Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid

“There are the killed.//(By me)” begins Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Then a list:

Morton, Baker, early friends of mine.
Joe Bernstein. 3 Indians.
A blacksmith when I was twelve, with a knife.

13 more dead men listed by name or situation, plus “A rabid cat/birds during practice.” The 2nd half of the poem:

These are the killed.

(By them) —
Charlie, Tom O’Folliard
Angela D’s split arm,
,                                       and Pat Garrett

sliced off my head.
Blood a necklace on me all my life.

I love this collection, published in 1974 (Ondaatje’s third book of poems, before he began publishing prose), and that amplifies my frustration at the limitations of his later poems, which just don’t seem to have as much there there.

But in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid — a composite work in the voice of and about the legendary western outlaw, including (untitled) poetry, short prose sections, a few eyewitness accounts, and photos — Billy’s voice is (among other things including captivating, violent, lyrical, startling, loving, simple, rough, and insightful) authentic.

I have no idea to what extent any of it is factual with regards to the real William Bonney or his cohorts or “The West” in general. What I mean is, it doesn’t sound like it was written by a poet. This is poetry, and it’s beautiful (a raw sort of beautiful) but reading it, I find myself sort of forgetting that this wasn’t written by Billy the Kid. Not really of course, but also, kind of. (Most of the individual poems/sections solo, but especially in sum.)

Billy’s world, in this small book, is raw and wide open, the landscape, the beauty, and the wounds:

The street of the slow moving animals
while the sun drops in perfect verticals
no wider than boots
The dogs sleep their dreams off
they are everywhere
so that horses on the crowded weekend
will step back and snap a leg

The language is simple, few and basic words, mostly:

catching flies with my left hand
bringing the fist to my ear
hearing the scream grey buzz
as their legs cramp their
heads with no air
so eyes split and release

open fingers
the air and sun hit them like pollen
catching flies
angry weather in my head, too

Billy tells it straight, but he’s also a thinker. He takes the time to notice. In this prose section Billy describes his week hiding out by himself in a barn, burning out a fever:

When I had arrived I opened two windows and a door and the sun poured blocks and angles in, lighting up the floor’s skin of feathers and dust and old grain. The windows looked out onto fields and plants grew at the door, me killing them gradually with my urine. Wind came in wet and brought in birds who flew to the other end of the room to get their aim to fly out again. An old tap hung from the roof, the same colour as the walls, so once I knocked myself out on it.

For that week then I made a bed of the table there and lay out my fever, whatever it was. I began to block my mind of all thought. Just sensed the room and learnt what my body could do, what it could survive, what colours it liked best, what songs I sang best.

Billy’s open to unusual experiences. He’s already dead (“and Pat Garrett/sliced off my head”), and knows exactly how it all ended (“oranges reeling across the room AND I KNOW I KNOW/it is my brain coming out like red grass/this breaking where red things wade.”) which I suppose accounts for his equilibrium about it all.

The 2.5 page prose section describing Billy’s sunstroke, after Garrett has captured him, is mesmerizing. “On the fifth day the sun turned into a pair of hands and began to pull the hairs in my head. Twist pluck twist pluck,” a lovely image but still somewhat straightforward that moves as the sunstroke intensifies to “He [the sun] took a thin cold hand and sank it into my head down past the roof of my mouth and washed his fingers in my tongue.” Cool.

But then the sun’s hands reach down through his body in one very long sentence, “through soft warm stomach like a luscious blood wet oasis” through “pyramids of bone that were there when I was born” through “lobules gyres notches arcs tracts fissures roots’ white insulation” and then the hand of the sun

got my cock in the cool fingers pulled it back up and carried it pulling pulling flabby as smoke up the path his arm had rested in and widened. He brought it up fast half tearing the roots off up the coloured bridges of fibres again, charting the slimy arm back through the pyramids up locked in his fingers now bleeding throat up squeezed it through the skull bones, so there I was, my cock standing out of my head.

Whoa. And there’s another 3/4 of a page before that scene is done.

There are a few misses in the book — I think “Am the dartboard/for your midnight blood” is a little precious, and I don’t buy lines like “a pencil/harnessing my face/goes stumbling into dots.” That sounds like it was written by Ondaatje, not spoken by a (this) legendary outlaw. But aside from a couple ignorable little bits, this whole book is excellent.

Ondaatje’s 1998 collection Handwriting, on the other hand, starts off strong with the poem “A Gentleman Compares His Virtue to a Piece of Jade” — a lovely series of statements like “The enemy was always identified in art by a lion” and “There were new professions. Cormorant Girls/who screamed on prawn farms to scare birds” and “The archaeology of cattle bells” — ending with such a wonderful image on which to end a poem!

That tightrope-walker from Kurunegala
the generator shut down by insurgents

stood there
swaying in the darkness above us.

But the rest of the collection, eeh. I’ve read it a few times, hoping I’ll see something new, but each time I wind up feeling I’ve been suckered by a pretty face that has nothing much to say really. (You can read a few poems from Handwriting online here and here.)

The Cinnamon Peeler, his 1997 Selected Poems, has a few lovelies but they too wind up leaving my head right after I’ve read them. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, though, is the kind of vivid and complete that sticks with you. Take this poem, which relates “After shooting Gregory/this is what happened.” I suspect you will not forget that one easily. Nor too the poems about the women in Billy’s life.

Is it that character voice is Ondaatje’s real strength? Is it that I have a soft spot for westerns (as does Ondaatje)? Is it that the concentrated subject matter strengthens by proximity what would otherwise be just-pretty poems just like those in Handwriting and Cinnamon Peeler? Is this just one of those works of art that works, for all those reasons and its own other ones too?

I’d like to end this post by acknowledging that this is a pretty longish way of saying what I’m really saying here, which is: read Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. It’s AWESOME…

Tagged , ,

2 thoughts on “Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid

  1. […] the torso, and all the internal organs, we turn to Michael Ondaatje’s “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid,” with the “soft warm stomach like a luscious blood wet oasis, weaving in and out of […]

  2. […] I already raved about The Collected Works of Billy the Kid last year; you can find that post here. […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: