The Evolution of Form in Machael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter

by Alice Van Wart

I believe that a work of art attempts to capture the universe... to be a microcosm or model. What the work of art conveys then is its own structure , its own design, which is an attempt to capture the design or larger rhythm of the universe as it "unfolds" in human consciousness. This is the meaning of artistic form now and in the past."

Tom Marshall, Harsh and Lovely Land

To create narrative in his novel Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje utilizes and refines the techniques of his extended poem, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, techniques that originate in his first extended poem sequence, the man with seven toes. The transition from the man with seven toes to The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and from this to Coming Through Slaughter is to an increasingly dramatic mode and to a poetic form. the man with seven toes reflex an interest in narrative and the beginning of specific techniques that are developed in The Collected Works and refined in Coming Through Slaughter. In The Collected Works, a narrative and a poetic mode work in relation to each other; they are not antithetical but rather work together to expose and sustain the tension between the private and the public character of Billy the Kid. The two modes are integrated through the repetition of image suggesting the dual nature of life and death and the repetitions of objects in a visual field. In Coming Through Slaughter, on the other hand, Ondaatje fragments the narrative line by the enjambment of time, space, and voice. Furthermore, he artistically and aesthetically increases the narrative effect and enhances the novel's meaning by "figuration," the arrangement of words and images into a shape that complements and echoes the verbal content. The meaning, therefore, occurs in the tension among the individual compositions and their juxtaposed arrangements. Thus, Ondaatje synthesizes the thematic dualities of the work in a formal design achieved and integrated in the closely woven texture of image motifs of fans, circles, stars, rooms, and the interplay of the associations of these images functioning as metaphor. In fact, the metaphoric representation of the images constitutes the subject and the form of the novel. In this respect, Coming Through Slaughter differs radically from the traditional novel through the manipulation of the print on the page and in its poetic form, Coming Through Slaughter reenacts the process of the imagination caught by contradictory needs as the process expands to include the author as its subject.


The lyrics in Ondaatje's Rat Jelly: Poems 1967-1973, particularly the poems "King Kong Meets Wallace Stevens," "Spider Blues," and "White Dwarfs," suggest a concern with the problematic relationship between the order or form of artistic expression and the anarchy of experience. The movement from these poems to Coming Through Slaughter is to a more dramatic exploration of the difficulty in creating a form supple enough to express this duality. The poem "White Dwarfs," for example, prefigures the characters of Billy the Kid in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden in Coming Through Slaughter as those "who exhaust costume and bones that could perform flight,/ who shave their morals so raw/ they can tear themselves through the eye of the needle.''1 The later works dramatize the poem's image of those "who sail to that perfect edge/ where there is no social fuel." Bolden's life dramatizes the poem's central image of "those burned out stars/ who implode into silence/after parading in the sky."

    Ondaatje's early extended sequence, the man with seven toes(1969), moves beyond the lyric toward the longer experimental form that will become solidified in The Collected Works and Coming Through Slaughter. It is an important transitionary work that reflects both an interest in and a move towards narrative. For Ondaatje, the story of the English woman, who after the shipwreck of her boat off the Queensland Cosat of Australia spends a period of time living with the Aborigines, becomes a mythic exploration of a white woman's experience in the primitive and anarchic wilderness. Short, imagistic poems reveal the woman's confrontation with strange new experiences in the wilderness. Ondaatje focuses the attention on the effects of an alien and hostile landscape and life upon the woman. Ondaatje universalizes the English woman's experience as he recreates it by moving the story from the Australian context to an unspecified place and time and by developing the character of the woman as a universal figure. The journey away from civilization to the wilderness is psychological as well as physical: landscape functions as a correlative to the inner state of mind. Each section is related internally through the various juxtapositionings and the repetitions of recurring images which give the sketch rather than the details of the native line.

    In the man with seven toes, each section in the sequence presents a further experience of the woman. The voice in the lyrics shifts from the third person objective point of view, of the first verse where "the train hummed like a low bird/ over the rails, through/ desert and pale scrub,/ air spun in the carriages," to the first person point of view of the woman:

tongued me felt cold metal, put
hot fingers in my mouth, pulled
silver fillings out,
threaded, wore them like a charm2

The reader directly experiences the horrors of the woman's journey. The sense of dislocation is further emphasized when the voice later changes to that of Potter, the convict who rescues her but, as the natives have done, rapes her. In the scene with Potter, there is a recapitulation of the first rape: the natives have "cocks like birds" while Potter's cock is "like an ostrich." The final effect of the poem is one of physical and psychological violation and the events of each new section provide a successive series of shocking scenes. Yet the form of each section is complete and stands by itself, although there is no temporal, spatial, or syntactical continuity between the different sections.

    In effect the recapitulation of images and allusions creates narrative continuity in the man with seven toes. Each image echoes an earlier image or a situation The final poem, for instance, shows the woman, now out of the wilderness and in a hotel, yet the experience of the wilderness has so marked her that she now carries it with her: "In the morning she found pieces of a bird/ chopped and scattered by the fan/ blood sprayed unto the mosquito net."3 Each of the images alludes to a past experience in the wilderness. In this way, Ondaatje creates in the sequence what Sam Solecki calls "a common ground or structure — even the possibility of an unsuspected metaphysical order — underlying the separate lyrics." Solecki qualifies this statement:

But the structure remains indefinite and avoids becoming a constricting grid, just as the repeated images themselves stop short of falling into a symbolic mode of meanings.4

The final section in the sequence is a ballad which summarizes the tensions and dualities within the work. As in Ondaatje's later works, there is no real resolution to the dualities, and as Sam Solecki points out, "this deliberate irresolution leaves the sequence with a sense of open-endedness reinforced by the grammar of the last sentence. The subjunctive mood established in 'God keep you' points to the future."5

    the man with seven toes reflects both an interest in and a move toward narrative, as well as the beginning of specific techniques Ondaatje will develop and refine in The Collected Works and Coming Through Slaughter. It anticipates Ondaatje's use of semi-legendary characters to provide him with the material that is half fiction and half fact, and part history and part legend; it also anticipates the self-reflexive impulse and the open-ended and discontinuous form of the later works where, as Solecki says, the reader becomes a figure in the ground of the story:

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.6

    AIthough Ondaatje calls The Collected Works a poem and Coming Through Slaughter a novel, the techniques and the methods he uses in each work are similar.7 The distinction between poetry and prose blurs in his attempt to create a new mode supple enough to reenact the dualities and tension contained within a life.8 To depict the public and private life as different aspects of the same personality in The Collected Works and Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje selects and reorders material in both cases, and as in the man with seven toes, he fuses it with fictional material.9 In these works, Ondaatje's concerns are with the same mental geography he depicts in his poem "White Dwarfs": both Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden are social outcasts; they exist on the periphery, outside the accepted moral and social boundaries of society. Billy is the outlaw hero consumed by violence, while Bolden is the alienated and isolated artist unable to live within the structures of order and control. To delineate the fragmentation and the chaos which destroy both Billy and Buddy, Ondsatje fragments time and structure. He selects, reworks, and changes "facts," while juxtaposing inner voice with external points of view, including those of Ondaatje, himself. In both works, fragmentation is a motif that juxtaposes and merges legend, fact, fiction, and voice.

    Essentially, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter compel their own form through the particular use of language, style, and structure. In both works, Ondaatje attempts to express a personal and poetic vision within the context of a narrative form, a form that works to correspond to and embody the meaning of that vision. The Collected Works is an extended narrative poem in which a narrative and a poetic mode support and amplify each other, and in which the language of the sections is itself poetically organized. Coming Through Slaughter evolves from The Collected Works, but here prose is poetically ordered in such a way that the traditional devices of prose fiction are recast to function as poetic image. That is, although Coming Through Slaughter contains a story line and a group of central characters, it is in the function of the poetic image that the real meaning of the narrative takes place.

