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university of toronto quarterly, volume 70, number 2, spring 2001 SAM SOLECKI It Runs in the Family: A Reading of Michael Ondaatje=s Secular Love Yet why not say what happened? Robert Lowell, 127 On the basis of the poetry Michael Ondaatje published before Secular Love (1984),1 few readers would claim that it has much in common with confessional writing. If anything most of his earlier work stands opposed to the school=s constitutive assumptions, and even when his lyrics are personal, they are rarely intimate. The speaker in most of them seems to be Ondaatje but he=s rarely interested in dealing directly with his most personal and most problematic emotions and situations: the voice is too laconic, the tone too detached and the attitude to the self is ironic, even selfmocking . Yet we often sense that the artifice and control not only shape and present the material at hand but simultaneously hint at repressed or displaced experiences and aspects of the self with which the writer is unwilling or unable to deal. Ondaatje=s suicidal herons and artists, his fascination with the jungle, the various hints at autobiography in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1969), >Letters & Other Worlds= and Coming through Slaughter (1976) B three studies in pathological creativity B all point obliquely or symbolically to the pressure of personal events on the work. Without resorting to a confessional aesthetic, Coming through Slaughter, his novel about a jazz cornetist whose obsessive art leads to silence and madness, and the crucial lyrics >Letters & Other Worlds,= >Burning Hills,= and >White Dwarfs= certainly reveal a compulsive fascination with an intensely subjective and directly expressive art. But in these works a confessional approach is not part of what Helen Vendler, referring to other poets, calls >the structural and symbolic aesthetic strategies to which [he] has been driven in coping ... [with] some personal donnée which the poet could not avoid treating= (xii). The local donnée in Secular Love is a love affair and the breakup of a marriage. And the >aesthetic strategies= show Ondaatje 1 All references will be to Secular Love and will be included in the body of the essay. The version reprinted in The Cinnamon Peeler is incomplete. For my first response to the book, see my review >Coming Through= in the Canadian Forum. 634 sam solecki moving in a new direction in adapting a version of confessional that results in a lyric sequence that is subjective, personal, and even intimate, but on the poet=s terms. His answer to Lowell=s question is that saying it all in this kind of situation always involves betraying others, and the art, the trick with a knife, consists in writing in such a way that you only betray yourself: >This last year I was sure / I was going to die= (23). Ondaatje=s basic problem in the book is how to transform an intensely subjective set of experiences into an artistic whole while avoiding, on the one hand, excessive subjectivity, solipsistic self-dramatization, and sentimentality B >These are my feelings and therefore they=re important= B or, on the other, losing the full texture of emotional immediacy through a too impersonal approach. He solves the problem, in part, by beginning the book with a sequence narrated in the third person and following it with one shifting among >I,= >you,= and the implicating >we.= Several poems even omit the subject and leave us with the impression of a pure, unmediated if anonymous voice. Similarly, by omitting the names of the main characters Ondaatje generalizes the potential significance of the events so that what we read becomes extended into something more than simply a chronological account of a particular set of experiences involving a specific group of people. The sources of the story may be as obviously autobiographical as those of D.H. Lawrence=s Look! We Have Come Through! or Lowell=s Life Studies but the end result is a work of consummate poetry enacting a life and love story transcending the individuals originally involved in it. It=s worth recalling that Bertrand Russell=s response to Lawrence=s poetic sequence about his love for Frieda was along the lines...


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