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. (p. 20)
Funny yet horrifying, improvisational yet highly distilled, unflinchingly violent yet tender and elegiac, Michael Ondaatje’s ground-breaking book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is a highly polished and self-aware lens focused on the era of one of the most mythologized anti-heroes of the American West. This revolutionary collage of poetry and prose, layered with photos, illustrations and “clippings,” astounded Canada and the world when it was first published in 1969. It earned then-little-known Ondaatje his first of several Governor General’s Awards and brazenly challenged the world’s notions of history and literature.
Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid (aka William H. Bonney / Henry McCarty / Henry Antrim) is not the clichéd dimestore comicbook gunslinger later parodied within the pages of this book. Instead, he is a beautiful and dangerous chimera with a voice: driven and kinetic, he also yearns for blankness and rest. A poet and lover, possessing intelligence and sensory discernment far beyond his life’s 21 year allotment, he is also a resolute killer. His friend and nemesis is Sheriff Pat Garrett, who will go on to his own fame (or infamy) for Billy’s execution. Himself a web of contradictions, Ondaatje’s Garrett is “a sane assassin sane assassin sane assassin sane assassin sane assassin sane” (p. 29) who has taught himself a language he’ll never use and has trained himself to be immune to intoxication. As the hero and anti-hero engage in the counterpoint that will lead to Billy’s predetermined death, they are joined by figures both real and imagined, including the homesteaders John and Sallie Chisum, Billy’s lover Angela D, and a passel of outlaws and lawmakers. The voices and images meld, joined by Ondaatje’s own, in a magnificent polyphonic dream of what it means to feel and think and freely act, knowing this breath is your last and you are about to be trapped by history.
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 things with an axe
that listen to deep buried veins in our palms
those who move in dreams over your women night
near you, every paw, the invisible hooves
the mind’s invisible blackout the intricate never
the body’s waiting rut.
About the author
Michael Ondaatje (born 12 September 1943) is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist and poet of Colombo Chetty and Burgher origin. He is perhaps best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient, which was adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film.
He moved to England in 1954, and in 1962 moved to Canada where he has lived ever since. He was educated at the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and began teaching at York University in Toronto in 1971. He published a volume of memoir, entitled Running in the Family, in 1983. His collections of poetry include The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1981), which won the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1971; The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1989); and Handwriting: Poems (1998). His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), is a fictional portrait of jazz musician Buddy Bolden. The English Patient (1992), set in Italy at the end of the Second World War, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1996. Anil's Ghost (2000), set in Sri Lanka, tells The Story of a young female anthropologist investigating war crimes for an international human rights group.
Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto with his wife, Linda Spalding, with whom he edits the literary journal Brick. His new novel is Divisadero (2007).
Excerpt: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (by (author) Michael Ondaatje)
I send you a picture of Billy made with the Perry shutter as quick as it can be worked–Pyro and soda developer. I am making daily experiments now and find I am able to take passing horses at a lively trot square across the line of fire–bits of snow in the air–spokes well defined–some blur on top of wheel but sharp in the main–men walking are no trick–I will send you proofs sometime. I shall show you what can be done from the saddle without ground glass or tripod–please notice when you get the specimens that they were made with the lens wide open and many of the best exposed when my horse was in motion
These are the killed.
Morton, Baker, early friends of mine.
Joe Bernstein. 3 Indians.
A blacksmith when I was twelve, with a knife.
5 Indians in self defence (behind a very safe rock).
One man who bit me during a robbery.
Brady, Hindman, Beckwith, Joe Clark,
Deputy Jim Carlyle, Deputy Sheriff J.W. Bell.
And Bob Ollinger. A rabid cat,
birds during practice,
These are the killed.
Charlie, Tom O’Folliard
Angela D’s split arm,
and Pat Garrett
sliced off my head.
Blood a necklace on me all my life.
Christmas at Fort Sumner, 1880. There were five of us together then. Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O’Folliard, and me. In November we celebrated my 21st birthday, mixing red dirt and alcohol–a public breathing throughout the night. The next day we were told that Pat Garrett had been made sheriff and had accepted it. We were bad for progress in New Mexico and cattle politicians like Chisum wanted the bad name out. They made Garrett sheriff and he sent me a letter saying move out or I will get you Billy. The government sent a Mr. Azariah F. Wild to help him out. Between November and December I killed Jim Carlyle over some mixup, he being
Tom O’Folliard decided to go east then, said he would meet up with us in Sumner for Christmas. Goodbye goodbye. A few days before Christmas we were told that Garrett was in Sumner waiting for us all. Christmas night. Garrett, Mason, Wild, with four or five others. Tom O’Folliard rides into town, leaning his rifle between the horse’s ears. He would shoot from the waist now which, with a rifle, was pretty good, and he was always accurate.