    In both The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Slaughter, Ondaatje is concerned with the difficulties of creating a multifarious personality. In both works, he uses a similar montage of techniques to express the dualities, the contradictions, and the tensions evident in both Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden; these techniques work to dramatize while poeticizing the tension within each character as it translates into violence. In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje uses the image of a photograph to express the inadequacy of trying to capture an image of a subject that is constantly moving and changing. There is an explicit and ironical contrast between what is offered as a photograph of Billy and Huffman's explication of the photographic techniques behind the picture:

I send you a picture of Billy made with the Perry shutter as quick as it can be worked....
I shall show you what can be done from the saddle without glass or tripod — please notice when you get the specimens that they were made with the lens wide open and many of the best exposed when my horse was in motioned.10

Ironically, the photograph which is offered is an empty frame, thus suggesting that photographs cannot capture the image of someone as dynamic as Billy the Kid. This is, in fact, Ondaatje's concern: how does the writer capture a personality as dynamic and contradictory as Billy's? Billy's own interest in photography underlines this dilemma since the problem he faces controlling his own energy is the same one Ondaatje faces in his attempts to shape and control an aesthetic image of Billy the Kid. Through various voices interspersed with interviews, documents, and a comic-book story of the kid, Ondaatje attempts to fix an image of Billy by creating a series of perspectives on him while exploring, in the process, the poet's craft that shapes them.

    Coming Through Slaughter evolves thematically and structurally from The Collected Works; what is implied in The Collected Works is dramatized in Coming Through Slaughter. As in The Collected Works, Ondaatje utilizes various points of view on Bolden, along with documents, snatches of songs, and lyrics, in an attempt to enter the character of Bolden; as the poet says, "to think in your brain and body... you like a weather bird arcing around in the middle of your life to exact opposites, and burning your brains out.''11 The image of the weather vane echoes the image of the "angry weather in Billy's head" in The Collected Works and also points to the parallels between the two works. More specifically, Ondaatje's form dramatizes the anarchy and ambiguity of the artist's life while it recreates the mental and the physical geography of the artist, Buddy Bolden. In The Collected Works, there is an implicit identification between Billy the Kid, the artist turned legend, and Ondaatje, the kid turned poet. The empty frame of the photograph of Billy, at the beginning of the poem, becomes the image of the poet as a kid in a cowboy suit playing out "the kid's" legend, at its conclusion. In Coming Through Slaughter, the identification between the character of Buddy Bolden and Ondaatje is explicit: the poet acknowledges, "when he went mad he was the same age I am now":

The photograph moves and becomes a mirror. When I read he stood in front of mirrors and attacked himself, there was the shock of memory. For I had done that. (CTS, p. 133)

The distance between character and author collapses as Bolden becomes the mirror image of Ondaatje; Bolden is the artist through whom Ondaatje critically examines the complex nature of his own creativity and the relationship between creativity and self-destruction. In Bolden, Ondaatje finds a means of externalizing and dramatizing the image of "the fall into silence." The choice of the cornetist makes this image particularly forceful: Bolden's collapse is a literal one into silence because his cornet will never sound again. For Ondaatje, silence is figurative since to fall into silence is to choose the absence of words and language. For the writer, this is the negation of art, hence, life itself, an implication delineated in the poem "White Dwarfs" in the image of "the perfect white between the words." The white space between the words is silence and only in the silence of death does one find an irreducible self.

    In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Billy offers a metaphor for Ondaatje's method in the image of the maze:

Not a story about me through their eyes then. Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in. (TCW, p. 20)

The maze is again suggested in the crisscross journey Billy makes with Charlie Bowdre across the Canadian border:

Ten miles north of it then miles south. Our horses stepped from country to country, across low rivers, through different colours of tree green. The two of us, 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 heat. That there is nothing of depth, of significant accuracy, of wealth in the image, I know. It is there for a beginning. (TWO, p. 20)

The image suggests Ondaatje's method in his attempt to penetrate the multifarious personality of Billy the Kid; it is also similar to the image of the wheel in Coming Through Slaughter, which points to the elusiveness of Buddy Bolden's character:

Webb had spoken to Bellocq and discovered nothing. Had spoken to Nora, Crawley, to Cornish... their stories were like spokes on a rimless wheel ending in air. Buddy had lived a different life with every one of them.(CTS, p. 63).

These images not only suggest the elusiveness of the individual characters, they also point to the way of appraoching and entering his elusiveness in order to understand it.

    To create character and a central narrative line, and to reveal the complexity of his central character in The Collected Works, Ondaatje reorders material from documents to reveal the public image of Billy while he creates a picture of the private person through poems, sketches, and the song in the poem with which Billy is credited. To integrate the public and the private aspects of the single personality, Ondaatje interrupts the chronology of the material from the documents with Billy's personal expressions of his social and domestic experiences. Ondaatje fragments structure and time as he selects, reworks, and changes facts in order to transcend the facts to legend. The narrative sections in The Collected Works deal with the central conflict between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, his one-time friend and now enemy, a conflict which culminates in a man-hunt for Billy, the deaths of Tom and Charlie and, finally, in the death of Billy himself. The so-called "left-handed" poems, on the other hand, focus on Billy's personal life — in particular, on his relationship with Miss Angela D. and the peace and companionship he finds at the Chisum Ranch. Here, specifically, Billy finds the isolation he needs and a harmony with his friends, a harmony that contrasts with the tension and violence he experiences in his public life.

    Coming Through Slaughter similarly contains a central narrative or plot that centers on a group of characters related to or associated with the central character, Buddy Bolden. Events occur in what appear to be a random or chaotic fashion from various points of view, interspersed with document; snatches of songs, lyrics, dreams, and specific recurring images. The various characters and their relationships with Buddy Bolden create a story line, although the real meaning and the action of the narrative occurs at the level of the poetic image. The central conflict in The Collected Works between the private and the public persona of Billy the Kid, and between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett (in essence the conflict between instinct and consciousness) similarly occurs in Coming Through Slaughter at the level of the poetic image, where the literal and figurative function simultaneously.

    In Coming Through Slaughter, Buddy's two closest friends, Webb and Bellocq, dramatize the conflict between instinct and consciousness. Webb and Bellocq essentially represent the polarized points of disorder in Bolden's life and art: Webb seduces Bolden from the private life back to the public life, while Bellocq tempts him away from his audience into a private area of silence. The image of Webb's magnets pulling in contradictory directions metaphorically corresponds to the intrusion of these antithetical characters into Buddy's life.

And Webb who had ten of them hanging on strings from the ceiling would explain the precision of the forces in the air and hold a giant magnet in his hands towards them so they would go frantic and twist magically with their own power and twitch and thrust up and swirl as if being thrashed [jerking]...(CTS,p.35)

The "precision of forces" which controls the magnets, but which also can disrupt their "fine and precise balance," characterizes Buddy's life before he leaves his wife, Nora, and his children to stay with his friends, the Brewitts:

...his life at this time had a fine and precise balance to it, with a careful allotment of hours. A barber, publisher of The Cricket, a cornet player, good husband and father, and an infamous man about town. (CTS, p. 13)

Just as the Chisum farm offers Billy isolation and a private life, so too do the Brewitts allow Buddy to move back to the private self and silence. Buddy's life with his lover, Robin Brewitt, stands in contrast to his life with Nora as a public man, a husband, and a father.

    In The Collected Works the scenes at the Chisum ranch and those that deal with Pat Garrett represent the polarization in Billy's life. Garrett, who was once Buddy's friend and ultimately is his assassin, also significantly stands in opposition to Billy the Kid. Garrett is part of Billy's legend and by reinterpreting and reworking the role of Garrett in relation to Billy, Ondaatje creates between them a motif of betrayal. There is an explosive tension between Billy and Garrett, friends who become combatants in a duel to death. Billy admits in his journals, "I'm waiting/ smelling you across the room/ to kill you Garrett" (TWC, p. 53). Later in his journal he defines his relation to Garrett in terms of the tension that exists between them:

Am the dartboard
for your midnight blood
the bones' moment
of perfect movement
that waits to be thrown
magnetic into combat (TCW, p. 85)

In turn, these scenes juxtapose with the reminders that once Garrett and Billy were friends; in fact, their characters are paradoxically antithetical, yet complementary.

    Pat Garrett is a gunman turned sheriff; moreover, he is a man of the mind who has schooled himself to he a calculating "sane assassin," an "academic murderer" who has triumphed over the body by drinking his way through madness to clarity. His mind is calculating and clear, grown sharp in its power of abstraction. His morality is refined to the point where "he had decided what was right and forgot all morals" (TCW, p. 28). Garett responds through the mind, yet his sanity seems mad: he embodies order and control, he "comes to chaos neutral," and reacts to death unemotionally. As the narrator says, "he had the ability to kill someone on the street walk back and finish a joke" (TCW, p. 28). But, as Billy perceives, Garrett fears most what the mind cannot control: he became "frightened of flowers because they grew so slowly that he couldn't tell what they planned to do" (TCW, p. 28).

