Essay: Lydia Eugene
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
by Michael Ondaatje

while i've been going on
the blood from my wrist
has travelled to my heart
and my fingers touch
this soft blue paper notebook
control a pencil that shifts up and sideways
mapping my thinking going its own way (72)

Reading Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is an exercise in the aesthetic of 'thinking going its own way'. Through his various histories of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje unleashes the story of the artificer, ironically metaphorized as the notorious murderer; he who must destroy in order to attain enlightenment, and he who seeking enlightenment, merely destroys. In casting Billy the kid as creator/artist and the wild west as the canvas, Ondaatje both underscores and undermines the romantic associations of the gunslinger and of the artist. Even as he suggests how perception and artistic vision are free and wild forms existing without boundaries, Ondaatje points to the bizarre trappings of that vision of the sublime.

Ondaatje's imagistic and journalistic narrative charts the artist's (Billy's) approach to, and collapse into, sensation, color, texture - where perception and perspective magnify to render sublime the details of the phenomenal world. Ondaatje applies a metaphorics of vision, doubleness and excess to create this sublime.

Ondaatje uses a third person narrator to directly address the reader and to establish an relation of intimacy between reader and character.

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. (20)

The intriguing nature of the address enables the reader to participate, not only in the tale of Billy the Kid, but in the discovery of it (the beginning), the unlocking. The reader is asked to 'be in' the text both as a participant and observer. Ondaatje's language entices the reader's continued attention through its compelling movement between the familiar or prosaic and the iconographic. The reader, rather than being alienated by the murderer's perspective, finds herself allied with the artist's aesthetic vision. This understanding is created through the magnifying of mundane detail and a rendering of objects as icons. Ondaatje's use of simple, oblique description makes the language a seductive environment to 'be in'. Inanimate objects and substances are vitalized when coupled with verbs: "Neck sweat eating at my jeans" (11), magnifies actions of the insensate world and equates it to the world of human actions, of hostile actions. This double move towards animation, through a language of violence, saturates the poetry. This perspective which animates also violates within the piece: moral vision is suppressed, the aesthetic vision is all that matters, all there is to see.

Though the motif of perception transcends simple reference to physical sight it is dependant on it and character's ability to perceive is clearly linked to physical vision. Ondaatje repeatedly uses forthright references to 'seeing' and to what is seen:

Snow outside. Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh and me. No windows, the door open so we could see. Four horses outside. (22)

The short sentences and listing of details confine the narrator's visual field. This limitation outlines division: hence two of the text's governing tropes -- partial vision and the division of interior and exterior. The trope of outside and inside is heavily knitted into the work; interior is associated with internal perception or personal vision whereas the exterior includes the material, surfaces, and the chaos of the external world. Of the two categories of sight, it is a focus on the internal which is the key to enlightenment for the artist. The physical body is the site where the split between internal and external worlds becomes difficult to sustain. Through repetition of symbolic words and inversion Ondaatje illustrates these tensions in the following passages:

His stomach was warm
remembered this when I put my hand into
a pot of luke 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

With Sallie Chisum in Paris Texas
he wanted to see when taking tea
dragging out the stomach to get the bullet
a pot of luke warm tea to wash it out
remembered this when I put my hand into
his stomach was warm (27)

It seems the act of looking cannot occur without some implication in its object. The look changes and inverts. The destruction of the body is the realization of the artists' desire for interior vision.

I am here with the range for everything
corpuscle muscle hair
hands that need the rub of metal
those senses that
that want to crash thing with an axe
that listen to deep buried veins in our palms (72)

The doubling of desires that 'want to crash things with an axe' and that 'listen to deep buried veins' maintains the violence accompanying the desire to hear an internal language. This sense perception uses destruction as a pathway to the interior. It is also the key to a kind of knowledge. When Angela's hand is shot open, Billy removes the bullet and examines the wound:

look at it, i'm looking into your arm
nothing confused in there
look how clear
Yes Billy, clear (66)

This correlating desire for the destruction of the body, the physical, the external, and the viewing of the internal, shows internal perception as a pure form. Ondaatje produces this correlation by repetitive use of the words "clear" and "pure" when describing interiors as well as when depicting Billy's physical vision. Sallie Chisum's narrative describes Billy as a "good looking, clear eyed-boy" (52). The relationship between destruction and pure perception produces the optic; the ocular as the sublime.

