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The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems by Michael Ondaatje

This entry is part 42 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

Long ago, a friend in Montreal with whom I’ve lost touch gave me a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, a favorite author. I read it and enjoyed it, though it didn’t turn me into a fan. Still, I kept it since it was a gift from a friend. I no longer have the book—it was donated to a symphony booksale fundraiser in my hometown, when my mother moved house recently—but I have a different copy here, collected in a sort of not-quite omnibus of Ondaatje’s earlier work. The omnibus, from 1997, contains The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Running in the Family, In the Skin of a Lion, and The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems. For whatever reason, which means it’s not everything by Ondaatje up to that time, but it is a lot of his earlier work.

The cover of the omnibus isn’t the one above: it’s the boring one to the right. 

I have so many books here, and have struggled to read much for the last few years, so I’ve been looking at books of verse as a way to get back into the swing of things. They’re easier to pick up and put down and then come back to, and yet they’re also really demanding in the moment. I dunno, I figured it might help. 

Anyway, the Ondaatje book had sat on my shelf for a very long time—more than a decade—and I’d forgotten about it, until I saw this tweet:

It reminded me that I’d long intended to get back around to The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, to see what I thought of Ondaatje’s verse. (I’ve read some of the later collection at the back of the book, but had never dug deep into Billy the Kid for some reason.) 1 However, this time I did dive straight in, and I agree with Chris B: wow. 

The book, which was published in 1970, is very much a product of its time. Since this is poetry, that means it’s a mix of prose poems and free verse, with some photos scattered through it—including some pages where there are no photos included, but the verse describes photos. (Whether the book was misprinted without photos it was meant to include or the original was like that, I’m not completely sure. There’s one page where an empty box sits above what seems to be a description of a photo, and I’ve no idea whether that’s on purpose.) There are bits of “found poetry”—clippings from newspapers, presumably real—and it’s less a story than a kaleidoscopic collections of momentary fragments and fictionalized accounts by Billy the Kid himself, rendered with a kind of cold, honest, crystalline quality that sometimes gives way to a kind of “distant” poignance. Ondaatje really captures something about the cowboy mystique here: the hardness of its imagined and projected masculinity, I want to say, because the book is very self-consciously wearing masculinity of a specific, old-fashioned kind. It’s interesting that this was published in 1970, when masculinity was at a point of transformation and transition. 

There are other interesting ways one might look at the book. Ondaatje, for example, spent his early life in Sri Lanka and his adolescence in England, emigrating to Canada when he was 19. What does it mean for an immigrant to Canada to write a book of poems about a famous (American) cowboy and outlaw—albeit one who criss-crossed over the border between America and Canada? Because of their iconic depiction in American films and literature (which got exported all over the world), cowboys are remembered as if they were the epitome of white masculinity, something I don’t think was quite so reassessed in 1970 as it has been now, so it also seems interesting that Ondaatje—a man of mixed race himself, as he has Sinhalese and Dutch ancestry—would choose to write about a a cowboy specifically. Elsewhere, Ondaatje himself has mentioned that he was inspired by—and reacting to—the kinds of “western” fiction stories (i.e. cowboy tales) he read as a child in Sri Lanka, which… well, wrap your head around all the layers of complexity there: a mixed-race kid living in a colonial (and then postcolonial) society, reading fiction from another colonial society, about the glories and horrors of settlers conquering the land and its native people and establishing order among the settlers and the landscape alike. It’s a bit wild. 

But Billy the Kid was also a liminal figure: he slipped out of jail and out of the reach of the law; slipped back and forth across state and national borders; and in the legends about him, he even survived death by slipping into the mythology of the American west. His name is remembered… or, well, his slippery pseudonym is. As little as I know about Ondaatje himself, it’s not hard to see why Billy the Kid would be an attractive writing subject. It’s also easy to see why, when it won a major award in Canada, someone like the Prime Minister (John Diefenbaker) went so far as to denounce it publicly: Canadians don’t really throw around language like “un-Canadian” but I would wager that’s how the book struck a lot of people at the time. Not as in anti-Canadian so much as in “Why is this winning a majort award for Canadian Literature?” It took some time for people to realize that literature didn’t always need to take Canada (or some Canadian community or individual) as its primary subject in order to qualify as Canadian.  

About the poems themselves: it would be hard for 100 pages of verse to all be breathtaking, but (like any cowboy outlaw worth his salt) Ondaatje manages a pretty damned good ratio of hits to misses. But I also think that in some ways, though the subtitle of the book is plural—Left Handed Poems—this is actually more like a kind of “shattered” epic narrative, a single long poem fragmented into pieces and strained through different sieves to get different textures along the way. It’s heavily fractured, as a result, but it’s a fascinating pile of fragments and pieces to try sift through. 


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  1. Why? I’m not sure. Probably I’m a little reticent about CanLit, since I’ve found it somewhat hit-and-miss and especially have found its most celebrated authors do the least for me. Sinclair Ross is interesting, but W.O. Mitchell bores me to tears; Margaret Atwood rubs me the wrong way, and I’ve never thought Leonard Cohen that good a poet. Maybe it’s just that a lot of people have told me Ondaatje’s a great Canadian poet, and the label left me dubious.

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