ABSTRACT

Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems1 is a di cult book to describe, or to ascribe to a particular genre. Made up of poetry, prose, photographs, drawings, citations, empty or partially fi lled frames as well as much white space around the words and images, it is often described as a long poem, but it has also been described as a short novel. Responding to a question about the mixture of poetry and fi ction in the book, Ondaatje has called it a “pre-novel book”, implicitly identifying it as a transitional moment in his evolution as writer from poet to (also) novelist (Presson 1996, 88). Wolfgang Hochbruch ascribes it to the genre of “biomythography” (1994, 448), Naomi Jacobs to the category of “new fi ction biographies” (1986); Manina Jones calls it a “docudrama” (1989, 28). In comments reproduced on the back cover of the fi rst edition, Al Purdy sees it as a “fl at mosaic of di erent colours” and a “shimmering kaleidoscope”. Examining the use of visual images and the photographic and fi lmic references, critics have debated whether it is a collage or a montage, and Ondaatje himself has defi ned it “more like a collage than a formal a-to-z plot” (Presson 1996, 89).2 George Bowering regards it as an incursion into the fi eld of the “penny dreadfuls” and “dime novels”, and suggests that, given the indeterminacy and composite nature of Ondaatje’s books, we may even postulate that there is a genre called “the Ondaatje” (1999, 24, 36). For Kathleen Bethell it is “an ownerless scrapbook of Billyiana” (2003, 78). The mixture of texts in the fi rst and third-person, spoken by Billy or about Billy, and of biographical accounts locates it on the boundary between (fi ctional) autobiography, biography, and poetic reconstruction; the use of photographs draws attention to its (supposedly) documentary nature, while the use of drawings and fantasies such as “Billy the Kid and the Princess” (CW 99-102) suggests otherwise.