Ondaatze's Use of Color Imagery

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1133

Michael Ondaatje’s “To a Sad Daughter” is a poem about the way that surfaces mask much deeper emotions. The recurring theme of the hockey goalie, those caged athletes who don the personas of highly decorated masks not only to protect themselves but to make a statement about their own identities to the shooters from the opposing teams, act almost as mouthpieces—personas in the sense of classical drama—through which a father can speak lovingly to a teenaged daughter. In the process of attempting to bridge two very disparate worlds, Ondaatje manages to show how close, yet how far apart they really are. The distance that exists between the father and his daughter is the paradoxical distance of closeness that emerges in the most intense relationships. These are not merely two ships that pass in the night, to quote the rock star Ian Hunter, but two lives that live in parallel, almost similar universes.

The similarity between the two universes, the one of the father and the one of the daughter, can be fixed in Ondaatje’s use of color imagery. Purple and yellow, the traditional colors of rebirth, Easter and the self-sacrifice associated with springtime mythopoeia, are used as markers by the poet to pinpoint the proximity of two separate beings within the same environment. The father notes, “I like all your faults / Even your purple moods / when you retreat from everyone,” an idea that links the color purple to the hormone driven mood swings of the teenaged daughter. The similarities between the two, an association of the familial cliche ’like father, like daughter,’ is echoed in the father’s own statement, “And sometimes I’ve gone / into my purple world / and lost you.” What seems to come between them is not merely the generation gap, but their own inner universes and complex range of passions that dwell there. What Ondaatje seems to be suggesting is that true intimacy is based on an acknowledgment of distances where the individuals co-exist not only in their shared world but in parallel universes of private lives that neither can fully comprehend or hope to penetrate. In the end, the most private experience of all, that of one’s own death, is something that presents the ultimate distance between them—a vacuum that is filled by the in-rush of fear: “If I speak of death / which you fear now, greatly, / it is without answers, / except that each / one we know is / in our blood.” The distance between the two individuals, perhaps, is not as great as one would think in that they share the same fates, the same destinies as well as the same DNA patterns. In this light, the color purple takes on the appearance of a mourning cloak, a sense of inescapable finality where the father cannot hope to protect the daughter from the destiny that her physiology has imposed on her from the moment of her conception. Such a recognition makes the father’s pleas that “I’ll sell my arms for you” even more touching, though just as fruitless.

The color yellow, however, offers a balancing perspective to the issues of mortality and isolation that are suggested by the color purple. The blooming yellow forsythia outside the daughter’s window as the father writes the poem at her desk is a signal of rebirth, of the continuance of life and of the way in which the cycles of existence repeat and replicate themselves. The final stanza of the poem asks the daughter to “Remember the afternoon’s / yellow suburban annunciation,” the color that he comes to associate not with their private, inner lives but with the moment at which he passes fatherly advice to his daughter. “This is the first lecture I’ve given you,” he notes and the moment of their contact is illuminated and commemorated by the brightness of all the associations that the color yellow carries with it. It suggests an illuminating gesture where one individual reaches out to another to bridge a noticeable gap, and he underscores this dash of brightness with a statement that leaves some hope that the gap itself can be bridged: “I’d rather be your closest friend / than your father.” What Ondaatje seems to be suggesting is that familial relations impose boundaries and strictures on individuals that, for the sake of issues such as authority and even parental love, are hard to breach or bridge with moments of understanding.

The difficulty of the bridging process, aside from the color symbolism that Ondaatje has constructed, is that it leads to the need to warn or at least advise. The father wishes to share his knowledge of the world with his daughter, but without appearing preachy or pompous. He is sensitive to her need to discover her own individuality on her own terms—even through the interest in hockey which he has difficulty understanding—but his urgency to give advice, at moments, overcomes his need to exercise reserve out of a sense of respect for her own individuality. “Just / don’t be fooled by anyone but yourself,” he proffers as he realizes “You step delicately / into the wild world / and your real prize will be / the frantic search.” Life itself, he says, is the prize. The experiences that she will have will far outstrip any advice he can give, and he realizes that his own wisdom is a very limited matter: “I’m not good at advice / you know that, but ride / the ceremonies / until they grow dark.” Living, he seems to understand, is a whole series of “yellow miracles” where the discovery of life, either in bushes outside a window or in moments of shared experience, far outweigh the inner, purple gloom of private moments of despair.