    Billy's life significantly contrasts with and complements Garrett's. Where Garrett is a man of the mind, Billy lives in the world of the body and is dominated by instinct. He is only at home in the natural elements and believes only in the clarity of the body: as he tells Angela D. when he takes a bullet from her wrist, "nothing confused in there/ look how clear" (TCW, p. 66). Where Garrett disciplines his body in order to control his mind, Billy uses his mind to train his body. He tells Garrett, "he did finger exercises subconsciously, on the average 12 hours a day" (TCW, p. 43). Unlike Gannett, Billy is happiest when "bodies are mindless" and "morals are physical/ must be clear and open" (TCW, p. 11). At one point, alone in a barn where he is free of "human complication," Billy, sick with a fever, burns himself clear of it. The constant struggle within Billy, and the tension between the mind and the body or instinct and consciousness, is expressed in his journal, "the lefthanded poems," where introspection forces him to become increasingly mental and hence self-conscious; it is, he says, "for mapping my thinking." The assertion of the mind is everywhere evident in Billy as nightmares, fantasy, and madness — what he calls "that angry weather in the head" — increasingly intrude into his life as "those senses that/ that want to crash things with an ax" (TCW, p. 72). The body and the mind are antagonistic within Billy, yet he acknowledges they are inseparable with "the mind's invisible black-out the intricate never/ the body's waiting rut" (TCW, p. 72).

    The increasing duality between the body and the mind (instinct and consciousness) produces stress within Billy, a tension that disrupts his life as the "one altered move" that will make him "maniac" (TCW, p. 41). The duality between the body and the mind also manifests itself in the struggle between Garrett and Billy, and ironically it is Garrett, the embodiment of order and control, who will make the "one altered move" that will kill Billy. The stress within Billy and between Garrett and Billy results in a violence that becomes a dynamic struggle between life and death for both of them. For Billy, the violence is paradoxically a sign of vitality, yet, finally, the cause of death. In his last thought before dying he acknowledges, "the pain at my arm I'm glad for/ keeping me alive at the bone" (TCW, p. 96).

    The thematic duality of the struggle between body and mind or instinct and consciousness manifests itself structurally in the two strands of the poem. The "left-handed poems" provide an access to the private self, in contrast to the narrative sections, which are concerned with the public struggle between Billy and Garrett. The prose sections present accounts of the action over which Billy has little control. There is a subtle relationship between the violence of the prose section and that which is unleashed in the journals. The overt and explicit violence within the prose reactions is echoed in Billy's "left-handed poems"; however, the energy of the violence and the tension is now controlled in the discipline of poetic form. The implicit madness, for example, evident in the prose sections that describe Billy's first night at the Chisum ranch, is unleashed in Billy's journal in his poem:

(To come) to where eyes will
move in head like a rat
mad since locked in a biscuit tin all day
stampeding mad as a mad rats legs
bang it went was hot
under my eye was hot small bang did it
almost a pop.
I didnt hear till I was red
had a rat fyt in my head
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
sad billys out
floating barracuda in the brain (TCW, p. 38)

The content betrays the impending loss of control within Billy in the image of the "barracuda in the brain," but form contains and shapes the energy behind it. Although Billy's desire is to control the energy, the image of "the beautiful machines pivoting in themselves" reveals his understanding of how that control can be lost and erupt into violence:

The beautiful machines pivoting on themselves,
sealing and fusing to others
and men throwing levers like coins at them.
And there is there the same stress as with stares,
the one altered move that will make them maniac. (TCW, p. 41)

The image of these machines is of a perfectly controlled "body" subject to another, more powerful, force that will work in opposition to it and make it maniac. The prose sections of the poem enact this opposition as it erupts into violence.

    In Coming Through Slaughter, there is a similar pull and tension within Buddy Bolden between a public and a private self and similarly a tension between instinct and consciousness that erupts into violence. The characters in the novel, and the consistent and repetitive use of images to link the interior and private world of Bolden to the exterior and public world, dramatize the conflict between the public and private person. The magnetic pull of the characters Bellocq and Webb upon Buddy and their intrusion into his life dramatizes the image of the magnets pulling in opposite directions; they disrupt the "fine and precise balance" between the contradictory forces within Buddy. For Webb, Bolden does not exist as a private person with private needs, but only as a public person; it is Webb who seduces Buddy back to the public life of music, away from his life with Robin, with his insistent plea, "why don't you come back, what good are you here, you're doing nothing, you're wasting..." (CTS, p. 83). Webb's sanction is powerful and Buddy acknowledges:

God he talked and sucked me through his brain so I was puppet and she was a landscape so alien and so newly foreign that I was ridiculous here. He could reach me this far away, could tilt me upside down till he was directing me like wayward traffic back home. (CTS, p. 86)

As Webb's name suggests, he tries to trap Buddy literally and metaphorically. He represents the ultimate pressure of the audience; since Webb cannot create his own music, he creates Bolden, who, in turn, must play to please his audience. Webb is a detective whose inquiry into Bolden's whereabouts more than thematically important; it is a narrative device with structural significance since it brings all aspects of Bolden's life and career together:

Webb circled, trying to understand not where Buddy was but what he was doing, quite capable of finding him but taking his time, taking almost two years, entering the character of Bolden through every voice he spoke to. (CTS, p. 63)

    On the other hand, Bellocq has no interest in Buddy's music; only the private person exists for him as he tempts Buddy away from the world of his audience into a world of silence. Bellocq, too, is an artist — a tortured and unstable being, an outsider who eventually commits suicide. He is a photographer who takes pictures of the New Orleans prostitutes and then later slashes their pictures. Bellocq's kind of of creativity is significant since "the making and the destroying" come from "the same source, same lust, same surgery his brain was capable of" (CTS, p. 55). More important, Bellocq, who "lived at the edge," was "at ease there," whereas Buddy "moved on past him like a naive explorer looking for footholes" (CTS, p. 64). Buddy once tells Webb that Bellocq had tempted him on to silence: "he had tempted me out of the world of audiences where I had to catch everything thrown at me" (CTS, p. 91). Through Bellocq's influence, Buddy becomes introspective; following his friendship with Bellocq, Buddy's thinking begins to resemble Bellocq's where "the mystic privacy... has no alphabet of noise or meaning to other people outside" (CTS, p. 64).

    The connection between Buddy and Bellocq is a strange one since "Buddy was a social dog, talked always to three or four people at once, a racer," and since what was strong in Bellocq was "the slow convolution of the brain. He was self-sufficient, complete as a perpetual motion machine" (CTS, p. 56). For Buddy, introspection is antithetical to the kind of music he plays, which demands that he respond instinctively and without self-consciousness. The intrusion of consciousness produces another kind of music, and Buddy's music specifically depends on a technique that is independent of the brain; it depends on the same kind of movement necessary in killing a fly, "to move the hand without the brain telling it to move fast, interfering" (CTS, p. 31). In this respect, introspection becomes debilitating for Buddy and the constant references to the brain, as in "my brain has walked away and is watching me" (CTS, p. 100) or "my brain suicided" (CTS, p. 119) suggest a radical alteration in the character Buddy. Whereas he had been unconsciously spontaneous before leaving his wife, Nora, after his friendship with Bellocq and his affair with Robin, Buddy returns home and to his music and self-consciously prods himself into playing an anarchic and elemental music, until he literally breaks and blows himself into silence.

