Ed Pavlić on Michael Ondaatje: The Image Still in the Motion Picture


The Image Still in the Motion Picture (Prose):
A Charting of Momentum in Michael Ondaatje’s Poetics

Michael Ondaatje’s 1973 poem, “The Gate in his Head,” dedicated to Toronto-born poet Victor Coleman, begins :

          Victor, the shy mind
          revealing the faint scars
          coloured strata of the brain (1-3).

He finishes the opening section with what we might take as the goal of his early work:

          not clarity but the sense of shift (4).

Poetry and writing as a kind of still photography, tracing the infinite shifts that produce the illusion of a stable world. Responding to a blurred photo of a sea gull Coleman apparently mailed to him, Ondaatje closes the poem like this:

          Caught vision. The stunning white bird
          an unclear stir.

          And that is all this writing should be then.
          The beautiful formed things caught at the wrong moment
          so they are shapeless, awkward,
          moving to the clear (21-26).


Poems : The overlapping senses, caught and splayed into view on pages that work much like the white photo paper into which developers coaxed, fixed, photos or like the screens onto which slides, sometimes home-made films, were projected in the 60s and 70s and 80s.


Many say that Ondaatje’s career as a writer is the story of a poet turned novelist. Maybe true. But, more and more I see it as a matter of making single, often overtly personal, still images projected unto the blank space of the page into moving pictures and personas with a different kind of metabolic mass. Ondaatje’s career charts a complex morphology from still, caught visions of poetry into a motion in a different imaginative order. In this other space, sometimes called prose, or fiction, beings attain a kind of metabolic, imaginative mass that invests their movements with a momentum that comes to life between continents and historical eras. A motion in Ondaatje’s work by which photo-poetic figures morph into fictive-filmic characters sets caught visions free. Images move among us in the world.


The 1979 poem, “Claude Glass,” liberates such “caught visions” into the night surrounding a garden party in Ontario. Slides (or perhaps home movies) are being projected in an outdoor theatre made with a bed sheet. When the sheet falls from the branch, the images cast into the night, falling over contours and blending into the colors of whatever object or being happens into the path of their flight.

In “Claude Glass,” from his book Secular Love, Ondaatje writes:

          On the front lawn a sheet
          tacked across a horizontal branch.
          A projector starts a parade
          of journeys, landscapes, relatives,
          friends leaping out within pebbles of water
          caught by the machine as if creating rain.

          Later when wind frees the sheet
          and it collapses like powder in the grass
          pictures fly without target
          and howl their colours over Southern Ontario. (120-129)


Caught visions thusly freed, undergo a phase change (something akin to condensation wherein water vapor turns into liquid) into an alternate element. From this new element, maybe best called fictive-filmic images, Ondaatje comprises his work in “fiction”: images of gunfighters and trumpet players, pathologists and photographers, leather dyers, tunnel diggers, farmers, bridge builders, clock repairers, poker players, searchers, dynamiters, lovers, actors, spies, nurses, soldiers, even writers, splay their motion out of the 19th Century, over the physical and existential textures of the 20th and into the 21st. The fictive-filmic images takes their place among us in the world, and vice versa; the photo-poetic image takes on a kind of mass which gives it a new force. This phase change in the literary imagination accounts for a unique kind of presence in motion, let’s call it momentum, that accompanies our experience of Ondaatje’s work.


After the wind frees the images from the blank space, the sheet, which collapses and dissolves into powder in “Claude Glass,” Ondaatje’s images move in a dimensional space attuned to projections of history doused in the metabolic chemistry of the author’s imagination. In their new space, the images multiply, attain a rhythmic motion conjuring a deepened illusion of living energy, often of energy entrapped by (what’s afraid to live in) the living.

In his 1987 In the Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje’s imaginative chemistry falls upon the construction of “The Bloor Street Viaduct” in Toronto, completed “on October 18, 1918.” Set in history, the work can no longer be strictly personal. Nonetheless, it’s not strictly historical either. We’re informed that the “bridge goes up in a dream” (26). In the scenes, Victor Coleman’s “caught visions” proliferate: “There are over 4,000 photographs from various angles of the bridge in its time-lapse evolution.” In a spray of images, Ondaatje paints the scene, “Men in a maze of wooden planks climb deep into the shattered light of blond wood. A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame. Drill smoke in his hair. A cap falls into the valley, gloves are buried in stone dust.” One image swoops even closer to Coleman’s “blurred photograph . . . / an unclear stir” (RJ 62); it recapitulates the poetic action from “A Gate in His Head” almost verbatim. Upon completion, “During the political ceremonies a figure escaped by bicycle through the police barriers. . . in the photographs he is a blur of intent. . . the cyclist too on his flight claimed the bridge in that blurred movement, alone and illegal. Thunderous applause greeted him at the far end” (27).