For Ondaatje, the process of communication is a means of understanding what goes on behind the masks, whether those masks are the gauzes on the face of a dying Hungarian spy in his novel The English Patient, the mask of bravado worn by William Bonney in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid or the protect gear donned by the daughter’s heroes in “To a Sad Daughter.” By laying bare the truths that one must speak, even if those truths are hard to comprehend or can only be reached through a labyrinth of metaphors, the process of communication is the avenue by which even the fiercest specters in the world become “gentle.” The poem ends with the lines “Your goalie / in his frightening mask / dreams perhaps / of gentleness.” For Ondaatje, the root of all human experience lies in that sense of gentleness that is there for all if only one takes the time and effort to find the articulate means of reaching it.

Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.

Ondaatze's Style

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2415

One of Canada’s most popular and one of its best writers, Michael Ondaatje, came to Canada by way of Ceylon and England before immigrating to Canada in 1962. Perhaps his early experiences in such diverse cultures account for the predominating trends in his work of a wide and general range of themes. As a successful writer of both poetry and prose, Ondaatje was the first Canadian writer to win the prestigious Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient (1992), which was subsequently made into a film of the same name and nominated for an Oscar.

The primary strength in his writing is the adaptation of technique to theme; in each new work he employs a technique that accurately corresponds to its theme. In his extended poem The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, for instance, he employs both poetry and prose to suggest the two sides of the legendary Billy the Kid. In Coming Through Slaughter he uses a variety of techniques and blends poetry with prose to create a form that suggests the improvisational nature of the music associated with his protagonist the legendary jazz musician Buddy Bolden. In each of his different works structure and characterization suit his subject.

Critics of Ondaatje’s work point to his love of film as having a strong influence on his writing, particularly the techniques used in film to create its sense of immediacy. Ondaatje uses documents, photographs, first person accounts, interviews, historical records, and blurs the boundaries between poetry and prose and fact and fiction in his work in an attempt to record the immediacy of experience, or the processes of recollecting experience. In this respect he forces the reader to reperceive reality, to assume an unusual angle of vision from which reality appears to be absurd, inchoate, dynamic, ambiguous, even surreal. Even the ordinary and the domestic take on overtones of the exotic and the extravagant as he retrieves and reshapes information from history, personal account, myth, and legend to suit his needs.

Pointing out these general features of Ondaatje’s work shows just how atypical is his poem “To a Sad Daughter.” Gone is the exotic image, the lyrical language, and the experimental structure. Instead we have one of a handful of his poems written in a casual, plain style. This style, however, is intentional, working once again to correspond to and amplify his subject. “To a Sad Daughter” is written in the form of a letter to his daughter. The very simplicity of its language and its form is appropriate to the poem’s intentions. In this poem/ letter Ondaatje creates the same familiar sense of immediacy found in his other work as he struggles to put into words what he wishes to say to a daughter who is growing away from him. The emotional power of the poem rests in the emotional context of the poem as the poet attempts to bridge a gulf between them by offering some fatherly advice and asking for her friendship. As he composes his poem/letter to her the poet conveys both the subtleties of their relationship and his feelings.

The poem moves progressively through eight verses and contains what can be thought of as three parts composed of appeal, apology, and advice. The poem’s title informs us that this poem/letter was written during one of his daughter’s withdrawals, what he calls her “purple moods.” He begins his letter by using gentle humor. His tone is slightly ironic as he pictures her sleeping in her “track suit” under the gaze of “hockey players.” He acknowledges “Belligerent goalies are your ideal / threats of being traded / cuts and wounds.” He seems baffled by her “ideal” found in the masculine world of violence, threats, aggression, and injury. He is amused at his daughter’s response of “O my god” as she reads “the sports page over the Alpen.”

