In “The gate in his head,” Michael Ondaatje sees reality as chaotic and amorphous. Art, however, imposes the artist. The problem is capturing this chaos without imposing order upon it—a contradictory task. Ondaatje looks towards Victor Coleman for an answer. Coleman is able to direct the reader towards this indescribable reality through a sense of movement and convergence. This motion is crucial to “The gate in his head,” as Ondaatje analyzes and mimics Coleman’s technique, ever sliding closer to that ineffable chaos.
Victor Coleman is the central figure in “The gate in his head.” He is what Ondaatje aspires to be. Through enjambment, Ondaatje is able to draw a parallel and comparison between the aspects of Victor’s mind, “the faint scars / coloured strata of the brain” (2-3). Victor’s mind is portrayed as layered and coloured, emphasizing its complexity and multiplicity like the chaotic reality. In clear comparison, the “faint scars” function as a sort of oxymoron. Scars suggest permanence, but “faint” implies that it pales in comparison to the “coloured strata.” Ondaatje’s views are not entirely clear here, but that is precisely the point. The heavy sibilance in the first stanza culminates in a sliding effect, “not clarity but the sense of shift” (Ondaatje 4).
The second stanza is a solitary, uncapitalized line: “a few lines, the tracks of thought” (5). It is almost an afterthought, an interjection that mimics fleeting musings. Ondaatje imbues this line with a physical permanence, emphasizing the “track” through the alliterative “tracks of thought.” This concrete potency hints at the staying power of thought, particularly when written down. By moving from the scars in the brain to writing, Ondaatje is able to link the two: both impose some form of change.
This becomes relevant when compared to the third stanza. Here, Ondaatje creates a surreal and absurd landscape of changing and living parts: “Landscape of busted trees / the melted tires in the sun” (6-7). If Ondaatje gave the ephemeral thought concreteness in the previous stanza, he gives the concrete trees and tires mutability here. Ondaatje uses fragmentation to disorientate the reader. Above all else, Ondaatje seeks to show reality as chaotic and moving. He rapidly alternates between lines focused on an object and lines focused on action:
with a book inside
turning its pages
like some sea animal
the typeface clarity
going slow blonde in the sun full water (9-14)
He personifies the objects, giving them a sense of consciousness and innate movement. By drawing together unrelated or tangentially related objects, the stanza assumes a stream-of-consciousness style. Ondaatje draws heavily on water imagery and lexicon to describe reality, seeking to capture its fluidity. Through mimesis, this stanza reflects the chaos and activity of reality.
The problem then, is in reconciling the chaos of reality in the third stanza with thought’s imposition of order in the second stanza. Ondaatje inserts a persona here for several reasons. Firstly, the persona is both an author and an audience surrogate, drawing closer to understanding Victor’s ideas. Secondly, the persona acts as a foil for Victor. The problem that sets the persona apart from Victor is implicitly articulated: “My mind is pouring chaos / in nets onto the page” (15-16). Water imagery from the previous stanza is sustained here, “pouring” chaos, while the prominence on the constraints of writing is also continued, “in nets onto the page.” The persona laments his limitations, “A blind lover, dont know / what I love till I write it out” (Ondaatje 17-18) Through enjambment, the persona acknowledges his ultimate ignorance of reality and his reliance on the imposition of writing. The “blind” persona admires Victor’s method of seeing and capturing reality, the “blurred photograph of a gull. / Caught vision” (Ondaatje 20). This photograph manages to capture the essence of activity and life in reality—the gull is not netted and chained to the page, but flying and free, “The stunning white bird / an unclear stir” (21-22).
This gull is the ultimate symbol of art for Ondaatje, “And that is all this writing should be then” (23). It is impossible to truly capture the layered, shifting and amorphous chaos of reality without imprisoning it, but the writer should seek to direct the reader as close to truth as possible. “The beautiful formed things caught at the wrong moment / so they are shapeless, awkward / moving to the clear” (Ondaatje 24-26). “The gate in his head” ends on a note of un-ending convergence, “moving to the clear.” Ondaatje’s persona finally accomplishes what Victor is able to do. The aphorism in the final stanza explains the necessary cryptic and surreal nature of the previous stanzas: writing is about the journey of motion, not the still destination.
