Michael Ondaatje’s “White Dwarfs” explores silence as the negation against the greater context of order, language and society. Because silence is absence, it cannot truly be articulated without undermining its very purpose and nature. Instead, Ondaatje conveys silence through physical and metaphysical spaces. These spaces are impossible, contradictory and often violent—allowing Ondaatje to voice silence, and ultimately giving the reader an understanding of the presence of absence.
The poem begins with a dedication. Immediately, Ondaatje emphasizes that the people he is writing about, and writing for, exist in negative space, “This is for people who disappear” (1). The lexicon is firmly one of diminishment here. Ondaatje blends the physical and the metaphorical to emphasize the transformative positions of these people, “exhaust costume and bones that could perform flight, / who shave their moral so raw” (Ondaatje 4-5). Ondaatje is hence able to show the impossible space these people create and inhabit, “they can tear themselves through the eye of a needle” (6). There is a distinct sense of sacrifice and self-destruction in such an act. Indeed, the tone here is almost elegiac. Ondaatje accomplishes a similar effect to the space created. He simultaneously employs a descent and an ascent in the beginning and the end respectively of the first stanza, capturing the paradoxical peripheral position they occupy in space. A sense of anaphora binds these directional binaries even closer: “This is for people who disappear / for those who descend into the code” (Ondaatje 1-2) and “This is for those people / that hover and hover” (Ondaatje 7-8). Hence, the “ether peripheries” (Ondaatje 9) which captures the transformative and peripheral positions of those people.
A persona is inserted into the second stanza as a point of comparison for those that Ondaatje admires. The difference between those outsiders and the persona is articulated, “There is my fear / of no words of / falling without words” (Ondaatje 10-12). The space before the “of” serves to create a rhythm, implying that the narrator’s fear is endless and eternal—hence his admiration of those who are silent. The persona portrays them as heroic explorers, “those / who sail to that perfect edge” (Ondaatje 16-17). Again, Ondaatje emphasizes the impossible and peripheral location of such a perfect edge. Necessary to this exploration is an abandonment of familiar spaces, a rejection of society. Indeed, society becomes the metaphoric catalyst for such expeditions into silence: “where there is no social fuel” (Ondaatje 18). Once again, Ondaatje uses antithetical imagery to reiterate the impossible and negative space: the descent of the sandbags against the ascent of the altitude, “Release of sandbags / to understand their altitude—” (Ondaatje 19-20). The infinity of this new space is captured through the em dash, which implies its boundlessness. The third stanza is hence indented to show that it is part of the fourth stanza’s infinite silence. Ondaatje travels back to biblical times, empathizing with the impenitent thief next to Christ, who is denied brotherhood, “we dont hear him say / say his pain, say his unbrotherhood” (23-24). The impenitent thief rejects salvation to stay in his silence and solitude. Like he did with the dedication, Ondaatje conflates the physical and the metaphysical and emphasizes the sacrifice, describing the impenitent thief as a “skeleton of pain” (26).
The poem then returns to the present, hence the return of the typesetting. Ondaatje draws a parallel between the heroes and the impenitent thief in the previous stanzas, and the mules of the Gurkhas and Dashiell Hammett in the fourth stanza. They are all silenced, and this silence is portrayed as necessary. “After such cruelty what could they speak of anyway” (Ondaatje 31). The reader begins to understand the impenitent thief’s choice—or lack thereof. Like the mules, he has suffered, “hung so high and lonely” (22). To speak and to accept salvation is beyond him, and would be akin to betraying his silence and himself. Indeed, Hammett’s silence is explicitly portrayed as progress, after he “suffered conversation and moved / to the perfect white between the words” (Ondaatje 33-34). Ondaatje acknowledges that silence extends to text, seeing the white space between the words as more perfect than the words themselves.
This white space begins to flit from form to form, size to size: “is fridge, bed, / is an egg” (Ondaatje 36-37). The language here is firmly one of negation, as within these concrete images is once again an impossible and boundless space, “where / what we cannot see is growing / in all the colours we cannot see” (Ondaatje 39-40). Ondaatje has managed to impart the motivations for silence, and this shifting and paradoxical description of absence is the closest he can come without presenting, and hence destroying it.
The final stanza returns to the particular, to the titular image of the “White Dwarfs.” Directly compared to the Gurkhas’ mules, the personified stars have no need for speech. Ondaatje refers back to the expansive and un-ending in the second stanza through the space after “anyway” in “what would they wish to speak of anyway” (44). In doing so, the negative space of silence is shown as infinite and transcendental. Ondaatje uses understandable space to extrapolate into impossible spaces, allowing the reader the closest approximation of true silence, absence and negation. The ending is perhaps anti-climactic, with the quiet implosion of the stars. But this end to “White Dwarfs” is fitting and necessary. After all, after seeking and witnessing such impossible spaces, what purpose is there in defining it back into a space anyway?