In the second stanza the irony is confirmed when the poet admits to her, “When I thought of daughters / I wasn’t expecting this.” The discrep- ancy between what he imagined and what she is like suggests he was comparing her to another ideal, that of the stereotype of a girl more concerned with fashion than sports. Having acknowledged his mistake he quickly assures, “but I like this more. / I like all your faults/ even your purple moods / when you retreat from everyone / to sit in bed under a quilt.” The lines suggest that the poet has said something, which may have unwittingly hurt his daughter’s feelings, perhaps even the reason for her withdrawal. Possibly he made a remark about her tomboyish nature. Whatever has transpired there is a rift between them, which has motivated him to write this letter/poem to her. It is clear the poet is stepping cautiously, appeasing and reassuring her. He back steps and qualifies his use of his word “like,” by telling her matter of factly, “And when I say ‘like’ / I mean of course ‘love’ / but that embarrasses you.” Though she may be old enough to be embarrassed by the word love, the poet points out to her that she is not too old to be moved by certain sentimental films like Creature from the Black Lagoon. There is an edge of annoyance in the poet’s voice when he recalls her outright dismissal of black and white movies (“You who feel superior to black and white movies,” even Casablanca, though he had coaxed her to see it.

In the third stanza the poet shifts his tact and appeals to her from a different point of view arriving indirectly to the point he wants to make: “One day I’ll come swimming / beside your ship or someone will / and if you hear the siren / listen to it.” The shift to poetic language and the clumsy metaphor (in the hands of a poet who skillfully works with metaphor) ironically points to an unwillingness on his part to get to the point. His intention is to explain his reason for pushing her to watch a film in which she has no interest: “If you hear the siren / listen to it.” The “siren” is an allusion to the mythical creatures, who sang such beautiful songs sailors lost their lives by being shipwrecked when they tried to find their source. The poet is suggesting she open herself to new experiences, rather than turn away from them. Even though there may be danger in hearing the sirens, if she “closes” her ears “only nothing happens” and she “will never change.”

In the next line the poet’s tone shifts again as he returns to prosaic language, using images from her world of reference to make his point clear: “I don’t care if you risk / your life to angry goalies,” or “creatures with webbed feet. / You can enter their caves and castles / their glass laboratories.” The poet’s ambiguous words in the last line of the stanza: “Just don’t be fooled by anyone but yourself,” imply it is better to make your own mistakes by trying new experiences.

In the fourth stanza the poet shifts his direction again. He offers an apology realizing what he has said may sound too didactic and alienate her further: “This is the first lecture I’ve given you.” He admits he is not always good at giving advice and appeals to her understanding: “I’m not good at advice / You know that.” Remembering that his daughter had reminded him of her age, “’sweet sixteen’,” he now steps outside of the role of father he tells her it would be easier to talk to her if she were a friend and not a daughter: “I’d rather be your closest friend / than your father.” He justifies his ineptness in the role of father by saying he is better at “rid[ing] the ceremonies / until they grow dark.” The switch to metaphor suggests again his own awareness of the difficulty of his position. He is aware it is easier to observe the formalities of his role as a father, even though they may be inappropriate at this stage of her life.

In the fifth short stanza the situation between father and daughter clarifies. The poet puts ceremony aside and frankly tells his daughter what is bothering him. “You are so busy / discovering your friends / I ache with loss.” The poet understands it is entirely normal for a sixteen year old to want to spend her time with her friends, but he also realizes she is growing away from him. He knows it is “greed” on his part to continue to want her to be the child. In an attempt to breech their differences he acknowledges that he, too, is guilty for the space between them, that he sometimes draws away from her by going into his own “purple world” and “lost” her. The poet’s “purple world” is equivalent to his daughter’s “purple moods” in the first stanza, a trait they both share, though in his case it also suggests periods of time he has withdrawn into his writing. The use of the word “purple” intentionally shows his awareness of the emotional alienating effects of withdrawal.