Garrett had been waiting for us, playing poker with the others, guns on the floor beside them. Told that Tom was riding in alone, he went straight to the window and shot O’Folliard’s horse dead. Tom collapsed with the horse still holding the gun and blew out Garrett’s window. Garrett already halfway downstairs. Mr. Wild shot at Tom from the other side of the street, rather unnecessarily shooting the horse again. If Tom had used stirrups and didnt swing his legs so much he would probably have been locked under the animal. O’Folliard moved soon. When Garrett had got to ground level, only the horse was there in the open street, good and dead. He couldnt shout to ask Wild where O’Folliard was or he would’ve got busted. Wild started
to yell to tell Garrett though and Tom killed him at once. Garrett fired at O’Folliard’s flash and took his shoulder off. Tom O’Folliard screaming out onto the quiet Fort Sumner street, Christmas night, walking over to Garrett, no shoulder left, his jaws tilting up and down like mad bladders going. Too mad to even aim at Garrett. Son of a bitch son of a bitch, as Garrett took clear aim and blew him out.
Garrett picked him up, the head broken in two, took him back upstairs into the hotel room. Mason stretched out a blanket neat in the corner. Garrett placed Tom O’Folliard down, broke open Tom’s rifle, took the remaining shells and placed them by him. They had to wait till morning now. They continued their poker game till six a.m. Then remembered they hadnt done anything about Wild. So the four of them went out, brought Wild into the room. At eight in the morning Garrett buried Tom O’Folliard. He had known him quite well. Then he went to the train station, put Azariah F. Wild on ice and sent him back to Washington.
In Boot Hill there are over 400 graves. It takes
the space of 7 acres. There is an elaborate gate
but the path keeps to no main route for it tangles
like branches of a tree among the gravestones.
300 of the dead in Boot Hill died violently
200 by guns, over 50 by knives
some were pushed under trains–a popular
and overlooked form of murder in the west.
Some from brain haemorrhages resulting from bar fights
at least 10 killed in barbed wire.
In Boot Hill there are only 2 graves that belong to women
and they are the only known suicides in that graveyard
The others, I know, did not see the wounds appearing in the sky, in the air. Sometimes a normal forehead in front of me leaked brain gases. Once a nose clogged right before me, a lock of skin formed over the nostrils, and the shocked face had to start breathing through mouth, but then the moustache bound itself in the lower teeth and he began to gasp loud the hah! hah! going strong–churned onto the floor, collapsed out, seeming in the end to be breathing out of his eye–tiny needle jets of air reaching into the throat. I told no one. If Angela D. had been with me then, not even her; not Sallie, John, Charlie, or Pat. In the end the only thing that never changed, never became deformed, were animals.
Mmmmmmmm mm thinking
moving across the world on horses
body split at the edge of their necks
neck sweat eating at my jeans
moving across the world on horses
so if I had a newsman’s brain I’d say
well some morals are physical
must be clear and open
like diagram of watch or star
one must eliminate much
that is one turns when the bullet leaves you
walk off see none of the thrashing
the very eyes welling up like bad drains
believing then the moral of newspapers or gun
where bodies are mindless as paper flowers you dont feed
or give to drink
that is why I can watch the stomach of clocks
shift their wheels and pins into each other
and emerge living, for hours
Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Prose and Poetry
“What Ondaatje has done is to remove Billy the Kid from the rather superficial pop immortality he has gained, to a new, more human, but also more charismatic plane. . . . A brilliant, fascinating and powerful work of art.” —Edmonton Journal
“The Collected Works of Billy the Kid frankly strains one’s powers of description. . . . Ondaatje’s eye for detail is wonderful and he uses it poetically, with superb restraint.” —Washington Post Book World
“Ondaatje’s techniques of may dimensioned collage and flash-back are sharply conceived and brilliantly carried through. He creates the near-madness of Billy and his companions, the paranoia of the guardians of law and order and the crazy instability of one era of the American Dream.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“Wonderful . . . Ondaatje’s language is clean and energetic, with the pop of bullets. This is literature, art.” —Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek