the whole poem can be found on pp. 104-6.

  10. “The white dwarfs comprise a group of stars [that] are of interest for several reasons, not the least of which is that they represent the last stage of stellar evolution, the last feeble glow of a dying star” (L. W. Aller, “Star,” Encyclopædia Britannica [Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1970], 21:131).

  11. See the Bible, Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25; and Luke 18:25.

  12. “The human function, which is here the artistic function, is as always to give form, to exercise control, to maintain equilibrium, to ‘shape / and lock the transient’” (Scobie 1985a, 59-60).

  13. In January 1978, Ondaatje took a sabbatical leave to travel across the Indian subcontinent to Sri Lanka, where he spent five months with his sister and other relatives. It was the first time he had returned to his birthplace, and while there he began keeping a journal, recording family stories and responding anew to the exotic qualities of what was to him an essentially new place. Many of the prose and verse entries found their way into a special issue of the Capilano Review 16/17 (1979): 5-43, the selection clearly intimating that a larger work was under way. He returned in 1980 to do further research on his own and his family's past in order to complete Running in the Family, but from this first trip he produced a number of travel poems that found their way into Trick with a Knife (see Mandel, 279).

  14. But see Chamberlin for a different argument aligning Ondaatje with “other contemporary poets writing out of situations that define essentially colonial predicaments, where language or audience or the identity or role of the poet are indeterminate. Canada offers Ondaatje a geography, but no inheritance; Sri Lanka offers him a family history, but no tradition, no way of passing things on; the English language offers him both an inheritance and a history, but no time and place” (Chamberlin, 41).

  15. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (London: Pan Books, 1979), 20; hereafter cited in text.

  16. “Indeed, in all of these poems we get the sort of arrangement of objects indicated in the epigraph from Calvino” (Marshall, 88).

  17. Readers who know Dewdney's writing and his interest in geology might decide that “pure memory” can only be found in rock or “a piece of wood 120 million years old from the tar sands” (TK, 101). Written, therefore fictionalized, memory is never pure.

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Michael Ondaatje World Literature Analysis


Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael (Vol. 14)