Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Ed. Sam Solecki. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1986.
For a writer who did not start writing until the age of twenty and, further, did not know he wanted to write,1 Michael Ondaatje has produced in the intervening years a remarkable body of work that includes seven collections of poetry and two works of fiction, as well as a critical study of Leonard Cohen's work and a number of articles and reviews. At the age of forty-three, Ondaatje is a major Canadian writer on his way to becoming a well-known international writer. Spider Blues, a collection of essays, reviews, and interviews on the poetry and fiction of Michael Ondaatje (most of which have been previously published), brought together by Sam Solecki, reflects the range and the importance of Ondaatje's writing, attests to the critical interest in it, and provides an important contribution towards an understanding of this complex writer.
The startling title of the collection and the book's striking cover are appropriate: the title, taken from one of Ondaatje's poems, and the image of a spider superimposed on a lush plant point to the exotic in Ondaatje's work and his interest in the visual. In the poem "Spider Blues," the spider represents the poet, who spins elaborate webs to catch the reader; the image of the spider on the cover signifies a major concern of the writer and that is with the nature of art itself, and the consequences of producing it for both the writer and the audience. Ondaatje's work is important not only because it raises challenging questions about the creative act, but also because it reveals important connections between the dramatic and the cinematic, and because it provides examples of works that blur the boundaries between the various so-called genres.
The selections in Spider Blues offer a variety of approaches to Ondaatje's work and deal with some of the questions and issues that his work raises. Solecki divides the book into two parts, arranging the selections according to the chronological order of the publication of Ondaatje's work. The first section deals with the early lyrics up to the selected poems, There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979). The second section deals with the longer works and includes an essay on his latest collection of poems, Secular Love (1985). Solecki cautions the reader that the selections should be seen as a first and very tentative attempt to describe, interpret, evaluate, and situate a writer very much in mid-career. Yet, Spider Blues does make clear that, as difficult as it may be to categorize Ondaatje's work (and despite the fact that each of his works moves in a new direction), there are thematic and stylistic continuities within his work. Moreover, the depth and complexity of Ondaatje's art and vision necessitate and justify interpretation.
The first essays in the collection attempt to come to terms with the question of tradition and literary influence on Ondaatje's work. Essays by J.E. Chamberlain, Stephen Scobie, and George Bowering and an early Interview with Ondaatje by Solecki indicate that Ondaatje does not write out of a specific tradition. Solecki says in his Introduction that "Ondaatje's landscape, stories and themes resist any taxonomies based on an overtly Canadian thematic" (p. 7). Interestingly, Chamberlain sees in the early poetry a movement beyond conventional poetic tradition in the subversion of traditional conventions. Ondaatje's shifting tones and unexpected voices reflect his unique perceptions, while they simultaneously dramatize the act of perception itself. Chamberlain attributes Ondaatje's innovations to his background; because of his Sri Lankan upbringing, Ondaatje's position in Canada is a curious one, and Chamberlain suggests that Ondaatje is closer to "other contemporary poets writing out of situations that define essentially colonial predicaments, where language or audience or the identity and role of the poet are indeterminate" (p. 41). On the other hand, Bowering says that Ondaatje's early poetry conforms to the main currents in Canadian verse which, he says, is rooted in the modernist tradition. Yet Bowering finds in the work of the mature poet a move towards the post-modern tradition where the very form of the work articulates the process of expressing the vision. Scobie, however, argues a connection between the exotic and the bizarre in Ondaatje's work with that found in the paintings of Henri Rousseau. Yet it is really Ondaatje himself who, in Solecki's Interview with him, identifies the greatest influences on his work as the visual and the cinematic, not literary-historical or cultural background.
The next essays move from questions of tradition and culture to the identification and interpretation of specific themes in Ondaatje's poetry. Susan Glickman charts the emergence of the myth of the isolated artist from his first collection of poetry, The Dainty Monsters (1967) to one of his most recent publications, The Tin Roof, now included in his newest collection of poems, Secular Love. Tom Marshall also discusses this pervasive theme in Ondaatje's work, but he sees the myth of the isolated poet as an exaggerated or literary pose, one that is necessary to explore Ondaatje's major concern the poetic process.
