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The Architecture of Aesthetic Distance Within “Tin Roof”

By Grace Lang

In the poem “Tin Roof,” Michael Ondaatje refines his pain and creates a contrived display of the emotional aftermath of his divorce. The poet employs aesthetic distance, shielding himself and his audience from raw discomfort, and weaving his intimate vulnerabilities and skillful aesthetics until they are indistinguishable from each other. In his essay, “Coming Through: A Review of Secular Love,” critic Sam Solecki argues that Ondaatje’s distinct style in “Tin Roof” can be divided into two voices: the poet as the central character, and the poet as the “creative voyeur who watches his own life; reflects and recreates it as art” (Solecki 128). Ondaatje shifts reality into poetry, creating an altogether different entity on the page. In this essay, I will define the metaphorical architecture of aesthetic distance of “Tin Roof,” a structure at times both fluid and fragmented, creating controlled exposure of human loss. The architecture of “Tin Roof” can be broken down into four elements: physical surroundings, honest admissions of truth, subsequent recovery, and metaphor. Ondaatje shifts swiftly between introspective and exterior foci and intersperses glimpses into his darkness with quick diversions. These techniques enable Ondaatje to recover from outbursts of suffering, creating a finely-tuned poem, which is equal parts aesthetic enjoyment and satiation of our desire for human emotion. 

Within “Tin Roof,” Michael Ondaatje intermittently returns to what he can comfortably articulate: his physical surroundings. Ondaatje grounds himself in the physicality of setting. This architectural element cements his lines in the immediacy of his surroundings and slows the pace of his painful confession. The poet’s first acknowledgement of his environment comes in section two, writing: “The geography of this room I know so well / tonight I could rise in the dark / sit at the table and write without light” (Ondaatje 104). In sharp contrast to the uncertainty of the first section, where “everything falls to the right place / or wrong place” (Ondaatje 103), Ondaatje describes the surrounding space of the cabin with conviction, claiming he is so familiar with it that he could even “write without light.” Further in the poem, his tropical setting will be a subject Ondaatje returns to amid agonizing expressions of loss. He returns to the matter of the cabin and its geography several times, an architectural element that physically shelters the figure in the poem from the elements, and protects the poet from his own emotional turbulence.

In addition to being a subject the poet conveys with acuity, the inclusions of Ondaatje’s physical space prolong respite from inner turmoil. At times, his external surroundings even act as a removed symbolic representation of his internal strife, enabling the poet to communicate his anguish with limited self-exposure. In the same section, he describes his knowledge of surrounding geography: “and all day the tirade pale blue waves / touch the black shore of volcanic rock / and fall to pieces here” (Ondaatje 104). Ondaatje is the one falling to pieces; we bear witness to his fragmentation in admissions such as “In certain mirrors / [the poet] cannot see himself at all. / He is joyous and breaking down” (Ondaatje 108). His projection of internal struggles upon the roaring sea creates distance from the  subject, and this powerful imagery gives his audience an understanding of the gravity of his emotions. Ondaatje’s physical surroundings are a framework in which the poet can lean on when necessary to fill in gaps and are a resource of communication with the audience; the cabin and ocean form a structure that can simultaneously weather and reproduce the storm of the poet’s emotions.  

If Michael Ondaatje’s physical surroundings within “Tin Roof” are the foundation of the poem, then his candid and jarring admissions of truth are the windows, briefly shedding light into the poet’s mind. Ondaatje begins the poem with the severe profession that he “look[ed] through windows / for cue cards / blazing in the sky. / The solution. / This last year I was sure I was going to die” (Ondaatje 103). He swiftly shifts the focus from signs in the outside world to himself in an admission of the lowest point in his life. Ondaatje repeats this, inserting glimpses of personal suffering amidst metaphor and motif. Later in “Tin Roof,” Ondaatje returns to describing the cabin: “The cabin / its tin roof / a wind run radio” (Ondaatje 108). He suddenly integrates honesty: “In certain mirrors / he cannot see himself at all. / He is joyous and breaking down” (Ondaatje 108). An emotional whiplash, Michael Ondaatje gives a series of confessions but denies the reader emotional context. In the final moments of “Tin Roof,” he reveals his desire to write poetry as Rainer Maria Rilke did, wanting to “sit down calm” like the German poet and confessing directly to him: “I have circled your book for years / like a wave combing / the green hair of the sea” (Ondaatje 122). In the next lines Ondaatje moves away from the wave metaphor and edges closer to a more intimate admission:“I always wanted poetry to be that / but this solitude brings no wisdom” (Ondaatje 122). However he quickly deflects and continues, writing that solitude brings “just two day old food in the fridge” and “certain habits you would not approve of” (Ondaatje 122). He pivots quickly from the confessional to a more light-hearted tone, controlling his audiences’ view into his interiority. Though the poet’s confessions are windows into his pain, they provide limited light, restricting the audience’s complete understanding of Ondaatje’s suffering. 

