Point Blank: Narrative in Michael Ondaatje's the man with seven toes

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Author: Sam Solecki
Editors: Anna Sheets Nesbitt and Susan Salas
Date: 2000
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 28)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,208 words

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[(essay date 1980) In the following essay, Solecki offers an explanatory overview of Ondaatje's the man with seven toes, arguing that the collection is "a pivotal book in Ondaatje's development."]

In view of the acclaim and the attention received by Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and Coming Through Slaughter (1976) it is inevitable that his first book-length work, the man with seven toes (1969), is often overlooked in most discussions either of his work or of contemporary Canadian writing. This is unfortunate because this long sequence of poems is a complex work, interesting in its own right, and a pivotal book in Ondaatje's development. It is with the man with seven toes that we first see him moving toward the longer and more experimental form that will become characteristic in his two major works. And although the man with seven toes does not go as far as they do in the direction of a temporally discontinuous form, nevertheless, aspects of its style and structure clearly anticipate the later developments. The shift toward the longer forms that is first seen with the man with seven toes is of particular importance in Ondaatje's development as a writer because not only are his longer works more experimental than his lyrics but it is in them that we find a style and form fully expressive of his vision. This is not to denigrate his very fine lyrics but only to emphasize that he seems to need the longer form or structure in order to create a world embodying and expressing his vision.

The final section in Ondaatje's first book, The Dainty Monsters (1967), showed him to be interested in writing a longer poem but neither of its two medium-length sequences, "Paris" and "Peter", captures, in form or content, what I take to be Ondaatje's unique way of looking at reality which is already there in some of the earlier lyrics in the collection--"Dragon," "The Republic," "Henri Rousseau and Friends," and "In Another Fashion." There is a sense in these early lyrics that material and psychological reality is fundamentally random or in a state of flux, and that poetry should communicate this particular quality of reality without, however, succumbing to either formalism or formlessness. These poems explore the borderline between form and formlessness, civilization and nature, the human and the natural, and the conscious reasoning mind and the unconscious world of instinct. They compel the reader to enter into and experience the mode of being associated with the second of the paired terms. But they do so primarily on the level of content by means of contrasted actions, settings or images. In the man with seven toes, on the other hand, it is the form as well as the content that pushes the reader into the unfamiliar ground of the work to the point that his reading of the sections of the text becomes roughly analogous to what is happening in the story, the heroine's harrowing journey through a wilderness. Beginning with...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420032685