When the photo-poetic area expands into the fictive-filmic volume of the new form, Ondaatje’s “caught visions” are freed. The images “howl their colours” into a newly dimensional world of so-called prose and the poetic metabolism invades realism’s claim to history. The result deepens the static, silent documentary potential of the photo-poetic. The fictive-filmic, a dimensional reel of movement, sound, texture and flux, blooms into being. The vision catcher turned image-mover understands that “before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting” (29). Soon, one of the workers stolen from history by the fictive-filmic imagination completes the transition from caught visions on a white sheet to moving images in dimensional space, translating Coleman’s model of artistic practice into the new medium. The transition recaptures the risks, even the violent impact, borne by those who’d assign a kind of existential mass (accumulated out of dimensionals in the new space) to the velocity of imagined objects. The result was a poetic kind of momentum, a verbal flesh, and a filmic-fiction of motion images that seem to originate in the interior of the reader as much as they emanate from the text.

Before we know his name, Macedonian baker turned bridge-builder-dare-devil, Nicholas Temelcoff swings by his rope “mid-air under the central arch” of the bridge under construction. Temelcoff works the nightshift. He’s dangling beneath the bridge when the wind blows one in a group of nuns over the edge of the bridge. In this instant, he encounters a version of Coleman’s photo-poetic image precisely as it takes on fictive-filmic mass. He:

saw the shape fall towards him, in that second knowing his rope would not hold them both. He reached to catch the figure while his other hand grabbed the metal pipe edge above him to lessen the sudden jerk on the rope. The new weight ripped the arm that held the pipe out of its socket and he screamed, so whoever might have heard him up there would have thought the scream was from the falling figure. . . it was a black-garbed bird, a girl’s white face. (31-32).

The new weight in the plot is the impact of the nun’s falling body caught by Temelcoff as he hangs by a rope over the valley. The new weight in the writer’s career is the play of caught vision liberated from its silent, static image against a blank screen. In an instant, Temelcoff, dare-devil, prepared himself to catch the momentum created as Ondaatje released Coleman’s “blurred photograph of a gull . . .a stunning white bird” (40) from its poetic abstraction and, via the velocity of the writer’s metabolism, propelled it and others into the “real . . .imagined” history of Toronto. It’s as if a three-dimensional body had fallen out of a two-dimensional envelope mailed in 1973. The body fell for more than a decade through the space of a writer’s accumulating repertoire and appeared in a plunge of photo-poetic velocity (the sense of shift) given fictional mass (pictures fly without target). The result is an instant’s glimpse at a kind of phase change which gives Ondaatje’s work its fictional momentum (mass x velocity = momentum). If one had any doubt about the nature of the transition, later in the novel, we learn the caught vision’s name. After her photo-poetic plunge into filmic-fictive being, the ex-nun renamed herself Alice Gull.


And yet, in it all, the sense of shift at the core of poetry, of lyric, is always there. In In the Skin of a Lion, not yet aware of how she fell into being, Patrick Lewis listens to his lover, Alice Gull, read from the letters of Joseph Conrad:

These are my favorite lines. I’ll whisper them. “I have taught you that the sky in all its zones is mortal. . . . Let me now re-emphasize the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects. (135)

And Patrick’s response recasts the core of the lyric’s claim to existence, the nano-structure of its potential to attain its filmic mass beyond a strictly poetic sense of shift: “Say it again” (135). The essence of lyric force, the key to its potential as fictive-filmic momentum: repetition. We have to want to hear it again, as in “one of these underground pools where we can sit still. Those moments, those few pages in a book we go back and forth over” (148).


All proceeds according to the lines from In the Skin of a Lion that hazard : “The chaos and tumble of events. The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’ Meander if you want to get to town” (146). All proceeds, that is, as if the road to town has its own living depth, current, and invisible obstacles. The filmic-fictive road is more river than road, a condition we encounter in the 1979 poem “Walking to Bellrock” in which “Two figures in deep water” approach the Ontario town by walking in the river instead of on the road (There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do 81-82). Of this meandering, Ondaatje writes: “you won’t / believe how that river winds and when you / don’t see the feet you concentrate on the feet.” Navigating the dimensional space of the living road requires charts linked to one’s own, intimate sense of shift as it takes on living momentum, “recognizing home by the color of barns / which tell us north, south, west” (Trick, 83). In In the Skin of a Lion, Patrick wants the location of presence made with his dimensional lover, he “does not wish for plot and all its consequences” (160). Without such intimate charts, and so relying on the standard maps and geographies, the figures “Walking to Bellrock” (from There’s a Trick With a Knife I’m Learning To Do) would be touch-blind:

          and otherwise lost in miles and miles of rain
          in the middle of this century
          following the easy fucking stupid plot to town. (63-65)

