Michael Ondaatje is a poet and novelist who’s authorial voice focuses on an individualistic perspective that spans great and small lengths of history and geography. His work’s worldliness and integrative nature perhaps stems from his singular background. He was born in Sri Lanka, raised in the UK, and later immigrated to Canada. Ondaatje’s narratives bear a unique sense of lyricism and description that one might describe as, “lyrical collage.” His oeuvre includes the collections of poetry, There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do, The Cinnamon Peeler, Handwriting, the novels, In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient, and my personal favorites, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a book of prose and poetry, as well as the novel Divisadero. “Letters & Other Worlds” is a poem that has been anthologized since its 1979 publication, wherein Ondaatje addresses his father’s alcoholism in a free verse form.
The poem begins with an unattributed quote followed by two indented stanzas of five and four lines respectively. The quote reads like a sentence fragment, in that it has no capitalization to signal a sentence beginning, nor a period to end it; “for there was no more darkness for him and, no doubt like Adam before the fall, he could see in the dark”. The similarities of the pronouns, he and him, and the biblical Adam between them, along with dark and darkness, create an arch that is first stationary, then falls, and finally rises. In the first and second lines of the indent, Ondaatje uses parallelism and repetition to invoke the poem’s title; “My father’s body was a globe of fear / His body was a town we never knew”. The words “globe” and “town” refer to the “Other Worlds” of the title. In the fourth line, “His letters were a room he seldom lived in” the poet repeats the “Letters” of the title while “room” is the “World” mentioned in a spatially, shrinking manner. The next stanza uses the same devices of parallelism and repetition with the same words as stanza one, although adding a tainting “fear” to the structure. The quote and two indented stanzas function as a preface to the narrative of the poem.
The third stanza begins with one end-stopped line announcing the death of the father; “He came to death with his mind drowning.” Ondaatje further describes the condition of the body, and the relations between blood, gin, brain, fluids, compartments, and finishes with the phrase, “a new equilibrium.” This is meant to communicate the physical state of the father in contrast to the next stanza which declares, “His early life was a terrifying comedy / and my mother divorced him again and again.” The poetic narrative regresses in this stanza by mentioning the father’s early life and “falling” as in the biblical Adam of the opening quote.
The sixth stanza provides a distractive element to offset the continued alienation of the father. This is achieved by having the entire stanza in parentheses, as if to exercise an aside to the primary theme of the poem. Ondaatje writes of his mother being a comically bad driver that was invariably stoned by the townsfolk whenever she was recognized.
The father returns in the seventh and eighth stanzas to an uneasy balance with the mother. Ondaatje writes of their marriage, “he or she was the injured party.” A definite opposition is made implicit when, on a dock and waving goodbye to a newlywed couple sailing away, the distraught and “jealous” father jumps in the water and swims after his two friends. The mother is embarrassed and “pretending no affiliation” yet later is compelled to write a note of correction to The Ceylon Times when the paper published a sentimental story on the incident, “saying he was drunk / rather than broken hearted at the parting of friends.”
The format of the short ninth stanza is one of transition to the last portion of the poem. It begins with “his last years” and in contrast to the outward display of emotion noted earlier, the father has now become a “silent drinker.” The dynamic between the physical body and place Ondaatje mentioned at the initial, indented section, has returned; “disappeared into his room with bottles / and stayed there until he was drunk / and until he was sober.”
“There speeches, head dreams, apologies, / the gentle letters, were composed.” So begins the final and longest stanza. The poet documents a reprieve that operates as the start of a denouement; “With the clarity of architects / he would write of the row of blue flowers / his new wife had planted,”. Interestingly an effect of the phrase “new wife” is of implied alliteration, in that the phrase rhymes with “new life.” This functions as a subtle misreading that, whether intended by Ondaatje or not, stops and confronts the reader with the suggested meaning of the word “wife.” The father has a new wife, and therefore the reader might participate in the story’s interpretation as to assume he also has a new life. New developments like, planned “electricity in the house,”, and a half-sister that “fell near a snake / and it had awakened and not touched her.” continue the theme of renewal of conscious life. However, the seemingly benevolent snake is “awakened” and ignores the half-sister while reminding the reader of Adam’s fall in the Garden of the initial quote. Again, the author poses a gentle question to the sensibilities of the reader. Then the father’s letters or literary creations, and awareness are expressed with a strong polysyndeton; “Letters in a clear hand of the most complete empathy / his heart widening and widening and widening”. All this juxtaposed against the rhetorical reminder of the biblical fall, “while he himself edged / into the terrible acute hatred / of his own privacy / till he balanced and fell”. The fall proves to be the father’s last, and Ondaatje patterns the last four lines with the oppositions and repetitions that have by now, become familiar to the reader; “the length of his body / the blood entering / the empty reservoir of bones / the blood searching in his head without metaphor.”