The Poem

“Gold and Black” is a short poem in free verse, its twelve lines divided into three stanzas. The title suggests color; its function is to show the color of the bees as well as the light images in the poem: the black night and the gold light. The first two stanzas are written in the first person. In the third stanza, the poem shifts to the third person, which adds a generality to its theme. There are times when a poet uses the first person to speak through a persona, as in a dramatic monologue, but here no distinction is implied between Michael Ondaatje the poet and the speaker of the poem. Yet, as Douglas Barbour writes in Michael Ondaatje (1993), “The ‘I’ that writes in these seemingly ‘confessional’ poems is purely inscribed, exists in each poem as a subject but alters his subjectivity from poem to poem.” The “I” of “Gold and Black” can be seen as a character rather than the poet himself. A lyrical poem is about a subject, contains little narrative content, and addresses the reader directly.

“Gold and Black” begins with a metaphor for a nightmare, something that readers can readily understand. Just as a nightmare comes at night and disturbs the sleeper, so do the bees in the poem “pluck my head away.” As the nightmare surrounds him, “Vague thousands drift” over him and “leave brain naked stark as liver.” The nightmare, portrayed with the image of the bees, removes integral parts of his identity and...

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Forms and Devices

Metaphors are abundant in Ondaatje’s work. He works with wondrous imagery and sometimes violent action, which both balance and reflect off each other. The people who inhabit his poems are often verging on madness and trying to deal with the violence and beauty of their worlds. With “Gold and Black,” Ondaatje takes the ordinary state of sleep and creates a world of horror and loss of control over the speaker’s thoughts, which buzz around him like bees and take parts of him with them.

A metaphor is a direct comparison between two dissimilar things, and “Gold and Black” is a series of images that are compared with one another. Most of the metaphors are implicit—the comparisons are not completely spelled out. For example, the poet never explicitly compares the nightmare to the “gold and black slashed bees,” yet the context of the poem clearly suggests the comparison. The metaphors that the poet employs are both surprising (the bees taking the speaker’s flesh away) and awesome (the dreamer trapped in the “riot cell” of his own mind), and they work to create the fantastic and private world of the speaker. They aim at mystery rather than explicitness, just as dreams often do.

The metaphors in “Gold and Black” move from the mind of the speaker to his external world and finally to the universal. This pattern is established in stanza 1, where “the gold and black slashed bees come/ pluck my head away.” Although at first...

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Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twain, 1993.

Bolland, John. Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient.” New York: Continuum, 2002.

Jaggi, Maya. “Michael Ondaatje with Maya Jaggi.” In Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk, edited by Sushelia Nasta. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Jewinski, Ed. Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994.

Mundwiler, Leslie. Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination. Vancouver: Talon, 1984.

Ondaatje, Michael. Running in the Family. New York: Norton, 1982.

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oleki, Sam. Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1985.