Bereft of such an “easy fucking stupid plot,” the proto-fictive-filmic searcher in “Claude Glass” might appear lost in a drunken evening he won’t remember (the poem begins, “he’s told about / the previous evening’s behavior” (1-2). Nonetheless, after having fallen “back onto the intricacies” of dimensional navigation, at the close of the evening, according to the echo location of crickets in “the black canvas of this night,’ we’re told:

                                        Creak and echo.
          Creak and echo. With absolute clarity
          He knows where he is. (202-204)

Speaking with John Berger in an interview of shifts in which it’s not at all clear who interviews whom, Ondaatje ventures that the structure of the fictive-filmic story proceeds by the “power of coincidence.” Possibly, he allows, the structure comes into being as a “recognition of echoes.”


The Chaos and Tumble of events. In the fragments we have of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, mostly quoted by Aristotle, Anaxagoras pits “Chaos” against Mind, in Greek, “Nous.” The Greek word for Mind, “Nous,” the counter to Chaos, comes via Latin to English spelled: n.o.u.s. Follow me. Nous in French means, “Us.” So, by wildly specious methods, let’s conclude it’s about Chaos and Us. In Aristotle, Mind stood apart from Chaos, a kind of unmoved mover. But, as well as we know Us, Nous, Mind, is most certainly part of the chaos and vice versa.

Us & Chaos. No work ushers Us into confrontations with Chaos, which is to say, with Us, in a more complexly various and approachable array of photo-poetic and fictive-filmic vantages than Michael Ondaatje’s work. Part “dance in the auditorium of enemies” (92) from Coming Through Slaughter, part “falling together of accomplices” (145) from In the Skin of a Lion (incidentally, both phrases describe live musical performances), the player and the listener labor together.


Two Conclusions.

Let me conclude, first, by pointing back at something Ondaatje wrote about the famed stride piano player, singer and composer Fats Waller. In his film-clip-like profile of Waller from 1984, “In a Yellow Room,” he writes:

the anarchy, the unfolding of musical order, the growls and muttering, the fact that Fats Waller was talking to someone over your shoulder as well as to you. . . the notes fresh as creek washed clothes (Secular Love 119).

And, second. Possibly in redux of the bit about Waller above. In his 2007 novel, Divisadero, French / Gitane guitar player Rafael strums his guitar and listens and we’re told that, “What was adjacent to music was music” (79).

So, one ventures that, at least for Ondaatje, the score in a “recognition of echoes” and the key to the traces left by “the power of coincidence,” are musical phenomena. Music is the energy necessary to condense the vapor of photo-poetic stop-action into the fluid structure of fictive-filmic motion.


One final post-conclusive pulse will land us where we need to be. That is, will put us in a good place from which to re-read, to experience again Ondaatje’s photo-poetic acumen as it takes on its fictive-filmic momentum over the course of his career. It’s a course with its own living currents. Over the years and between books, the metabolism of Ondaatje’s dimensional space changes, of course. Talking with John Berger, Ondaatje described the energy carried by Renaissance painter, Caravaggio, or at least that carried by his work, which provided the spark for his thief, Caravaggio, in In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient: “This energy that was leaping off the table. . . there are no boundaries between him and everybody else that he paints . . .there’s a kind of furious democracy in him.”

An emerging will to gentleness appears in Ondaatje’s recent work. In The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje signals the crux of the shift in the nature of his dimensional space ca. 2011 in his description of the rebellious leader of their trio: “There was a gentle democracy in Cassius. In retrospect, he was only against the power of Caesar” (40). There being, in Ondaatje’s imagined reality, no possibility without anarchy, the new gentleness offers a way to survive the necessary anarchy. In his performance of lyric hemorrhage in Coming Through Slaughter, Buddy Bolden blows his throat—and his mind—out through the bell of his horn. In In the Skin of a Lion, when Patrick asks what she wants, Alice Gull, the falling nun turned revolutionary actress replies, “Nothing but thunder” (127). But she’s killed when a bomb she—unknowingly, maybe—carries explodes. Her death ricochets. Thereafter, her lover Patrick leans away from the dangerous momentum of photo-poetic/fictive-filmic images: “Something alive, just one small gray bird on a branch, will break his heart” (165). In The English Patient, Kip arrives—out of a thunderstorm—equipped to diffuse bombs surrounding Alice Gull’s daughter, Hana.