Purity of the internal, the sensory, also suggests purity in vision understood as the goal of the artist. As the narrative focuses on the internal, sentences lose formal structure, punctuation, and the language becomes more free form (the pen "mapping my thinking going its own way" (72)). For instance, during Billy's 'sun-fever' he imagines a hand searching his physical self:

Down the long cool hand went scratching the freckles and warts in my throat breaking through veins like pieces of long glass tubing, touched my heart with his wrist, down he went the liquid yellow from my busted brain finally vanishing as it passed through soft warm stomach like a luscious blood wet oasis, weaving in and out of the red yellow blue green nerves moving uncertainly through wrong fissures ending pausing at cul de sacs of bone then retreating slow leaving the pain of suction then down the proper path through pyramids of bone that were there when I was born, through grooves the fingers spanning the merging paths of medians of blue matter, the long cool hand going down brushing cobwebs of nerves . . . (76-77)

The internal becomes a world in itself, with pathways, oases, pyramids and cul de sacs. In contrast to imagist passages earlier in the text, the above passage enacts the artist's loss of self in internal landscapes; the loose grammatical structure suggests the proliferation of images as abandon into the perceptive world. Ondaatje's emphasis of inanimate structures is colored by the clumping of adjectives and nouns to form descriptions of the sublime ('luscious blood wet oases'.)

The aesthetic of the sublime is doubled in Ondaatje's blending of the iconography of birds and vision, frequently in a single image. Birds in literature are often associated with transcendence, and/or a universal, all-encompassing perspective, (i.e. "a bird's eye view"). Billy marks the importance of the symbol when examining a dead bird:

Held it in my fingers
the eyes were small and far
it yelled out like a trumpet
destroyed it of its fear (14)

But for all the symbolic weight of the bird image the creature in Billy's hand is dead; its eyes small and unseeing. Later, Ondaatje associates sun and moon as birds, their status as signifiers of vision are linked with the threat of blindness:

and the sun a flashy hawk and you look up and moon a frozen bird's eye (26)

The bird symbol is the transcendent, but it is a transcendence which negates itself. The promise of sight is threatened. The contrast of sun hawk and frozen eye also suggests the conflict at the heart of the artist's agenda; to image the world, to freeze it.

Billy describes the owls in the dark cages with acute detail to their eyes "All I could see were its eyes -- at least 8" apart" (37). Later he realizes that his perception was altered and that his vision was actually of two birds, each blind in one eye. He describes birds as "moving and sensing the air and our departure. We knew they continued like that all night while we slept" (37), Birds as sensual perceptive creatures actually embody the threat of blindness posed within the promise of perceptual acuity.

The idea of frozen or vivisecting vision recurs when Billy suffers hallucinations. As he stares into the sun he explains that "nothing breaks his vision". He also realizes: "if I hold up my finger I blot out the horizon" (74). In this scene he seems master of his perception, able to control and alter what he sees, painting the canvas before him. Ondaatje emphasizes the danger posed by the artificer by likening Billy to mythic Icarus, son of Daedalus:

I am here on the edge of sun
that would ignite me
looking out into pitch white (75)

Though he nears the sun he realizes his hands are empty and returns

to where weapons are
is planned by my eye (75)

The eye is roving but paralyzed. Billy's artistic tools are weapons. Enlightenment lies in destruction of the external. He fixates on a boy who is able to block out light and notes his appearance, "face young like some pharaoh". The godlike figure is able to control art whereas Billy, without his weapons, remains catatonic:

I am unable to move
with nothing in my hands. (75)

This is the risk facing the artist, the doubleness of vision and blindness, of innovation and destruction, of communication and silence. New vision and fresh perception will not arise without some form of destruction. Only in the moment of death or destruction might the sublime be grasped. Billy has some indication of this when he watches Charlie Bowdre dying:

while the eyes grew all over his body (12)

Multiple vision suggests multiple perspectives and this multiplication recalls of the sublime. The dying body sprouts eyes which are also wounds. Sight and blindness are bound up as one. Ondaatje separates and isolates this sentence example after a detailed description of Bowdre's death to reinforce the phenomena of vision as an intrinsic proliferation in the moment of physical destruction.

Ondaatje's production of the sublime was both enabled and defined by his awareness of the tension between the bizarre and the mundane. A foreshadowing of this conflict is found early in the piece when Billy describes his moral vision:

so if I had a newsman's brain I'd say
well some morals are physical
must be clear and open
like a diagram of watch or star
one must eliminate much (11)

Neither Billy or Ondaatje have a newsman's brain; it is the narrator who tells us that morals are physical and as actions morals are clear. Throughout the piece we have seen that which is clear became clear through destruction, by delving into the interior, and gaining perception that is also a devastation. In order to attain this clear form, 'one must eliminate much'. In the same way Ondaatje eliminates many of the elements of conventional prose. Still, unlike Billy or Icarus, Ondaatje is not destroyed by his approach of the sun. The vacillation between the familiar and the fantastic, allows him to approach the sun and withdraw, there is a fresh narrative voice at play after the description of Billy's death:

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

The artists project is suddenly less self-annihilating than a night of drunken illusions. Despite the hangover, his thoughts are not empty, he sees the ghost of an amoeba within the smoky wake; a creature which forms new life out of self destruction.

Copyright © 1996 Lydia Eugene - All Rights Reserved