    While Webb and Bellocq clearly represent the polarized points of disorder in Buddy's performing or public life, a polarity he is unable to bring into harmony, the women in his life, Nora and Robin, also function to suggest the tensions within Buddy's personal life. Nora Bass, as her name suggests, is the fixed point in Buddy's life to which he returns (as he does to the bass line in his music). Nora and his children give his life "a fine and precise balance" with "a careful allotment of hours"; they impose on him the order he lacks in his own personal life, and to which he clings. Yet, ironically, what he resents in Nora is this very order; he sees it as being antithetical to his own nature:

He did nothing but leap into the mass of changes and explore them and all the tiny facets, so that eventually he was almost completely governed by fears of certainty. He distrusted it in anyone but Nora for there it went to the spine, and yet he attacked it again and again in her, cruelly, hating it, the sure lanes of the probable. Breaking chairs and windows glass doors, in fury at her certain answers. (CTS, pp. 15-16)

On the other hand, Robin provides Buddy with the retreat he needs from the demands of the public life, from the demands of his family, and the the demands of his audience. With her, he moves into a private life of silence and introspection. The silence he finds with Robin is represented in the image of the white room where, he says:

...I am anonymous and alone in a white room with no history and no parading. So I can make something unknown in the shape of this room Where I am King of Corners. And Robin who drained my body of its fame when I wanted to find that fear of certainties I had when I first began to play, back when I was unaware that reputation made the room narrower and narrower, till you were crawling on your own back, full of your own echoes, till you were drinking in only your own recycled air. (CTS, p. 86)

Yet, while Nora and Robin represent a retreat from the public life for Buddy, paradoxically, they are the centre of his audience. Buddy uses his music to seduce Robin when "he uses his cornet as jewelry," and later at Pontchartrain when Crawley visits with "a girl fan," he wants "the horn in her skirt." The women exercise a force over Buddy until the final crisis when he passes beyond the shelters offered by either Nora or Robin. In the final parade, he is provoked by a girl fan in the audience who is compositely identified as "Robin, Nora, Crawley's girl's tongue" (CTS, p. 130).

    Bolden contains within himself the tensions and the pulls of Webb and Bellocq and Nora and Robin, and these tensions are reflected in his music. Even without these external pulls, there is within Bolden the same destructive force that had existed in the men before him, those people whom he calls his "fathers" and "teachers," who had "put their bodies over barbed wire. For me" (CTS, p. 95). Like Buddy's music, their music is jazz, a form that depends upon spontaneity and improvisation; for Buddy, it is a music dominated by a compulsion to find what is outside order. To play this kind of music, a music that never repeats itself, "every note near and raw and chance," demands that the artist not stand still in his playing: Buddy has to be the loudest, most innovative cornet player in New Orleans. He plays an ultimate music, one that always has to be unpredictable, one which demands that he stay ahead of himself, as well as the other musicians, in what he is playing, "the whole plot of song covered with scandal and incident and change" (CTS, p. 43). Thus, Buddy's aesthetic ideal, to remain open at every moment to change and improvisation, is ultimately a destructive one.

    Ironically, Bolden defines his own music against "the clear forms of Robichauxt's music," even though he "loathed everything he stood for" because, as Bolden says ", he dominated his audiences. He put his emotions into patterns which a listening crowd had to follow (CTS, p. 93). Whereas Robichaux is able to "put his emotions into patterns," Bolden patterns his music on his emotions. Yet he admires Robichaux's music, as he says, "drawn to opposites, even in the music we play" (CTS, p. 96). As in his personal life, there is in Bolden's music an unstated search for form and ordeal, it is the paradox of his life. As his friend Frank Lewis says, "We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it" (CTS, p. 37). Bolden, too, understands this attraction of opposites; he is fascinated by the precarious balance between control and loss of control, the root of the contradictory desires within him. On the one hand, he wants to play an ultimate and elemental music in which the self is totally obliterated, and on the other hand, he wants to find release from the anxiety-ridden compulsion to play.

    The tension generated by the contradictory forces within Buddy, as within Billy the Kid, erupts into violence and manifests itself in his nightmares, "the dreams of his children dying," as well as his brutal attack on Pickett, and in the last parade where he blows himself into silence. The final thought before he collapses, "what I wanted," sums up without contradiction the contradictory desires within Buddy Bolden: to play an ultimate music in which the self is annihilated and to find release from the compulsion to play. Just as death resolves for Billy the dualities of mind and body and chaos and harmony, so, too, are the contradictory desires for privacy and fame, certainty and uncertainty, order and anarchy resolved for Buddy in the silence of "Dementia Praecox. Paranoid Type" (CTS, p. 132). For Buddy, madness is the means to reconstitute the wholeness of the self. However, while Billy's death transcends itself into legend, there is no transcendent significance for Buddy in madness; it is simply the release from the compulsion to create a too demanding art.

    The characters of Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden, and the difficulties they have in controlling their own lives, metaphorically function to reveal Ondaatje's difficulties in finding a method and form to accommodate the randomness and chaos of their individual lives. In Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje dramatizes the poetic image of the fall into silence in the character of Buddy Bolden; only in the fall does Bolden gain control of the chaos in his life. In The Collected Works, the prose sections of the poem complement the poetic sections and provide access to the private self of Billy by revealing how Billy sees life and interprets it. The poetic sections show how the violence in Billy's public life affects him privately. That is, the energy in the public life generates Billy's creation of the "left-handed poems." In these poems and through Billy, Ondaatje admits to the difficulty of creating a still image of Billy. Billy acknowledges the journals are the means of "mapping my thinking going its own way" (CTS, p. 72) and of "harnessing face which goes stumbling into dots" (CTS, p. 86).

    There is a sense of control in the left-handed poems not found in the narrative sections. The implication is that form itself (here in the form of the poems) offers momentary control. In the left-handed poems, form controls the energy which in Billy's life is always threatening to erupt into violence. Yet Billy's expression of his own perceptions, characterized in the left-handed poems by sudden and violent changes in temperament and in the violent language, reflects the loss of control in his life. The latent violence within Billy, apparent in the left-handed poems, unleashes itself in the scene with the rats who have gone mad from eating fermented arms; alone, and in the barn with the insane and aggressive rats, Billy begins to shoot manically at them:

Till my hand was black and the gun hot and no other animal of any kind remained in that room but for the boy in the blue shirt sitting there coughing at the dust, rubbing the sweat off his upper lip with his left forearm. (TCW, p. 18)

The image of the mad rats echoes in another context at the Chisum's ranch: the harmony of the ranch is threatened for Billy by the collection of disabled pets, which makes him feel he is "standing on the edge of the dark" where "the night, the dark air, made it all mad" (TCW, p. 37). The connection between madness and animals is again repeated in the lefthanded poems in a dream that Billy records where mad cats fight in his head and horses foam white with madness. The images suggest a pattern of exterior control juxtaposed with internal chaos, a pattern that is again exemplified in the story of Livingston. The story of this man who interbred mad dogs until they turned on him and ate him is told against the peace and harmony of the night at the Chisum ranch. The same pattern repeats itself in the account of Billy's death: the exterior view is of Billy watching Garrett's men dancing outside Maxwell's window saying, "we got we got him the little skunk buggar." The external action merges with BiIly's internal pain and becomes "lovely perfect sunballs/ breaking at each other," which Billy sees as bullets across the bed. As Billy's mind dissolves into chaos, "oranges reeling across the room," he mentally replays the visual impression of his first morning in bed with Angela D. and realizes, "it is my brain coming out like red gas/ this breaking where red things wade" (TCW, p. 95).

The discrepancy between exterior and interior control and the impossibility of fixing an image of Billy is reinforced in the journals. Both Sally Chisum and Paulita Maxwell face the same difficulty; they feel Billy's blood-thirsty reputation does not fit his boyish appearance or the person they know. Billy's own self-portrait is blurred with contradictions, and all he is able to do is catalogue the divergent aspects of his personality. The attempt to arrest motion in a photograph determines one of the primary techniques in a poem designed to catch and record the process of recollection. A photograph is a moment of life caught as memory; Billy reconstructs the past through memory and through visual compositions that are frozen on the page. He recolIetts single scenes reset in different narrative contexts: their modulations are defined by rhythm, imagery, and the structure at the scene on the page; characters tend to be isolated in rigid patterns of action.12 Billy's perceptions are like those of the microscopic lens that penetrates below the surface of the skin, "magnifying the bones across a room/ shifting in a wrist" (CTS, p. 39). He sees objects decomposing, the body fragmenting, and finds that "in the end the only things that never changed, never became deformed were animals" (TCW, p. 10). Ironically though, violent insanity and maniac destruction occur repeatedly in the scenes with animals. The association between animals and violence occurs in the juxtapositioning of the scene where Billy shoots Sally snake-bitten cat, Ferns, and the first flash forward to the final shooting of Billy. The final association of animals and violence occurs just before Billy's death when the narrator ironically notes that Garrett, too, like animals, but only dead ones. The association implies the fine line between the natural power of generation and that of degeneration.

