Advanced Poets Society : Forum : Where poetry meets fiction


Where poetry meets fiction

10 Years Ago


Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, is an incredible weaving of poetry within fiction. It opens in a magical way that takes us from a journey outdoors into a room.  Let’s look at it carefully.   (First a character walks some distance into a house)     She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.  She has sensed a shift in the weather.  There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway.  She turns and moves uphill toward the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms.  She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.     (Now, the focus within gradually narrows.) In the kitchen she doesn’t pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.   She turns in to the room which is another garden this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling.  The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly toward her as she enters.     (So, now we have a detailed view of where the action takes place, beginning with a look at the large scale of the total landscape, gradually narrowing to the man lying on a bed at the end of a dark hallway.)  Then we arrive at carefully worded descriptions of the man—designed to shock the reader.)         Every four days she washes his black body, (Why is it black? African-American?) beginning at the destroyed feet. Shock No. 1  she waits of washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water on to, looking up as she murmurs, seeing his smile.  Above the shins, the burns are worse.  Beyond purple.  Bone. (More shocks—we know he is injured)         She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips.  Hipbones of Christ, she thinks.  He is her despairing saint.  He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky. (So we end this section, seeing that the man, although inside a room, lives within an illusion which is like being outdoors.)