I was just looking for some background information on this book and see that the publishing date has been changed since Michael edited it some; the edited version adds “Left-Handed Poems” to the title. My copy is the 1970 edition of the text and is the first Vintage International Edition, published in 1996.
The book has sat, unread, on my bookshelf for a long time. It’s a slim volume, only 105 pages, but poetry, as you know, can be light as a feather with words, but heavy, like the weight of the water in an ocean, and dense as a piece of kryptonite.
The book is poems and vignettes, not told in any chronology particularly, although it does have entries for the beginning and the end of William Bonney’s, a.k.a. Billy The Kid’s life. The poems are minimalist, where your imagination is encouraged to put flesh on the bones. I’m not sure where Ondaatje drew from in the content, but from what I picked up through the crystal ball is that it draws loosely from actual events in Billy’s life. The format is mostly Billy telling from his point of view, but there are interviews and newspaper articles as well.
The experience of reading The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is that of entering his visceral realm; a realm of extreme beauty, yet also of great terror and anguish. The telling covers what happened to him but also the horrific things he saw happen to his riding buddies. Featuring prominently in the telling is his pursuit by Pat Garrett, who eventually killed Billy (or did he? There are some who say he escaped.) Call me an idiot or call me a hopeless romantic, but I hope Billy got away.
One brief passage:
Snow outside. Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh and me. No windows, the door open so we could see. Four horses outside. Garrett aimed and shot to sever the horse reigns. He did that for 3 of them so they got away and 3 of us couldn’t escape. He tried for 5 minutes to get the reigns on the last horse but kept missing. So he shot the horse. We came out. No guns.
Another, where he’s being interviewed in jail in 1881:
Interviewer: Are you happy, or at least were you happy? Did you have any reason for going on living, or were you just experimenting?
Billy: I don’t know whether I’m happy or not. But in the end that is all that’s important — that you keep testing yourself, as you say — experimenting on how good you are, and you can’t do that when you want to lose.
And a final sample:
She leans against the door, holds
her left hand at the elbow
with her right, looks at the bed
on my sheets — oranges
peeled half peeled
bright as hidden coins against the pillow
she walks slow to the window
lifts the sackcloth
and jams it horizontal on a nail
so the bent oblong of sun
hoists itself across the room
framing the bed the white flesh
of my arm
she is crossing the sun
sits on her leg here
sweeping off the peels
traces the thin bones on me
turns toppling slow back to the pillow
I am very still
I take in all the angles of the room
Why did I wait so long to read this work of art? Incredibly, Mr. Ondaatje rises in my esteem and reverence yet again.