    The disintegration of living things is somewhat similar to the metaphoric transformation of natural objects to mechanical ones; on the other hand, mechanical objects, like guns, photographs, and even pencils, fragment and create single and isolated impressions out of the movement and fluidity of life. Such a dichotomy reinforces the duality between mind and body and between instinctive response and a conscious or mechanical one. Ironically, Billy identifies the body with mechanical actions and instinctive processes with machines; for example, he recollects and describes a sexual experience with Angela D. as "the tall gawky body spitting electric/ off the sheets to my arm" (TCW, p. 16). In contrast, and yet complementary to this pattern, is the animation of mechanical objects, as when Billy recalls a train yard back east where he saw "the beautiful machines pivoting on themselves/ sealing and fusing to others" (TCW, p. 41). The description suggests that mechanization borders on madness, a view that is reinforced in the scene of the barn where Billy goes mad at the sight of the rats' drunken abandon. He is transformed into a maniac gun, an automatic machine where "the smoke sucked out of the window as it emerged from my fist" (TCW, p. 18). At the same time, the rhythms of the sequence connect Billy's maniac shooting with the rats' insanity.

    By creating various perspectives on Billy, Ondaatje catches the elusive and contradictory nature of the Kid. But like the photograph at the beginning of the poem, life escapes outside the frame so that only fragments remain. The various accounts of Billy given by his friends and contemporaries reinforce the fragmentation of the accumulating perspecives. In the Five Cent Wide Awake Library, a final and ironic perspective ends Billy's life in legend, although absolute certainty of his death deteriorates to doubt in Garrett's final comment, "I'm sure it was the Kid . . . for I knew his voice and could not have been mistaken" (TCW, p. 103). Not even in the exclusive jail interview where "the Kid tells all" does a single picture of the Kid emerge, and a photograph of the Kid never does materialize, although on the last page a small-framed shot of a child dressed as a cowboy appears in a larger fine. The real Billy the Kid only exists in the imagination of others and in his legend. The image of the photograph, and the purpose of photography in general in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, is to capture an image of life in a specific context and time. In turn, the image becomes a metaphor for the primary technique of the poem suggested in Huffman's inscription, where he says the photographs were made with "the lens wide open." In a sense, the poem presents a series of shots with the lenses all wide open to admit a multiplicity of impressions.

    Similarly, in Coming Through Slaughter, the juxtapositionings of a multiplicity of viewpoints and stories of Buddy Bolden create the structure of the novel and express the anarchy and the ambiguity of the artist's life. Thus, the essence of Bolden's music, which is improvisation, is accordingly reflected in the novel's structure in the shifts and changes in voice; in the various points of view; in the seemingly random fashion in which events are narrated; and in the interspersion of documents, limericks, and bits of acng. Ondaatje's art, like Bolden's music, is one of process. Yet, beneath the apparent diversity of the form, there is a unity of effect created through a pattern of images and metaphors that express the fragmentation of an artist who did "nothing but leap into a mass of changes."

    The characters of Webb and Bellow and Nora and Robin establish the thematic polarities in the novel by dramatically representing Bolden's inability to bring the antithetical aspects of his personality into harmony. Figuratively, the fragmentation within Bolden is suggested in the image of the fan circling above his head in the barber shop. The fan, like the image of the photograph in The Collected Works, functions within the novel as a central and controlling metaphor of a self divided against the self. The fan is both the fan inside Bolden's shaving parlour circling above his head, and the "girl-fan" in the audience who pulls him further and further into his music. There is also an implicit connection between the image of the fan and the character of Webb, who "circled" around Bolden. However, in the climax of the novel, Bolden's own brain pushes him to the point of self-destruction, figuratively captured in the image:

Bolden's hand going up into the air
in agony.
His brain driving it up into the
path of the circling fan. (CTS, p. 136)

For Buddy, the action caught in this image "happens forever and ever in his memory." Ironically, in this gesture Bolden achieves his desire to play an ultimate music in which the self is totally negated. The conflict in Bolden's life is dramatized literally and figuratively as subject and medium interact to express the duality of instinct and consciousness within the character of Buddy Bolden.

In The Collected Works, juxtapositioning is a primary technique used to create narrative progression and to reveal the intricate link between life and death and instinct and consciousness. There is a continual interweaving of the motif of life and death as scenes from Billy's life merge with flash-forwards to his loss of consciousness and death as Garrett's bullet hits him. Ondaatje manipulates time in a series of scenes that look forward to Billy waiting for Garrett in Maxwell's room. He does this by connecting the first death scene with the last one through the repetition of the barracuda in Billy's brain. "Sad billy's out/ floating barracuda in the brain" of the first death scene becomes in the final scene, "Poor Young William's dead/ with blood planets in the head" (TCW, p. 104). Sequences are also interconnected by setting up a particular composition which is later reworked and expanded. The following scene, for example, estabIishes a specific visual composition:

Down the street was a dog. Some mut spaniel, black and white. One dog, Garett and two friends, stud looking, came town the street to the house, to me. (TCW, p. 46)

The object of this visual field, "one dog, Garrett and two friends," is repeated in a later sequence in a more explicit context:

Up to the well rides Pat Garrett and deputies Poe and MacKinnon. Scuffling along, smoking as they dismount gentle and leave their horses and walk to the large hut which is Maxwell's room. They pass the dog. (TCW, p. 92)

Similarly, in the sequences concerned with Charlie Bowdre's death, the same scene is manipulated and reshaped into new patterns. In the first sequence, Billy graphically recounts the moment Charlie is hit by the bullet, "tossed 3 feet by bang bullet's giggling." Later, in a second account, the same moment is expanded and shaped by more explicit details, including those of time and place (p. 22). A third and final sequence picks up where this one leaves off, moving the action progressively forward as Wilson, Dave, and Billy are forced out by Garrett (p. 48). In this respect, images and the particular objects in a visual field function as points of reference to connect sequences and create narrative. In other cases, particular scenes are played back in new patterns, for instance, in the description of Billy putting his hand in Charlie's stomach:

His stomach was warm
remembered this when I put my hand into
a pot of lake warm tea to wash it out
dragging out the stomach to get the bullet
he wanted to see when taking tea
with Sallie Chisum in Paris Texas. (TCW, p. 27)

In the second stanza, the first six lines are repeated in reverse order.

    Similarly, verses reecho in different contexts. Billy introduces Miss Angela D. with the limerick:

Miss Angela D has a mouth like a bee
she eats and off all your honey
her teeth leave a sting on your very best thing
and its best when she gets the best money. (TWO, p. 64)

The break in the rhyme of the next stanza pointy to its darker implications:

Miss Angela Dickenson
blurred in the dark
her teeth are a tunnel
her eyes need a boat (TWO, p. 64)

The image of darkness later reechoes in:

she swallows your breath
like warm tar pour
the man in the bright tin armour star
blurred in the dark
saying stop jeesua jesus jesus JESUS (TCW, p. 73)

In the final sequence, the repetition of the line "blurred in the dark" interconnects and juxtaposes a sexual encounter between Billy and Angela with the later encounter of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The last line of this sequence could be either Angela D. or Billy speaking as Billow life merges with his death and Angela's dark sexuality becomes the bright star of Garrett's badge waiting in the dark room to kill Billy. The juxtapositioning of life with death is a dominant structure in the poem; the progressive expansion of this motif gives unity and coherence to the sequences and patterns within the poem.

Whereas the literal and the figurative are juxtaposed in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, in Coming Through Slaughter they merge at the level of the poetic image. The title of the book indicates this; the literal "coming through slaughter" refers to Bolden's passage through this town when he is carried from the Asylum back to New Orleans for burial. "Coming through slaughter" is also a metaphor for Bolden's life, representing the destruction of the self. In fact, the instability of Bolden's life is aptly caught in the image of the block of ice in the window of Joseph's Shaving Parlour which "changed shape all day before your eyes." Bolden's instability is thematically and structurally brought to a climax in "the Liberty-Iberville connect" as Bolden pushes himself further and further into "the loss of privacy in the playing.''13 During this performance, he allows himself to be taunted on by a young, dancing "girl-fan." The mounting tension between Bolden and the girl is reflected in the prose of the passage as run-on sentences break into fragments and then continue to the climactic point of Bolden's loss of control:

All my body moves to my throat and I speed again and she speeds tired again, a river of sweat to her what her head and hair back bending back to me, all the desire in me is cramp and hard, cocaine on my cock, external, for my heart is at my throat hitting slow pure notes into the shimmy dance of victory . . . feel the blood that is real move up bringing fresh energy in its suitcase, it comes up flooding past my heart in a mad parade, it is coming through my teeth, it is into the cornet, god can't stop god can't stop it can't stop the air the red force coming up can't remove it from my mouth, no intake gasp, so deep blooming it up god I can't choke it the music still pouring in a roughness I've never hit, watch it listen it listen it, can't see I CAN'T SEE. Air floating through the blood to the girl red hitting the blind spot I can feel others turning, the silence of the crowd, can't see (CTS, p. 131)

As Buddy blows himself into silence, his last thought, "what I wanted," is isolated and set apart at the bottom of the page. During the Storyville Parade, Bolden ironically liberates himself by blowing himself into madness and silence; at this moment the contradictions in Bolden's life are resolved.

