Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
“To a Sad Daughter” attempts to define the realm of emotions that persists on a daily basis within a man raising a daughter. The poet describes his role as both father and friend, protector and motivator, and as the one who would like to hold on to his little girl forever but who must open the door “into the wild world” and essentially push her through it.
Reality and Ambiguity
Michael Ondaatje is widely accepted as a writer of reality, but how he defines reality is a recurring theme within his work. Most often, the world he describes is chaotic, and the typical human response to it is panic. But at the center of the chaos, and, therefore, the center of the panic, lies a good reason for both: ambiguity. Very little is clear-cut in this poet’s world. Even his daughter turned out to be not what he was “expecting,” but rather something he likes even more. Her own life is full of turmoil and uncertainty, easily attributed to the fact that she’s a teenager, but, even so, she is not the “usual” adolescent girl. We can simply list the images that portray her qualities, her emotions, her likes and dislikes to note a type of selfinflicted chaos: belligerent goalies, threats, cuts and wounds, purple moods, horror movie creatures, and the caves and castles in which they live. On the other hand, we also see her in a “retreat” mode, sitting quietly “in bed under a quilt,” and we catch her in an innocent moment when she is engrossed in schoolwork within a sun-filled room, a positive and peaceful scene. Ondaatje’s poetry reflects a cryptic reality, both puzzling and exhilarating, and it sometimes results in a variety of descriptions of one entity in a single poem. In “To a Sad Daughter,” he uses three different adjectives to describe the world: “purple” (line 49), “possible” (line 59), and “wild” (line 64). Note how each of these descriptors carries a different connotation, with “purple” implying a gloomy or melancholy world, “possible” offering hope, opportunity, and excitement, and “wild” indicating an untamed or dangerous world. While seeming to be contradictory, each description is true, or real, in its own right; therefore, the only one word that can accurately define the world, or reality, in general, is “ambiguous.”
One of the most daring aspects of Ondaatje’s “To a Sad Daughter” is his encouraging the girl to take risks in her life—to listen to the “siren,” “want everything,” and to “break going out not in.” The father tells his daughter to live frantically in order to live fully, for taking chances is much better than leading a reserved, protected life in which “nothing happens.” Perhaps this advice is only a reflection of how the father lives his own life or how he wishes he lived it, and he wants the same, or more, for his child. Imagery is a key in depicting the fervor of the father’s intentions, and in several of Ondaatje’s poems, water imagery is that key. Water is both frightening and calming, and in this piece we have the two working together. “One day I’ll come swimming/ beside your ship …” depicts a peaceful scene, or at least one in which there is no hint of pending trouble. In the next line, however, the poet alludes to shipwrecks and death, the result of deception, and, despite the new imagery, he presents the deadly waters as inviting and worth tempting. Here again there is a note of panic in the desire to experience real life, a desire that overrides what many may view as common sense. The father in this poem would have us believe that common sense leads only to boredom and a wasted life.
Even those who read “To a Sad Daughter” and feel uneasy, or even angry, with the advice the father gives the girl cannot deny the evidence proclaiming the poet’s intense love for her. He loves even her faults, though he uses the word “like” to keep from embarrassing her; he would rather be her friend than her father during this stage of life because her friends are closer to her; he feels both loss and joy when he thinks of “all those possible worlds” awaiting her; and he would “sell” his arms for her, make any sacrifice to show his love. Ironically, it is this unselfish love that underpins the father’s desperate attempt to thrust his daughter headlong into the real world. He wants her to have the most complete life possible, even if it means risking it “to angry goalies / creatures with webbed feet.” And although he experiences the natural pangs of all parents whose children grow up and venture out on their own, he does not even consider standing in her way or offering advice that may thwart her curiosity and daring spirit. He asks only that she does not limit herself and declares his support no matter what.