In the sixth stanza the poet recalls a particular poignant moment, a day he had stepped into her room while she was “busy with mathematics.” For the poet the moment resonated with meaning and he expresses it, as a poet would, through metaphor. He recalls her sitting at her desk, the desk he “now writes this,” with “the forsythia outside the window” and the sun spilling over her “like a thick yellow miracle.” The forsythia is a harbinger of spring and suggestive of new life; the miracle is the fact of his daughter’s life. The poet saw the bright yellow of the sun and forsythia pulling her like “another planet” and “coaxing” her “out of the house,” though she was oblivious “busy with mathematics.” For the poet the moment represented his awareness of that fact that his daughter is growing away from him into her own life, “all those possible worlds!” He sees all the possibilities before her. Recalling the moment leads the poet to sentimental hyperbole as he writes: “I cannot look at forsythia now / without loss or joy of you.”

At this point the poet steps back again into the role of father offering her further advice, this time from his own experience. He resorts again to figurative language to make his point by telling her that she will “step delicately into the wild world” where her “real prize will be / the frantic search.” For the poet the “frantic search” is what drives a person on to find something, yet he knows now that the search itself is more important than the “prize” itself. There is a certain irony in the comment from a father who has won his fair share of prizes for his writing. Having won prizes, however, he knows the real value is not in the prize but in the process of creating. He tells her to “want everything” in the journey. The poet reiterates what he has told her in stanza three, which is quite simply to open herself to all experiences. Only in this way will she grow and change.

The poet is aware of the danger in his advice. By telling her to “want everything,” he knows there are times she will be disappointed and times she will fail. The syntax in the line “Want everything. If you break / break going out not in” connects wanting everything to the risk of pain and possible breakdown; yet he would rather that she take the risk and live her life to its fullest. The suggestion recalls his previous allusion to the siren and his advice, “if you hear the siren / listen to it.” Rather than withdrawing and avoiding risk for fear of failure, he advises her to take risks suggesting it is better to fail than withdraw and suffer a different form of failure and pain in the form of loneliness and isolation. Having offered his advice the poet once again steps back and qualifies his comments. “How you live your life I don’t care.” No matter how she chooses to live her life he will always love her and be her friend: “I’ll sell my arms for you / hold your secrets forever.”

In the final stanza the poet’s mood becomes solemn as he addresses his final point. He returns to the role of father this time to put her fears at ease on a subject that has been troubling her. He begins almost apologetically, as if he were reluctant to bring the subject up: “If I speak of death / which you fear now, greatly / it is without answers.” His advice is honest; there are no answers to something that is a fact of each person’s life. He offers no philosophical or spiritual consolations. Instead he tells her “each / one we know is / in our blood.” He suggests that she take consolation in the fact that only the physical state ends in death, not the connection to another, which lives one. He tells her not to “recall graves” but to remember life instead. He reminds her of the power of memory, which is “permanent,” and points to his own memory of her, “the afternoon’s / yellow suburban annunciation.” The memory is of the afternoon he saw her surrounded by forsythia with the sun shining on her. The moment is etched forever in his mind and has taken on a symbolic significance as the moment he knew he was losing her. In the final lines he reminds her of the importance of keeping her gaze on the living, “your goalie / in his frightening mask” and to look to the future and whatever surprises it may bring, her goalie, for instance, who “dreams perhaps of gentleness.”

Ondaatje’s poem to his sad daughter is in fact a love letter that is at different time wistful, challenging, didactic, and gentle. It addresses a changing relationship between a father and the daughter as the father comes to terms with her move towards adulthood and independence. It is a moving tribute that shows his own weaknesses and insecurity as he maneuvers between his role of father and what he hopes will be a growing friendship. It is a testament to the power of love.

Source: Alice Van Wart, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.

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