The development of Ondaatje's work from a man with seven toes to Coming Through Slaughter is in the complexity of the narrative line and in the form of the work. In a man with seven toes, narrative progression develops through the function of the images as they recall, suggest, and allude to each other, thereby connecting the various sequences to each other within the larger context of the work. The duality between instinct and consciousness in a man with seven toes is similarly developed in the function of the image in The Collected Works. In this work, fragments become increasingly interwoven and the imagery increasingly ambiguous as the narrative moves towards Billy's inevitable death. Life becomes suffused with death as the growing confusion in Billy's mind shows the increasing fragmentation of the left-handed poems; abrupt and fragmented lines run together with little punctuation, and various lines are repeated (p. 46) or juggled (p. 27) or blended together (p. 73). Images of the natural elements of earth, air, water and sun are increasingly ambivalent as they express the growing violence in life. At one time these images work to suggest the natural life to which Billy most responds, and at another time they suggest death Water, for instance, is a life-giving force, but it is also a destructive element. When Tom O'Folliard sees water after having been without it for four days while walking wounded in the desert, he has to be knocked out "as he had gone to throw himself in water which would have got rid of his thirst but killed him too" (TCW, p. 51). Similarly, the benefits of the sun translate into destruction in the powerful scene where Billy feels he is being raped by the sun: when Garrett brings Billy in, "the sun eat back and watched while the (brain) juice evaporated" (TCW, p. 76). These images suggest a paradoxical union of life in death. Similarly, flower imagery explicitly reveals a growing tension between the forces of life and death. The pungent odour of the flower's fertility smells of "things dying flamboyant" and of "thick sugar deaths"; it is "the liqueur perfume" which "Sweats like lilac urine smell." The suggestion of death is always present, or inherent, in natural fecundity. It is explicit in the procreation of the mad dogs who eventually turn on themselves and it is implied in Billy's last moment of life when he confuses Angela's fingers with "the total ballet claws" entering his head. Even the act of love leaves "hands cracked in love juice/ fingers paralyzed by it arthritic" (TCW, p. 16).14

     Similarly, the image of the eye, a central and predominating image in the poem, functions ambiguously: man's vision links him to an external world, but that particular vision of an individual sets him apart as an individual. Billy is aware of this when he confesses:

The others, I know, did not see the wounds appearing in the sky, in the air. Sometimes a normal forehead in front of me leaked brain gasses. Once a nose clogged right before me, a lock of skin formed over the nostrils, and the shocked face had to start breathing through mouth, but then the mustache bound itself in the lower teeth and he began to gasp loud the hah! hah! going strong — churned onto the floor, collapsed out, seeming in the end to be breathing out of his eye — tiny needle jets of air reaching into the throat. I told no one. (TCW, p. 10)

The image of the eye represents both the eye of the camera and the eyes of the commentators who speak about Billy's character. It also connects to Billy vision of life, which begins as a mechanism below the skin's surface, something he can visually penetrate in the way that he can foresee the shattering of his skull. The image of eyes becomes the focus of Billy's fear, pain, and madness revealed in his nightmare:

(to come) to where eyes will
move in head like a rat
mad since locked in a biscuit tin all day
stampeding mad as a mad rats legs
bang it went was hot
under my eye (TCW, p. 28)

The images of eyes in The Collected Works reflect the progression in Billy's life to an ultimate vision of approaching death: he sees wounds as "crying or bleeding eyes" and he describes Charlie Bowdre's wounds as "the eyes [which] grew all over his body." Within the source of the poem, Billy's vision of death transforms from that of a golden eye of the sun" to the "frozen bird's eye" of the moon, while the twin half-blind owls at the Chisum farm change to the "fish stare" of Billy's corpse. Billy foresees his own death in his premonition of "the eyes bright scales/ bullet claws coming/ at me like woman's fingers" (TCW, p. 73). In Billy's world all aspects of life are tinged with violence and death; he acknowledges, "blood a necklace on me all my life." Repetitions with variations on facts, the details, and the circumatancea of Billy's death creates an insistent focus on death, while the patterns of imagery that establish the duality between life and death resolve their tension in a paradoxical union of the two. The tensions and conflicts generated by the contradictory forces in Billy's life now resolve themselves in the final and definitive image of death, "the mind's invisible blackout the intricate never/ the body's waiting rut" (TCW, p. 72). By blending and merging incident, sensation, and image, Ondaatje structures and unifies the narrative and the poetic sections of the poem to coalesce into the final vision of the legendary hero. The use of the narrative and the poetic strands as a reflection of the public and the private person of Billy the Kid structurally reinforces the poem's thematic duality. Thus, the pattern of the duality is structurally communicated by the form itself.

    In Coming Through Slaughter, there is a further development in the narrative line; the dramatic and the figurative merge in the function of the poetic image, so that the patterning of the images simultaneously creates narrative and metaphorical significance. Images create the tension of the contradictory forces in Buddy's life as the tension erupts into violence because "the brain's hate is so much." Just as the instability of Buddy's life is expressed in the image of the block of ice that changes shape all day, the potential for violence within Buddy is reflected in the image of the window shattering in "the outline of a star.''15 The image suggests the dual aspects of beauty and violence within Buddy: the same image occurs again in a different form when he throws the pitcher of milk at Robin, an action Rich leaves him "empty of all tension." The images of the star and of the broken window recur; they work in relation to the image of the hands going through windows and suggest, again, the duality Buddy's life and the paradox of his art.

    The image of windows in Coming Through Slaughter is pervasive, suggesting various responses on Bolden's part. At one time it represents the kind of response he has to intense experiences. For instance, Buddy learns the profound experience of music from his forefathers who "put their bodies over barbed wire"16 (CTS, p. 55); when he wants Cornish to play, he tells him, "come on, put your hands through the window" (CTS, p. 14). Later, when he talks of Bellocq to Webb, he appeals to him with:

Come with me Webb I want to show you something, no come with me I want to show you something. You come too. Put your hand through this window. (CTS, p. 91)

Bolden does almost go literally through the window, or comes remarkably close to it one time with Nora:

    Once they were sitting at the kitchen table opposite each other. To his right and to her left was a window. Furious at something he drew his right hand across his body lashed out. Half way there at full speed he realized it was a window he would be hitting and braked. For a fraction of a second his own palm touched the glass, beginning simultaneously to draw back. The window starred and crumbled slowly two floors down. His hand miraculously uncut. (CTS, p. 16)

Another time, when visiting Brock Mumford, Bolden enters and exits through a window, and later, when he plays the music that Dude Botley hears as a struggle "between the Good Lord and the devil," he climbs into the barber shop through the broken glass window. And again, after the fight with Pickett, they both go over the ice and through the window as Bolden sees "the rain like so many little windows going down around us" (CTS, p. 74). Figuratively, Bolden imagines putting his hand through the window as "suicide of the hands," an image that suggests his death since the inability to make music would be a kind of death for him. Finally, Bellocq's photograph which are "like windows" showing "her mind jumping that far back to when she would dare to imagine a future" (CTS, p. 64), reinforce the image of windows.

