by Ronny Litvack-Katzman
James Merrill’s The Broken Home and Michael Ondaatje’s Letters & Other Worlds both cast doubt upon the idea of a perfect family. Both poets present bleak domestic pictures: families defined by destructive father figures, despondent mothers, and a young person trying to reconcile themselves with the demise of their family. Each poem depicts the speakers’ anguish in relation to memory, accentuating the contrary relationships each has to the passage of time. The speaker in The Broken Home constructs their familial anguish across several interconnected sonnets, which both represents their fractured upbringing, and at the same time enables them to piece together fragments of their childhood in the form of perceptive memories. Collectively, the seven sonnets which comprise The Broken Home depict the splintering of the speaker’s domestic life and, through a restructuring of non-linear memories, depict their attempts at rebuilding a narrative from its component parts. In Letters & Other Worlds, however, the speaker remains fixed in the present. Ondaatje’s speaker tells a linear narrative in free verse, allowing for the contemplation of their father’s past transgressions through an open discourse with memory. The speaker, who collects memories from their father’s writings, recounts the rupturing of their family in the public sphere, with each letter further revealing the repercussions of their father’s alcoholism. Whereas the speaker in The Broken Home uses the many sonnets to a frame a traumatic negotiation between transient temporalities of the mature speaker, their family, and that of a younger self, Ondaatje’s speaker’s linear narrative is rooted in an enduring temporality from which they cannot escape. Despite the differences in these two poems, both feature the now adult speaker attempting to make peace with the memories that continue to haunt them.
The fragmented yet interconnected sonnet structure of The Broken Home parallels the anguish that the speaker feels in piecing together scattered memories into a narrative of reflection. The order of the sonnets, which are each set in a different moment in time, creates a non-linear chronology of the speaker’s life. Both the first and sixth sonnet are set in the present. Here, the speaker contrasts past grievances found in the middle sonnets by showing how the events of their childhood affect them in the present. The speaker uses a collection of recurring motifs which associate each one of their parents to an emotional state across time. In alluding to their parents as symbols, the speaker creates a dialogue between themselves and their parents across multiple temporalities. In the third sonnet, the speaker describes their parents as living out “that same old story— / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks” (Merrill 40-42). The personification of Earth as their mother and Time as their father returns in the sixth sonnet, set in the present: the speaker asks the reader to “trust I am no less time’s child” (76) while also being “earth’s no less” (84). No longer capitalized, the once proper nouns “earth” and “time” suggest the speaker has moved forward from the idealized versions of their parents’ relationship, now seeing clearly that their “marriage [was] on the rocks” (42), cementing the image of their parent’s relationship as one that is solely destructive. Unable to be fixed to a single temporality, Time and Earth are also seen to be transcendent entities. Like their parents’ broken marriage, events of the past can defy chronology and become superimposable onto multiple temporalities, no longer confined to a linear perspective. The speaker connects ideas between sonnets by juxtaposing time frames, usually with a distinct change exemplified by a word, motif, or phrase used to signify a reinterpretation of past events. From these developments in the speaker’s perspective, a clearer understanding of the past situates the reasons for their present strife.
Similarly, the speaker in Letters & Other Worlds employs incremental repetition as a connecting device, contrasting their father’s hopeful letters of familial intimacy with their memories of a fractured childhood. The first two quatrains use incremental repetition of “my father’s body was” (Ondaatje 1, 6) and “His letters were a” (6, 9) to indicate the speaker’s unease, and indecisiveness, in trying to give their father any singular identity. The repetition of similar phrases with interchanging nouns represents the speaker’s attempts to define their father in a single temporality. It is not a “globe of fear” (1), in which the speaker finds their father, nor is his body a “town we never knew” (2), and his letters are not a “room he seldom lived in” (4). Even as the images in which the speaker tries to place their father reduce in physical size; from the “globe” (1), to a “town” (6), and finally to a lone “room” (9), the scope of his perceived afflictions only expands past the boundaries of any single one of said spaces. The speaker, unable to locate their father within the limited temporal space of his writings follows him “into his room with bottles” (56), manifesting himself within the physical space where “the gentle letters were composed” (60). In having to translocate themselves into their father’s writing room, the speaker suggests that from the confined temporality of the present, past transgressions are more challenging to interpret and thus a physical transcendence is also necessary.
Ondaatje’s speaker’s indecision contrasts the clarity that the non-linear progression of time affords the speaker in The Broken Home, the intermingling of time and space proven better equipped to capture the displaced thoughts of a fracturing family. The overlaying of like ideas between sonnets allows the reader to see the growth of the speaker’s anguish emerge over the course of their lifetime, depicted, as the poem progresses, as an emotional awakening. It is from these shared temporal spaces that the speaker makes conclusions about their family’s tumultuous lives. For Ondaatje’s speaker, their inability to locate understanding is due to the absence of a shared temporal space, one which is later found within their father’s letters.