The most important essay in the first section of Spider Blues is Solecki's own, despite the fact that the footnotes are misnumbered (more on this later). Solecki identifies an important facet of Ondaatje's poetry, one that will be more apparent in his longer works particularly The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and Coming Through Slaughter (1976). The way the poet subjects the nature of the experience to examination, an examination that compels the reader to perceive the reality that is being created, will be dramatized in these later works through the dramatization of the confrontation between life and art. Solecki sees the tension between mind and chaos at the center of Ondaatje's work a tension achieved through the dualistic nature of the imagery, the deliberate irresolution of his major lyrics, and the complex structuring of his longer poems beginning with the man with 7 toes (1969).
The second part of Spider Blues deals with the longer works beginning with the man with 7 toes. Although very little has been written on this extended sequence, the two essays included here point to its importance for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter. In a review essay, M. Travis Lane explores the physical and psychological implications of the work, implications that will be apparent again in the later works. Solecki finds this seminal poem anticipates the "discontinuous form" of the later works. He rightly sees the beginning of a style and structure that will come to express fully the complex vision of the poet and will demand the reader's "active participation as an interpreter of a reality that is often not only ambiguous but even chaotic" (p. 136).
Ondaatje's most celebrated work is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and six of the essays in the collection are on it. The first two essays, by Sheila Watson and Dennis Lee, deal with the metaphysical implications of the poem. Watson sees in it a conflict between instinct and consciousness, a conflict equivalent to the historical conflict, evident in the new movements of art in Europe following the first world war, between nature and industrial mechanization. In Ondaatje's hands, the same conflict moves westward to a frontier country where death itself becomes subject to mechanization. Lee's essay, based on an idiosyncratic reading of the poem, applies his pre-conceived notion of metaphoric cosmologies. Ultimately, both Watson's and Lee's inclination towards the esoteric contributes little toward a formalistic understanding of the poem. And while Stephen Scobie's and David Donnell's essays do better at shedding insight on Ondaatje's use of the legendary character Billy the Kid and consequently reveal something about Ondaatje's art, by far the most important and challenging essay on this poem is Dennis Cooley's. Cooley's suggestion that Ondaatje is drawn to strange figures who press the boundaries of society and to writing that explores the formal boundaries of art has been corroborated by other critics; but Cooley provides a lucid explanation of the way the poem works through specific devices, particularly the framing device of photography, and therefore, he provides an important contribution towards an understanding of the poem.
Coming Through Slaughter has not received the same critical attention as The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a fact reflected by the inclusion of only three essays on this important work, one of these a review. Despite the fact that Coming Through Slaughter is recognized as a novel and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as a poem, both works are similar in subject, style, and structure. In Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje moves beyond the creation of an aesthetic image (the figure of Billy the Kid) to express his personal vision of the conflict between instinct and consciousness in a dramatization of the creation of the aesthetic itself (the figure of Buddy Bolden, who literally and figuratively goes through slaughter). Both works make an interior or self-reflexive comment on the creative process and both works expand on the form that originates in the man with 7 toes. The writers of the essays dealing with Coming Through Slaughter analyze images and image patterns to determine the work's meaning. Constance Rooke shows how the images work to determine not a pessimistic conclusion as is generally thought, but a more optimistic one. Her conclusions conflict with Solecki's, which place the work within a tradition of "extermis art." Solecki examines the process of Ondaatje's art as it dramatizes the imagination in conflict with itself, caught by contradictory desires; as Cooley suggests, the novel becomes a self-reflexive structure communicating through its formal patterns.
On a first reading, Running in the Family (1982) may seem like a departure from Ondaatje's previous work, but as Linda Hutcheon's essay suggests, it is in fact a culmination of his previous work. Ondaatje's reconstruction of his family's history challenges the boundaries between facts, fiction, biography, autobiography, and history. Hutcheon calls Running in the Family a "historiographic metafiction" and places it within the post-structuralist as well as the post-modern context. Yet, common to this work and Ondaatje's previous work is the blending of fact and fiction and the importance of the role of the reader as an active interpreter. Ondaatje's concern is to come to terms not only with his own history but also with the process of writing and the complexities of language as a means of expressing experience. The last essay in the collection is one by Solecki, appropriately on Ondaatje's latest collection of poems, Secular Love. Solecki finds in these poems much the same world and concerns that have been expressed in his previous works. This time, however, the poet moves towards a more direct engagement with personal experiences. Yet what Solecki finds most important in this work is not the engagement with the self, but what Solecki refers to as "the sheer artistry of the thing."