Despite the windows Michael Ondaatje gives us, he has also constructed blinds. Alongside short confessions, the poet staves off any direct descriptions of pain with complex and heavily veiled references and dramatic imagery. It is through this medium that Ondaatje conveys his suffering, and the indirect nature of his lines provides a reprieve from his anguish. In the third stanza of section nine, Ondaatje employs multiple external references and aesthetically pleasing imagery, culminating in a carefully wrought poetic expression of pain. He begins smoothly, describing the “All night slack-key music / and the bird whistling duino” (Ondaatje 111). Accompanied by the gentle notes of slack-key music, the “words and music” are “entangled in pebble / ocean static” (Ondaatje 111). At this point, it is hard to remember that “Tin Roof” is an expression of loss, a breakdown. In contrast, Ondaatje later integrates a dramatic reference to ramp up the imagery of suffering. He introduces the film Casablanca (1942), envisioning main star Humphrey Bogart in a drunk and depressed stupor after his lover leaves him: “he says to himself, stupid fucker / and knocks the bottle / leaning against his bare stomach onto the sheet” (Ondaatje 122). Though Ondaatje spends the first half of this section heightening the description of the actor in a regretful shambles, he quickly pulls back the curtain, distancing himself from this classic depiction of pain, saying “and that / was a movie I saw just once” (Ondaatje 120). External sources of suffering enable the poet to further enact aesthetic distance. In the case of Casablanca, if the reference too closely resembles the truth, Ondaatje shuts both the reference and the truth out of his constructed reality, reducing truth to fiction. Image and reference are morphed at will. 

I have discussed the architectural elements of physical surroundings, confession, veiled imagery and reference—or the poem’s structure, windows, and blinds. An element that requires subsequent discussion is the ornamentation flowing throughout the entirety of “Tin Roof”: carefully wrought metaphor. Ondaatje employs metaphor to depict his inner turmoil between artist and man. A culmination of the three previous features, metaphor is the lens through which we can perceive and understand Ondaatje’s world. For Ondaatje the artist, poetic perfection is only found in silence. The very act of creating, or speaking poetry into existence, blemishes it with human fault. However, Ondaatje also possesses the human urge to create, to speak and engage with his humanity as the “creative voyeur who watches his own life.” As both a poet and man, to go silent is to die, an act he desires as a poet looking for perfection, but cannot commit because of his humanity. He is torn by his innate desire to speak, to articulate his life as art, but also knows that what he creates will never be perfect. Ondaatje reiterates this challenge several times in the poem, with the swirling Pacific symbolizing both his emotional anguish and his poetry. The poet is faced with the choice of drowning or remaining in purgatory on the shore, writing, “Tonight I lean over the Pacific / and its blue wild silk” (Ondaatje 109), or more subtly, “The tug over the cliff” (Ondaatje 108). In the final lines, Ondaatje refines the metaphor to its final culmination: “I wanted poetry to be walnuts / in their green cases / but now it is the sea / and we let it drown us” (Ondaatje 123). The poet admits defeat. He cannot enter the sea because of “the warmth in the sleeve,” his heart (Ondaatje 108). Ondaatje successfully connects the personal struggle of his life to the universal one of the artist. The poetic perfection that is only found in the silence of entering the sea signifies the death of the man. Ondaatje leans over the cliff, torn between impulses. “Tin Roof” is a consummation of aesthetic principles of art and the human loss of love. Ondaatje’s interwoven metaphor of a figure divided between man and poet standing on the edge of the abyss is both the adornment of the architecture and the very thing that binds it together.

Ondaatje refines his own pain into a discrete structure. “Tin Roof” is comprised of detailed and layered imagery and reference, creating a carefully constructed fabrication of pain and an existential questioning of the artist. Together, the poet’s physical environment, honesty, image, and overarching metaphor simulate a poetic breakdown. Michael Ondaatje remains safely unexposed behind his aesthetic structure, limiting our perception into the true darkness of his personal life and crises. His cabin on the cliffside is a safehouse woven from his own emotional hardship. Ondaatje translates his raw discomfort to artistic satisfaction; disassociating himself from his own pain and making it art. Beautiful suffering, “Tin Roof” is a cadenced collapse of human and artist.

Works Cited 

Ondaatje, Michael. “Tin Roof.” The Cinnamon Peeler , McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1989, pp. 102–123. 

Solecki, Sam. “Coming Through: A Review of Secular Love.” Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, edited by Sam Solecki, Vehicule Press, 1985, pp. 125–135.