The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

“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 creates a kind of spoiling of his thoughts. As the tone here is haunting and frightening, the image of the bees attacking the sleeper and taking away “atoms of flesh” is representative of the speaker’s helplessness regarding his own nightmares, products of his unconscious.

In the second stanza, another person, Kim, is introduced; she is outside the speaker and outside the nightmare. The poet is no longer haunted by his nightmare but is instead affected by his lover, who is turning beside him: She “cracks me open like a lightbulb,” he says. This action can be seen as Kim breaking the speaker into darkness as the nightmare flies away. As the poet takes readers out of the nightmare of the speaker, he takes them to the external forces in the speaker’s world. His lover, too, is “In the black” but seems unaffected by her own nightmares. She is, rather, “a geiger counter” gauging his.

The third stanza shifts to a third-person point of view and describes “the dreamer” from a distance, as opposed to inside his own mind. This shift from the extremely personal first-person point of view to the generalization of the third-person point of view suggests that the problem of nightmarish hidden thoughts is everyone’s problem. The shift also implies a universality in the loss of control in a nightmare, and ultimately in the unconscious. As this stanza concludes the poem, the reader is left with the image of “the dreamer in his riot cell,” which suggests entrapment in a chaotic stage of sleep.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

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...

(This entire section contains 469 words.)

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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 the image suggests external forces acting on the dreamer, it becomes clear that the bees are internal, as they “drift/ leave brain naked stark as liver.” The last line of stanza 1 completes the pattern of the internal, creating a metaphor for the thoughts of the dreamer as rotten meat. Stanza 2 introduces Kim, who is outside of the speaker’s mind (and nightmare), and takes the reader from the internal world of the dreamer: “She cracks me open like a lightbulb.” The simile indicates that Kim has woken the speaker. She has cracked open the speaker’s mind, the bees have flown away, and there is darkness in his mind where there was light.

The sleeper and Kim are surrounded by darkness, and the light in the speaker’s unconscious has been put out. Stanza 3 depicts “the dreamer” from outside. The description of the subconscious as a “riot cell” depicts the loss of control in the realm of the subconscious as well as the confines of the “cell,” or mind, that encompasses the thoughts. In several poems Ondaatje uses images of animals alongside images of the unconscious, particularly in the section “Rat Jelly” in There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do. “Near Elginburg,” “Spider Blues,” and “The Gate in His Head” are other examples of this technique.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 94

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.

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

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

Soleki, Sam. Ragas of Longing: The Poetry of Michael Ondaatje. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

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