Interpreting Bear Hug by Michael Ondaatje

Let’s look at the meaning of this short, intriguing poem by Michael Ondaatje.

Bear Hug

Griffin calls me to come and kiss him goodnight
I yell ok. Finish something I'm doing,
then something else, walk slowly round
the corner to my son's room.
He is standing arms outstretched
Waiting for a bearhug. Grinning.

Why do I give my emotion an animal's name,
Give it that dark squeeze of death?
This is the hug which collects
All his small bones and his warm neck against me.
This thin tough body under the pyjamas
Locks to me like a magnet of blood.

How long was he standing there,
Like that, before I came.

     ~ by Michael Ondaatje


  • bearhug: a very forceful, but affectionate kind of hug where you tightly squeeze the person you are hugging


This poem was first published in 1979 in the collection “There’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do.” Ondaatje’s most famous work to date has been his novel ‘The English Patient’ which was adapted into an academy-award winning film.

The first stanza simply describes what happens when a young boy calls one of his parents, the narrator, for a goodnight kiss. This is something that probably happens every night. You can see this from the parent’s reaction. He/she isn’t in a hurry and instead does a few other things first. The fact that these things aren’t actually described in the poem shows that they are trivial. When the father finally does arrive, though, he sees his son, smiling and with outstretched arms, still waiting for his hug.

When he is hugging his son, the parent wonders why this expression, ‘bearhug’, is used to describe an affectionate action (after all if a real bear hugged you, you would probably be crushed to death or ripped to pieces) and this brings up images of the child’s vulnerability (‘small bones and warm neck’), which would remind the parent of his/her own responsibility as a protector. The narrator describes the strong natural bond between parent and child in the simile ‘locks to me like a magnet of blood.’

After thinking about the child’s vulnerability and the close familial bond, the parent wonders about his/her earlier actions. Why didn’t he/she just stop whatever what he/she was doing and give the child the goodnight kiss and hug immediately? The narrator notices how his/her son was just thinking of him/her (waiting patiently with open arms) while he/she was distracted doing other things. Though not mentioned in the poem, this observation may lead the narrator to also wonder whether his/her son, after growing up, will always be there waiting so attentively.

Thus. the poem is about family bonds and the need to realize that they are more important than the trivial concerns that keep us busy all day.

Your Interpretation

How do you feel about the poem? How would you interpret its meaning?

~ by longzijun

Interpretations of Poems

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