I was talking with John Macker recently, and discovered that he’d written extensively about Ondaatje’s “Billy The Kid.” When I was coming up as a young poet in the small press scene, this work was widely admired. Ondaatje went on to writing that drew a huge audience, but I’ve always had a fondness for this early, and ambitious, poetry.
I’m dividing Macker’s essay into three sections, to appear over the course of a week or so on the blog–stay tuned.
This essay originally appeared in Malpais Review, Vol. 5, No. 4, Spring 2015.
“I’ll be With the World Until She Dies.” Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
By John Macker
Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan living in Canada, published The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in 1970. As he states in the afterword to the latest paperback edition (Vintage Books, 2008), he relied on historical articles, “topographical maps of western deserts” and The Saga of Billy the Kid, by Walter Noble Burns, to equip him with much of the background information he’d require to give his poetic manuscript authenticity, before and while his imagination took over. He wrote Collected Works long after Arthur Penn’s 1958 film, Left-Handed Gun was released, (with Paul Newman as the brooding, existentially challenged Billy), which, on contemporary viewing, plays fast and loose with the historical record; but before director Sam Peckinpah’s equally distracting character study, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid hit theatres in 1973, with Kris Kristofferson as the hip, counter-culture Billy. Interestingly enough, it was a film more enchanted with Garrett’s decidedly tortured sheriff of Lincoln County than it was with Billy. The film traces the inevitable end of the Kid from his arrest at Stinking Springs to his killing at Ft. Sumner at the hand of Garrett, who was according to legend, his one-time friend.
Prior to 1970, a plethora of Billy the Kid titles had been published, some worthwhile, most not so. Pat Garrett’s dubious and self-inflating The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid was available as was A Fitting Death for Billy the Kid, Ramon F. Adams’ 1960 attempt to debunk and clarify much of the misinformation and mythology associated with the Kid’s story. There was also infamous Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo’s somewhat inaccurate 1920 document, Billy the Kid, which seemed to appeal more to Hollywood tastes than historians, and borrowed heavily from previous books. There are others but probably one of the most offensively fanciful is former governor of New Mexico, Miguel Antonio Otero’s The Real Billy the Kid. Published in 1936 and riddled with inaccuracies, it is a book generally supportive of the Kid and through interviews of those still living whom knew the Kid, considered Garrett to be a nefarious coward and cow thief.
Ondaatje’s Collected Works also arrived earlier than a subsequent series of fine, revisionist biographies of Billy and his era that would be published from the 1970’s well into the 2000’s.
Finely honed and detailed works like Stephen Tatum’s 1982 Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-1981, which documents the impact his legend has had on popular culture, Robert M. Utley’s two well-researched and insightful books, High Noon in Lincoln (1987) and Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life (1989). 2007 heralded a kind of resurgent interest in Billy material with Frederick Nolan’s Billy the Kid Reader and Michael Wallis’ authoritative Billy the Kid, The Endless Ride. 2010 saw the publication of Mark Lee Gardner’s well written To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West; books that succeeded for the most part, in rendering accurate portraits of William Bonney’s short, colorful and violent life in New Mexico. Since most successful biographers knew it was impossible to separate Billy from his era or his geography, we now have a fairly accurate idea of what it was like to live the outlaw’s life in the American southwest in the late 19th century.
Billy has also been heralded as a kind of counter-culture figure who rode the wild west of the imagination in the chapbooks of San Francisco poets Michael McClure (The Sermons of Jean Harlow & the Curses of Billy the Kid) and Jack Spicer, contemporary poets Tony Moffeit (Billy the Kid and Frida Kahlo) and myself, (Adventures in the Gun Trade); composer Aaron Copeland’s opera Billy the Kid, as well as the aforementioned Sam Peckinpah who cast Kris Kristofferson as the titular gunslinger and Bob Dylan as his sidekick, Alias. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Billy’s murderous streak has more to do with baby boomer rebellion against authority than any garden variety homicidal impulses.
In an early section of his 110 page tone poem Collected Works, Ondaatje contributes this:
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 hemorrhages 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
New Mexico in the 1880’s was the Wild West at its rudest, rowdiest, deadliest, devoid of most hostile Indians, it was a territory desperate for respectability and suffering from a last gasp of uncivilized mayhem before law, order and society would finally take root. 121, 365 square miles of enchanted emptiness and rattlesnakes, some 30 years before statehood, New Mexico’s evolution was interrupted occasionally by famous episodes of sudden violence and corruption, like the notorious political dealings of the Santa Fe Ring, the Lincoln County War and the rise and fall of William H. Bonney.
Michael Ondaatje, Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient, was a stranger writing about a strange land when he began Collected Works. Prior to this, he’d had two books of poetry published and it’s no surprise that Collected Works began as a loose series of poems. As a boy, he loved the myth of the West and the West depicted in American movies. Collected Works comes directly from these early enthusiasms. As he states in his afterword: “This is the first book I wrote where I swam into the deep end. It began as a small flurry of poems supposedly about the outlaw Billy the Kid. I’d had an obsession with westerns since I was eight or nine— for even in Sri Lanka the myth of the American West had filtered down furtively among children in Colombo.”
Appropriately, Ondaatje begins in “the deep end” of Billy’s words, with a roll call of the dead:
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 Blood a necklace on me all my life.
This is a book of multiple narratives and voices, not just Billy’s (although he’s the only character who reads from a notebook), but an enigmatic Pat Garrett speaks, as does Sallie Chisum. Billy’s best friend, Tom O’Folliard figures largely in the narrative, both alive and dead, as described by Billy in horrific and imaginative detail. The first piece describes a young O’Folliard out in the desert and as he aims to shoot his rifle, it blows up on him, taking off half his face:
“This is Tom O’Folliard’s story, the time I met him, eating red dirt (marijuana) to keep the pain away, off his body, out there like a melting shape in the sun. Sitting, his legs dangling like tails off the wall. Out of his skull . . . From that moment, his horse gone, he lived for four days in the desert without food or water. Because he had passed out and eaten nothing, he survived, at least a doctor told him that. Finding water finally, he drank and it poured out of his ear.”
Later, Tom’s death at the hands of Pat Garrett:
“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.”
Ondaatje gives us the wildness of the frontier on two levels. The chaos and violence of outlawry meeting its inevitable end in the street and the simple declaration of “Christmas night” so perfectly placed in the middle of the sentence. No season, no town, no person with ill intent is immune to the machinations of fate. Later, as if in juxtaposition, apart from the rest of the dystopian narrative, an as-tranquil-as-it-gets moment in the wilderness for Billy, where nothing in nature is truly safe:
sliced off my head.
Blurred a waist high river foam against the horse
riding naked clothes and boots and pistol in the air
Crossed a crooked river loving in my head ambled dry on stubble shot a crooked bird
Held it in my fingers
the eyes were small and far it yelled out like a trumpet destroyed it of its fear