In Letters, imagistic motifs help to contrast the speaker’s memories with the positive idealism of family life as it is portrayed in their father’s letters. The reinterpretation of memory found in those letters aid the speaker to resolve past grievances. When recollecting how their father passed, the speaker remembers him falling, “the length of his body / so that brain blood moved / to new compartments” (Ondaatje 13-15). The speaker recounts the reaching of a “new equilibrium” (17) to have been the cause of his death. Later in the poem, after the speaker’s immersion in the writings of their father, they recount the episode differently. “[T]he length of his body” (74) fell, yet “the blood entering / the empty reservoir of bones” (75-76) now creates a filling of space which the speaker could not imagine simply from memory. Through his letters, the speaker is more clearly able to observe their father’s struggles from his perspective. Whereas the speaker previously saw the reaching of a new “equilibrium” as what killed their father, his letters give the speaker insight as to what the idea of balance meant to their father and thus, changes their perception of his passing. The blood filling their father’s brain becomes an image of fulfilment, instead of one of desolation. In reconceiving their father’s writings, the speaker reimagines the reaching of equilibrium as their father achieving a state of balance – defying a precarious instability which can be escaped only in death. From this temporality, emerging from the medium of the letter, the speaker learns that it is not the equalizing movement of blood into the brain which killed their father, but rather his trying to balance the rushing of blood around his body – metaphoric for the inability to balance private and public life, and ultimately his downfall. Letters are a private medium of communication but become public as the speaker delves into their father’s psyche. Situating the speaker as the mediator of the public and private sphere allows them to understand their father’s destructive behaviour. From within the same temporality, the speaker gains greater insight by reading their father’s letters, which allow him to view death from an alternative perspective.
Several temporal shifts within The Broken Home are signified by a change in the lyrical diction following a syntactic break, allowing the speaker to express the negative effects of broken domesticity on their character. When moving between the past and present a single word, “obeyed” is transposed from the fifth sonnet to begin the sixth, but with a significant change in tone (Merrill 70). The speaker, who in the fifth sonnet as child, dwells “in the graveyard of good and evil” (69), confirms their parents “are even so to be honored and obeyed” (70). In the sixth sonnet and in a return to the present, they confirms their parents were “. . . Obeyed, at least, inversely. Thus / I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote” (71-72) and in doing so explains the lasting ill effects of the marriage on their adult self. The use of a metaphor in the fifth sonnet notably disconnects it from the sixth, the speaker’s diction becoming apathetically direct. As a mature adult, distant from domestic pain, the speaker holds a less idealistic view of their parent’s relationship, able to emerge from the “graveyard of good and evil” (69). The ellipsis omits the passage of time when the speaker changes their attitude from submissive obedience to contesting their parents’ failings. The temporal lapse allows the speaker to move quickly between past and present thoughts, drawing parallels even as the ideas themselves exhibit disconnect. The carrying over of the word “obeyed” joins together two temporalities through a common emotional state. In the later passage, the mature speaker questions the blind obedience of their youth, contextualizing previous actions with the immediate consequences of their compliance, primarily, an inability to function in normal society.
For the speaker in The Broken Home, past grievances of dejected domesticity are a disease which only the transcendence of temporality can remedy. The multiple sonnet structure is a fragmented representation of the speaker’s broken identity, with the speaker transcending both poetic form and time to stitch together the pieces of their broken identity. The speaker in Letters & Other Worlds does not communicate between variable temporalities, a result of the medium over which their internal conflict is occurring; the speaker remains, like their father’s representation in the letters, rooted in the past. This speaker uses perception to place their father’s strife to their current temporality, the free-verse structure of the poem permitting communication across two mediums of understanding. Although Letters does not bridge together mediums as in The Broken Home, Ondaatje questions the implications of letters as being able to expand the temporality from which they are written, opening up a single temporality to various interpretations by the individual. In the same sense, imagining each letter as a token of a previous temporality suggests that such a medium can, to a certain degree, transcend linear time. In viewing the letters as the fleeting thoughts of a foregone mind, then they can indeed affect a reader in the same way recollections of memories are drawn upon to communicate with the present self. Both speakers thereby achieve familial communication, even if such a conversation takes place across time and space.
Merill, James. “The Broken Home.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 6th ed., edited by Margaret Ferguson, Tim Kendall, and Mary Jo Salter, W.W. Norton and Co., 2018 pp. 1771-1774.
Ondaatje, Michael.. “Letters & Other Worlds” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 6th ed., edited by Margaret Ferguson, Tim Kendall, and Mary Jo Salter, W.W. Norton and Co., 2018 pp. 1771-1774.
Photo: “The Rector’s Timepiece,” Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.