Michael Ondaatje,
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
(Viking, 1974; Vintage, 1996)

Michael Ondaatje's sprawling sequence of verse interspersed with poetic prose exposes the persona poem as one of poetry's surest paths to honesty. Through unsettlingly precise detail and unsentimental empathy, the character of Billy the Kid is recreated and revisited in all its brutality and splendor. Ondaatje's unflinching commitment to honesty yields a persona that is as vibrant and realized as possible, resulting in a series of confessions that range from disturbing to revelatory.

The image, consistently startling, graphic and discomforting, carries the speaker through the entire sequence. Whereas most imagery depends on the eye for effect, Ondaatje utilizes all five senses throughout the book. We taste wine "so fine/it was like drinking ether," we feel Pat Garret's "oiled rifle" against Maxwell's cheek and hear it fire beside his ear, "leaving a powder scar on Maxwell's face that stayed with him all his life." We smell the smoke in Garret's shirt and taste the nicotine in his mouth. At times, the stunned silence of Ondaatje's unremitting narrative conjures a hush so palpable that we can "listen to deep buried veins in our palms." It doesn't take long for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid to immerse the reader in its own unique world, accessible now only through words and photographs.

Most memorable, though, are the intensely graphic images that sprout from the page throughout the book. The chicken digging for a vein in the dying Gregory's neck, the warts in Billy the Kid's throat "breaking through veins like pieces of long glass tubing," the blood caked in Tom O'Folliard's "hair, arms, shoulders, everywhere" -- all of these paint an unmistakable landscape of a bleak and desolate New Mexico in the 1880s, a scene so haunted that even "the sun turned into a pair of hands" and pulled out hairs from Billy the Kid's head, which, we're told later, is "smaller than a rat." Not one potentially enlivening detail is overlooked; not one square inch of landscape or action escapes the reader's view.

Ondaatje's ambitious project demonstrates that the recipe for great writing is precise detail compounded by believable emotion, a recipe he follows to the letter. Ondaatje executes these two devices so effectively at times that a kind of piercing, revelatory insight emerges periodically. Magical disclosures such as the characterization of Garrett as one who "became frightened of flowers because they grew so slowly he couldn't tell what they planned to do," help to fully realize both the character of Billy and the times in which he lived, and establish Ondaatje's book as perhaps one of the greatest attempts at persona poetry in the 20th century.

- Rambles, written
by Gianmarc Manzione

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