In Solecki's second Interview with Ondaatje (which took place ten years after the first one), Ondaatje is more forthcoming with personal opinions on his own work. He acknowledges that his interest in creating fiction is not so much with the narrative, or story itself, but with the communication of the experience, the way it is told. Ondaatje points out to Solecki that too few critics are interested in discussing the "architecture" of a novel or poem, or how a work is composed. The comment is an important one: the first step in literary analysis is to find out what a work of literature is about; the second step is to identify the common properties among a writer's different works; and the third step is to show how these properties work, to come to terms with their formal design or structure. The third step in critical analysis is the most difficult; yet it is the most rewarding because ultimately it reveals what makes good art.
Most of the essays in Spider Blues fall into the first and second categories and Solecki rightly points out in his introduction that there is a real need for more analysis of Ondaatje's style, or styles. Solecki's essays, Cooley's, and Hutcheon's belong to the third category of literary critical analysis; they are also the best in the collection; these essays show how Ondaatje's art works. I question some of Solecki's choices in this collection as well as some omissions. Either J.M. Kertzer's essay on "Death and Dying: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid"2 or Anne Blott's "Stories to Finish: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid"3 (essays that deal with technique and the formal properties of the poem) would have been better substituted for Scobie's essay on "Two Authors in Search of a Character" or David Donnell's "Notes on The Collected Works of Billy the Kid." A serious omission from the collection is Stephen Scobie's essay on Coming Through Slaughter,4 an essay that provides an important study of the image patterns to determine the subject and structure of the work. As well, Scobie's essays would have nicely complemented Solecki's study of Coming Through Slaughter. Further, I question Solecki's ordering of his selections. He arranges the selections according to the chronological publication of Ondaatje's work, but he places reviews of a work after more complex studies of the same work. I assume because of the dearth of good criticism on Ondaatje's earlier poetry, Solecki has included reviews of The Dainty Monsters, Rat Jelly, and There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do. Yet he includes two reviews of There's a Trick with a Knife that are totally similar in viewpoint. He also places these reviews in the first section, but after the longer studies of the poetry. Similarly, in the second section, he places a review article on the man with 7 toes after his own essay on the construction of narrative in the poem.
In such a collection as Spider Blues, reviews serve much better as opening material; therefore it seems more logical to place the reviews before studies of the work. Again, in the second section, Solecki places a generalized outsider's view, Ernest MacIntyre's essay, of Running in the Family after Hutcheon's analytical study of it. Unfortunately, after Hutcheon's essay, MacIntyre's comments seem unimportant if not irrelevant.
On the whole, Spider Blues is very much Solecki's book: as well as having chosen the selections and written the Introduction for the collection, he includes four of his own essays, two of his own interviews with Ondaatje, and one of his own reviews of Ondaatje's work. A reviewer might take exception with an editor's including so much of his work, but in this case, because of Solecki's concerns and because of the quality of his work, the selections are justified.
The collection concludes with Judith Brady's valuable bibliography of Ondaatje's work, to the date of the book. Unfortunately, this handsome and important collection is marred by typographical errors, carelessness with names and titles and, more seriously, a confusion in the numbering of footnotes in one of Solecki's own essays. These errors reflect badly on both the editor and the press. Yet despite these problems, Spider Blues is a valuable introductory book on the work of a complex and challenging writer.
J.M. Kertzer, "On Death and Dying: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," English Studies in Canada, 1 (Spring, 1975), 86-96.[back]
Blott, Anne, "'Stories to Finish': The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," Studies in Canadian Literature, 2.2 (Summer, 1977), 188-202.[back]
Stephen Scobie, "Coming Through Slaughter: Fictional Magnets and Spider's Webbs," Essays on Canadian Writing, 12 (Fall, 1978), 5-22.[back]
Alice Van Wart