The marathon of hope; or, I was not able to find very much about Victor Coleman
Victor Coleman is a Canadian poet and editor. During his time as senior editor of Coach House Press between 1965 and 1974, Coleman edited and published early poems by Michael Ondaatje. That is about the extent I could find about the real life relationship between Coleman and Ondaatje. Presumably, Coleman had some impact on a young Ondaatje: Ondaatje’s poem “The gate in his head” is after all, dedicated to and inspired by Coleman.
In the only detailed reference I could find between Coleman and Ondaatje, Annick Hillger claims that “The gate in his head” references Coleman and his book, One/Eye/Love several times (63-65). She claims the phrase “The gate in his head” is directly taken from Coleman’s poem “Day Twenty.” According to Hillger, the scars that feature in the first stanza of “The gate in his head” are a reference to Coleman’s “Day Thirteen.” Unfortunately, I have no way of verifying this. I have not been able to find a copy of One/Eye/Love, “Day Twenty” or “Day Thirteen” anywhere in the library or online. Hence, I am unable to find the context that Coleman used “the gate in his head” in, and I cannot know its relation to Coleman’s work.
There seems to be a general scarcity of Coleman’s poems—even Coach House Books’ website contains no real information about Victor Coleman or his poetry. The library had three other Coleman books published by Coach House, but I was unable to find them on the shelves. Perhaps one of my classmates had beat me to it. I was however able to find From the Dark Wood, a collection of poems that Coleman had written between 1977 and 1983, some ten years after One/Eye/Love and five years after Ondaatje’s “The gate in his head.” The book is split into two sections, “At War with the Muse” and “From the Dark Wood,” each containing perhaps a dozen poems.
While to my eternal shame, I am not able to answer any questions about Coleman in relation to “The gate in his head,” I can analyze what Coleman poems are available to me.
There was one particular poem in From the Dark Wood that seemed to broach the same ideas as Ondaatje’s “The gate in his head”: “Anticipating Entertaining Blaine.” In “Anticipating Entertaining Blaine,” Coleman explores the relationship between cinema and poetry. Immediately, one can see the same fixation Ondaatje has with capturing the chaos of reality without ordering it. Coleman says “Poetry is unseen cinema” (Coleman 9).
“Anticipating Entertaining Blaine” shares the same sense of convergence as “The gate in his head,” the same sense of “moving to the clear” (Ondaatje 26). Whereas Ondaatje begins cryptically and ends with an explanation, the reverse is true for “Anticipating Entertaining Blaine.” In the first seven stanzas, Coleman explains how he appreciates that cinema captures motion, “I just like the way he walks, / talks, balks at being numbered / in the ranks of the extreme / of the 24-frame cosmology” (5-8). Like Ondaatje, Coleman sees the necessary participation from the audience—the artist’s role is only to lead the audience to water, “the reader has to dance / and the writer is the leader” (15-16).
It is the final stanza of “Anticipating Entertaining Blaine” that is the most enigmatic and necessary to understanding Coleman’s philosophy:
The shoes are too tight, like the might
of oppressed races when aroused –
if they wanna run, let ‘em –
the marathon of hope is endless (25-28)
Coleman abandons the primary vehicle of the cinema and instead focuses on an extended metaphor of running. Of course, there are hints about running before: “I just like the way he walks” (Coleman 5), “the reader has to dance” (Coleman 15) and so on. All these pale to the actual act of running, just as the cinema pales to actual reality. But the poem ends on a note of optimism, “the marathon of hope is endless” (Coleman 28). The same sense of convergence that ends “The gate in his head” is found here—that same indomitable human will that strives towards the impossible.
Perhaps that is the inspiration that Ondaatje drew from Coleman. One/Eye/Love and “Day Twenty” was published in 1967. “Anticipating Entertaining Blaine” was published in 1983. Coleman has been running this marathon of hope for at least seventeen years, to general obscurity in the Canadian canon. Ondaatje must have recognized this, and wanted to honor Coleman and his philosophy in his own way.
Coleman, Victor. “Anticipating Entertaining Blaine.” From the Dark Woods. Toronto: Underwhich, 1985. 21. Print.
Hillger, Annick. Not Needing All the Words: Michael Ondaatje’s Literature of Silence. Montreal:McGill-Queen’s, 2006. Print.
Ondaatje, Michael. “The gate in his head.” Open Country: Canadian Poetry in English. Ed. Robert Lecker. Toronto: Thomson, 2008. 484. Print.