    Images of windows connect with images of rooms: Bellocq is associated with dark rooms, "the dark empty spaces," while Robin is identified with the anonymity of the white room to which he finally succumbs in the insane asylum, where he is "King of Corners." "The dark empty spaces" that Bellocq offers Bolden are blent to "the slow convolution of that brain." Following Buddy's friendship with Bellocq, the image of the brain becomes increasingly associated with Bolden until the brain's convolution becomes synonymous with the dream of the wheel over his hands" (CTS, p.40). Bellocq pushes "his imagination into Buddy's brain" and shows him the possibility of silence. The repeated neurological images signal the radical alternation in Bolden's character as he moves towards Bellocq and the introspection Bellocq represents. But, because this kind of introspection is antithetical to the music Bolden plays, it becomes physically debilitating to him, apparent in his constant references to his brain. At one point, Bolden says his brain has "walked away and is watching? him; another time it has "suicided." For Bolden, the debilitation is destructive; he acknowledges this in the image of his brain "tying me up in this chair. Locked inside the frame, boiled down in love and anger into that dynamo that cannot move except in on itself" (CTS, p. 112).

    "The slow convolution of the brain" echoes one of the major image patterns of the novel, that of "the tin-bladed fan turning like a giant knife" (CTS, p. 47). "The tin-bladed fan" recalls "the suicide of the hands" associated with "the dream of the wheel over his hands" (CTS, p. 40). In turn, this wheel recalls the image of the wheel Webb uses to describe his attempts to find Bolden and Bolden's friends, whose stories were "like spokes in a rimless wheel ending in air" (CTS, p. 63). The image of the wheel functions structurally as well as metaphorically; it suggests Ondaatje's method in coming to terms with the character of Buddy Bolden, and it is analogous to Webb's efforts:

Webb circled, trying to understand not where Buddy was but what he was doing, quite capable of finding him but taking his time, taking almost two years, entering the character of Bolden through every voice he spoke to. (CTS, p. 63)

Webb's literal circling of Bolden's district recalls Ondaatje's literal circling of the district that was once Bolden's home, as a way of entering his character, as he says, "to think in your brain and body":

And to the left of Canal are also the various homes of Bolden, still here today, away from the recorded history — the bleak washed out one-storey houses. Phillips, First, Gravier, Tassin's Food Store, taverns open all day but the doors closed tight to keep out heat and sunlight. Circle and wind back and forth in your car and at First and Liberty is a corner house with an oval roof above the wooden pavement, barber stripes on the posts that hold up the overhang. This is N. Joseph's Shaving Parlor, the barber shop where Buddy Bolden worked. (CTS, p. 10)

    The image of circling, dramatized by Webb's detective inquiry into the whereabouts of Buddy, is a central and unifying device in the novel bringing all aspects of Buddy's life and career together. Webb literally and metaphorically wants to trap Buddy — to bring him back to his audience — while the audience exerts an almost fascistic power over Bolden, trapping him like a spider traps flies. "Spiders" are literally the runners for the local paper, The Cricket, which Bolden puts together; they bring him the local gossip for the paper, particularly gossip concerned with sexual scandals. The image of "flies," like "spiders," is associated with sex: Bolden describes Robin's mouth on his neck as "a fly on me, about three or four of them on me" (CTS, p. 68). Pickett is labelled "The Fly King" after Buddy assaults him in a moment of sexual jealousy because he had once been Nora's lover.

    The image of the wheel and the metaphoric implications of Webb's name also suggest the image of the fan "turning like a giant knife." The fan is also a sun that suggests the audience's fascination, specifically exemplified in Crawley's "girl-fan" and later the dancing "girl-fan" who pushes Bolden to his end. Bellocq is the only person who can escape the fan both literally and metaphorically. Bellocq, as Bolden says, scorns what he calls "the giraffes of fame," a scorn that is expressed metaphorically in the image of his height. Bolden says, "he was so short he was the only one who could stretch up and not get hit by the fan" (CTS, p. 91). The image of the fan links the outer pressures of the audience and Bellocq's introspective pull; it also suggests the polarized points of disorder in Bolden's life and his art and his inability to bring the two into harmony. The image of "the suicide of the hands" suggests a way of liberating Bolden from the stress of these polarities, and the image of Bolden's hand going up into the path of the circling fan, a movement that "happens forever and ever in his memory," is the metaphoric "coming through slaughter." Bolden's premonitions of death are literally dramatized when he blows himself into silence with "Willy Cornish catching him as he fell outward, covering him, seeing the red on the white shirt" (CTS, p. 131). Just as the contradictions of Billy's life are resolved in the "intricate never" of death, so too are they resolved in Buddy's "fall into silence."

    Thus, in both The Collected Works and Coming Through Slaughter, a narrative and a metaphorical significance develops through the function of the images as they recall, suggest, and allude to each other. In The Collected Works, Ondaatje structures and unifies the narrative and the poetic sections of the poem by blending and merging incident, sensation, and image to coalesce in the final vision of the legendary hero. In Coming Through Slaughter, the patterning of the images creates a narrative and a metaphorical significance that merge in the function of the poetic image. In effect, the function of the image constitutes both the subject and the form of the novel, expanding to include the author himself as its subject.


In both The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje embodies a personification in a form that contains the very meaning of that reality as it is dramatized. Both works point to the poet's awareness that any attempt on the part of the poet to make an extended statement requires more than the lyrical expression of personal perceptions and emotions. Ondaatje objectifies and dramatizes his personal vision (what Scobie refers to as "his poetic'')17 by using the figures of Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden as correlatives for his aesthetics. Furthermore, in both works the limits of perception are correlated with Ondaatje's act of writing them; in fact, his own personality merges with the personalities of his characters. Thus, he creates an explicit dramatic relation between poet and subject, and the implicit identification between subject and author in The Collected Works becomes an explicit one in Coming Through Slaughter.

    In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, the poet acknowledges his difficulty in coming to terms with a complex personality like Billy the Kid's and the impossibility of recreating reality from the stories that have been left behind. There is doubt, on the part of the poet, about the ability of writing to recreate reality; the poet, as opposed to Billy, admits:

Getting more difficult
things all over crawling
in the way
gotta think through
The wave of ants on him
millions a moving vest up his neck
over his head down his back
leaving a bright skull white smirking (TCW, p. 40)

The real Billy the Kid no longer exists; Ondaatje's presence in the poem corroborates the metaphoric implications of the photograph and the restrictions it suggests of recreating truth or reality in a still image. In his attempts to shape and control an aesthetic image of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje now faces the same problem Billy faced in finding a means to control his energy. Ondaatje's voice merges with Billy's when Billy acknowledges his own difficulty in understanding himself:

/while I've been going on
the blood from my wrist
has travelled to my heart
and my fingers touch
this salt blue paper notebook
control a pencil that shifts up and sideways
mapping my thinking going its own way
the light wet glasses drifting on polished wood. (TCW, p. 72)

    The poet's meditations on the character of Billy suggested in the image of "the light wet glasses drifting on polished wood" connect with Ondaatje's dream: "Last night was dreamed into a bartender/ with an axe I drove into glasses of gin lifted up to be tasted" (TCW, p. 40). His meditations on memory and perception merge with the gradually accumulating details of Billy's death to create a self-reflexive impulse within the poem that determines the aesthetic image of Billy the Kid, one composed of history and legend and infused with personal vision. In the aesthetic image of Billy the Kid, the violence, the chaos, and the tension are brought together and resolved by the poet, Ondaatje. The final passage of the poem is the poet speaking; he has spent the night in a hotel room:

It is now early morning, was a bad night. The hotel room seems large. The morning sun has concentrated all the cigarette smolce so one can see it hanging in pillars or sliding along the roof like amoeba. In the bathroom, I wash the loose nicotene out of my mouth. I smell the smoke still in my shirt. (TCW, p. 105)

In this respect, Coming Through Slaughter is an extension of The Collected Words of Billy the Kid: Ondaatje moves beyond an aesthetic image of his personal vision to a dramatization of the creation of the aesthetic itself. Thus, the reader too becomes a participant in the story, because he/she is involved in the creation of the poetic process.