In Divisadero, 2007, the momentum of the fictional motion that had, in previous novels, dislocated shoulders, broke hearts, and caused a trumpet player to rupture the veins in his neck, and his mind, until he blew blood from the bell of his horn, is recast as careful handling of the essential anarchy of imaginative labor. Characterizing the metabolism of the narration, the quality of force borne in the images in Divisadero, a daughter informs us about how her father told stories. Describing a challenging, complex, and protective presence, a force that is at once personal and impersonal, she informs:

Now and then our father embraced us as any father would. This happened only if you were able to catch him in that no-man’s-land between tiredness and sleep, when he seemed wayward to himself. I joined him on the old covered sofa, and I would lie like a slim dog in his arms, imitating his state of weariness—too much sun perhaps, or too hard a day’s work.

Claire would also be there sometimes, if she did not want to be left out, or if there was a storm. But I simply wished to have my face against his checkered shirt and pretend to be asleep. As if inhaling the flesh of an adult was a sin and also a glory, a right in any case. To do such a thing during daylight would have been unthinkable, he’d have pushed us aside. He was not a modern parent, he had been raised with a few male rules, and he no longer had a wife to qualify or compromise his beliefs. So you had to catch him in that twilight state, when he had ceded control on the tartan sofa, his girls enclosed, one in each of his arms. I would watch the flicker under his eyelid, the tremble within that covering skin that signaled his tiredness, as if he were being tugged in mid-river by a rope to some other place. And then I too would sleep, descending into the layer that was closest to him. A father who allows you that should protect you all of your days, I think. (11-12)

A similar music of address, intensified into a near-devastating gentleness, a caring in-toned in a nuance of detail, carries the dimensional elements of the story in The Cat’s Table. The narration is clearly an extension of the father’s fluid narrative presence in Divisadero. Finding the necessary presence in the company of an older cousin, subject of 11 year-old Michael’s sexual awakening, he writes:

And was it a pleasure or a sadness, this life inside me? It was as if with its existence I was lacking something essential, like water. I put the tray down and climbed back onto Emily’s high bed. I felt in that moment that I had been alone for years. I had existed too cautiously with my family, as though there had been shards of glass always around us. . . I knelt on that bed on my hands and knees and shook. Emily leaned forward and embraced me, in so soft a gesture I felt barely touched, an envelope of loose air between us. My hot tears that had come from my darkness rubbed on her cool upper arm.

Emily asks : “What is it?” Michael answers and goes on:

‘I don’t know,’ Whatever small props of necessary defense I’d surrounded myself with, which contained and protected me, and which had marked the outline of me, were no longer there.

Perhaps we talked then. I don’t remember. I was conscious of the easy quietness around me, my breathing eventually at the same calm pace of her breathing.

I must have fallen asleep for a moment, and woke when Emily, not moving away from me, reached her other hand over her shoulder in a backstroke gesture for the cup of coffee. And soon I heard the quick swallows, my ear against her neck. Her other hand was still gripping mine as no one had ever done, convincing me of a security that probably did not exist. (114-15).

If we squint our eyes, Michael and his cousin Emily appear to swim, as if Emily—via backstroke technique—rescues her younger cousin from the fluid dangers of the narrative itself. From here we can easily recognize the echo from “Walking to Bellrock,” “Two figures in deep water” (1).

By some such meandering means does Michael Ondaatje’s photo-poetic impulse arrive at its full, fictive-filmic impact. There are hundreds of other bends in the river. But, in the foregoing twists and turns, we chart a series of key instances. As he wrote in The Cat’s Table, each “must have been a hopeful or terrible moment, full of possibilities” (264). One guesses many were both. And, we await the brand of momentum, the color of musical flame, we’ll encounter in the next version of dimensional space he’ll deliver like “a gentle touch, then a deeper press, like some sort of signal” (TCT 265).

Works Cited

Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. New York: W.W. Norton, 1970.
——. Coming Through Slaughter. New York: W.W. Norton, 1976.
——. Divisadero. New York: Knopf, 2007.
——. In The Skin of a Lion. New York: Knopf, 1987.
——. Rat Jelly. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1973.
——. Secular Love. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1984.
——. The Cat’s Table. New York: Knopf, 2011.
——. There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.

Leave a Reply