    Coming Through Slaughter is a summary and a criticism of the compulsively destructive nature of the creative impulse in a certain kind of artist. Through Buddy Bolden, Ondaatje examines the relationship between creativity and self-destruction, as well as the complex nature of his own creativity. Bolden externalizes and dramatizes the image of "the fall into silence" in the poem "White Dwarfs." The choice of the cornetist makes this image particularly forceful since Bolden's collapse is literally into silence. The identification of the author and his subject is explicit; in fact, the distance between the two collapses in a mirror image when the poet asks, "What was there in that, before I knew your nation your color your age, that made me push my arm forward and spill it through the front of your mirror and clutch myself?" (CTS, p. 134). The "fall into silence" is also figurative since, for the writer, to fall into silence is to negate writing, hence art; it therefore constitutes a kind of suicide. The implicit identification and similarity between Ondaatje's and Bolden's art further exemplifies the complexity of Ondaatje's form; in essence, the form expresses the anarchy and the chaos of the artist's life by placing the reader within the interior and physical geography of Buddy Bolden. In the merging of author and subject, time and space collapse while a discontinuous sequence replaces chronological and linear ordering of events to create a narrative collage. However, the diversity of the surface form gives way to a unity of effect through the function of the poetic image. In this respect Coming Through Slaughter is more perfectly executed than The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In Coming Through Slaughter, narrator, subject, and medium are brought to the same imaginative field of interaction.

    However, unlike Billy the Kid, Buddy Bolden has no apotheosis into legend. In the final image of the novel, Buddy's character merges with Ondaatje the black and white rooms of Buddy's life blend into the poet's grey room as he finishes with Buddy's life and ruminates:

I sit with this room. With the gray walls that darken into corner. And one window with teeth in it. Sit so still you can hear your hair rustle in your shirt. Look away from the window when clouds and other things go by. Thirty-one years old. There are no prizes. (CTS, p. 156)

The ending is complex: as figurative images of corners, rooms, and broken windows become the literal room of the author, he suggests there can be no reward for the artist who pushes his art to the point of self-destruction; yet, in this very suggestion exists the alternative suggestion that there may be a prize for the artist who is able to put some kind of order and form on his life and art. In fact, in this specific context, the novel itself becomes the prize.18


In its theme and its techniques, Coming Through Slaughter is a companion piece to and a developementof Ondaatje's extended narrative poem, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In The Collected Works, a narrative mode and a poetic mode reflect the thematic duality between the public and the private person: the very form of the poem dramatizes the disintegration of a psyche unable to bring its disparate parts into harmony. In Coming Through Slaughter, narrative progression and characterization occur at level of the poetic image, which functions to dramatize the literal and the metaphoric reenactment of the imagination in conflict with itself. In fact, the metaphoric functioning of the images constitutes the subject and the form of the novel as it enacts the imagination caught by contradictory impulses. The exploration of the creative process also constitutes the novel's interiorized comment on itself as it expands to include the author himself as its subject. By the means of its tightly constructed motifs imagery, Ondaatje creates a self-reflexive structure that communicates through its formal patterns. Coming Through Slaughter is a new landmark in the English-Canadian novel. As one of its early reviewers put it:

...Coming Through Slaughter represents an imaginative feat of high order: a trandscending of cultural and racial and historical barriers into a state of nearly-total identification, on both the authors and the reader's part with the subject.... But it is undoubtedly Ondaatje's experience as a poet which has liberated him from the tired conventions of the novel and helped him produce a fictional work of such uncompromising existential power.19

Coming through Slaughter blurs the distinctions between poetry and prose and alters the expectations associated with the novel; it establishes the need for a new critical vocabulary to deal with what is, in essence, a hybrid work.20


  1. Michael Ondaatje, "White Dwarfs," There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning To Do: Selected Poems 1963-1978 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979), p. 68. "White Dwarf's" suggests the concerns of The Collected Works and Coming Though Slaughter, that is, Ondaatje's recognition of the difficulty in creating a poetic language and form supple enough to express life's anarchic energy and randomness. The poem also points to the psychological risks the poet takes, in dredging up from his own life and memory, experience to use in his art. The description of Bellocq's photographs in Coming Through Slaughter best expresses the creative paradox where the "making and the destroying come from the same source, same lust...." The idea is not new of course, it is a repetition of the romantic view of the artist. For an illuminating study of Coming Though Slaughter as an extremis art see Sam Solecki, "Making and Destroying: Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter and Extremis Art," Essays in Canadian Writing, 12 (Fall, 1978), 24-44.[back]

  2. Ondaatje the man with seven toes (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1969), p.9.[back]

  3. Ondaatje the man with seven toes, p. 41.[back]

  4. For a fuller and more specific analysis of this point, see Sam Solecki's article, "Point Blank: Narrative in Michael Ondaatje's the man with seven toes," Canadian Poetry, 6 (Spring/Summer), 17.[back]

  5. Solecki, p. 17. The resolution of the dualities in the later works exists within the form or the structure of the work; there is no thematic resolution. In the conclusions to both the later works, there is a sense of open-endedness since the legends of Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden live on.[back]

  6. Solecki, p. 23.[back]

  7. Stephen Scobie, in "Coming Through Slaughter: Fictional Magnets and Spider's Webbs," Essays on Canadian Writing, 12 (Fall, 1978), 5-22 suggests the superficial distinctions between poetry and prose in terms of the way the words are set on the page are of minor importance. He says that although Coming Through Slaughter is almost entirely prose and is generally discussed and accepted as a novel with "a novelistic story-line and a group of characters," he, nevertheless, remains uneasy about calling it "a novel in the conventional sense. Like Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (a book to which it bears more than a passing resemblance) it is a novel in which the real action takes place at the level of the poetic image" (pp. 5-6).[back]

  8. Annie Dillard, in Living By Fiction, (New York Harper and ltow, 1982) calls The Collected Works of Billy the Kid a novel that includes "not only prose narration in many voices and tenses, but also photographs ironic and sincere, and blank spaces, interviews and poems" (p. 22).[back]

  9. For a fuller account of sources in The Collected Works Of Billy the Kid, see Stephen Scobie's article "Two Authors in Search of a Character," Canadian Literature, 54 (Autumn, 1972), 37-55. For an account of sources in Coming Through Slaughter, see Ondaatje's credits at the end of the novel.[back]

  10. Michael Ondaatje, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Toronto: Anansi, 1970), p. 20. All further quotations will be taken from this edition and page references will be contained in parentheses in the text.[back]

  11. Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter (Toronto: Ananai, 1974), p. 63. All further quotatiom mill be taken from this edition and page references will be contained in parentheses in the text. Professor Peter Stevens has pointed out to me that there is an old jazz tune by King Oliver called "Weather Bird" which may have led Ondaatje to the image.[back]

  12. For a valuable and interesting essay on composition in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, see Anne Blott, "'See Stories to Finish': The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," Studies in Canadian Literature, 2.2 (Summer, 1977), 188-202.[back]

  13. Scobie's suggestion that there might be a link beween Iberville and "the Prophet Ibis," a Louisiana bird that Nora'a mother, Mrs. Bass, sees as paranoid, is not too far-fetched with respect to the "Liberty-lberville connect."[back]

  14. J.M. Kertzer cogently argues that death itself is a paradox in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. He argues that the poem is built on paradoxes which can be seen in the function of the imagery that "blends, warps, and grows ambiguous as the primary contrast between life and death gives way to the paradoxical union of the two." See J.M. Kertzer, "On Death and Dying: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," English Studies in Canada, 1 (Spring, 1975), 86-96.[back]

  15. The image of the star also suggests the "great stars" in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Both these images are repetitions of those "burned-out stars" in the poem "White Dwarfs."[back]

  16. Professor Peter Stevens has also pointed out to me that the image "bodies over barbed wire" is an anachronism since its association would be to the first world war, and Buddy's forefather's would not have known barbed wire. The anachronism points to an interesting aspect of Ondaatje's technique. The anachronism in the work, for instance, like the factual distortions of both Bolden's and Bellocq's lives, work to underline Ondaatje's interest in the psychological. The general context for the interior probing is historical but there is a deliberate merging of various times including that of the present in the character's contemporary language and manner. The deliberate blurring of time enables Ondaatje to create an historical distance which frees his vision from specific time and history and allows him to focus more specifically on inner psychology and on the artistic process, itself.[back]

  17. Stephen Scobie, p. 5.[back]

  18. There is an ironical yet valid justification here since Ondaatje's novel won the Books in Canada first novel award.[back]

  19. Roy MacSkimming, "The Good Jazz," Canadian Literature, 73 (Summer, 1977), 92-94.[back]

  20. Since the publication of Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje has had published Running to Family (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982), a prose work that is part autobiography and part fiction, or as he puts it in an authorial note, "not a history but a portrait or 'gesture.' " Once again Ondaatje eliminates boundaries, this time between autobiography and fiction. He has also published a new collection of poems Secular Love (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1984) which contains an extended poem sequence "The Tin Roof."[back]