A Secular Prayer Book

The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy (83pp, £14.99, Picador)

Bees are, culturally speaking, a hard act to follow. In the popular imagination, they fly despite their shape and size (although it has recently been shown that bee flight is more complex than supposed: the bees' wings create the lift necessary for flight by combining short strokes, rotation and an extremely fast wing-beat - approximately 230 times per second; the unviable-shape-vs-flight myth is based on a mode of flight mechanics alien to the bee); the myth is all however, and the bee stands for what is impossible, for wise nature over silly science.

This is not the only metaphoric possibility offered by the bee: the hive and the swarm, signifying the communal yet strictly hierarchical arrangement of the most familiar and/or common bee species (there are about 20,000 species as it happens), have meant their appropriation into political discourse from Aristotle onwards; according to one source, the use of bees as parallel to human society was at its strongest in the Stuart period. If Duffy did her research, she must surely have enjoyed learning that the Queen Bee was, until, 1609, understood to be a King-Bee - and this debate raged until at least the 1740s - a missed opportunity for Queen Elizabeth I of England with regard to the gender politics of monarchy. Since the 1940s, courtesy of Karl von Frisch, we also have the concept of the 'waggle dance', in which supposedly, a bee returning to the hive, imparts information concerning food sources to its bee fellows. (This hypothesis is also, it seems, misguided: foraging information is, if I understand the literature, more likely to be gleaned from odours brought back by the bee.) The elision of 'dance' with language is irresistible however, not least for a poet concerned with pattern, form and meaning.
Then there is the slightly mystical aspect of the bee: as any beekeeper knows, a death in the family has to be reported to their swarm/hive, as soon as possible, or you risk losing the swarm. The bee cares about us: it produces honey for us, it feels our upheavals and griefs, it stings us only in extremis (unlike the nasty wasp) and at cost - 'confirming' what humans perceive to be the bee's selflessness in general - a sacrificial quality best caught, in poetic terms, by Osip Mandelstam: in his poem 'Take from my palms' the bee transmutes sunlight into honey, but is itself then transmuted further into light, as the beeswax is used for candles; finally, the bee is connected utterly with regeneration, and thus life, as it pollinates. Understandably then, the bee as a barometer of climate and ecological change, biological and scientific veracity aside, is a ready-made cultural sign, bursting with sentiment, emotional shorthand and portent. At every level, the bee speaks to us about ourselves. At every level, we read the bee as a moral, political, cultural text. So, for Duffy to harness the bee to her own poetic endeavour is bold. Is it inspired? Or are the cliches - the myths, the expectations, the several 'there suck we' lines - too thickly clustered, too in attendance, to let the poetry breathe? The answer is, I feel, both.

Duffy makes her intent, and desired allegiances, clear with her first poem, 'Bees':

     Here are my bees,
     brazen, blurs on paper,
     besotted; buzzwords, dancing
     their flawless, airy maps.

The poet: industrious, performing poeisis out of the raw material from, and at the heart of the thing; shameless with alliteration and puns - 'bees, brazen, blurs, besotted, buzzwords', then 'glide/gilded, glad, golden', Duffy's 'poet bees' have '[b]een deep [...] in the parts of flowers'; and the poem enacts the crafting of its final rhyming couplet building to its climactic offering of a certain rhyme, as its

     [...] and know of us
     how your scent pervades
     my shadowed, busy heart,
     and honey is art.

'Us' is the poem's first full rhyme, with the previous line's 'thus'; 'pervades' echoes 'glide' from the previous stanza, but only echoes it, returning the poem to its less defined shape; 'heart' and 'art' arrive with resounding conviction at the envoi. The poem functions too, as Duffy's equivalent of the waggle dance: arriving at our hive, it dances with promise, asks that we 'read' the moves, to follow them to source. For there is an agenda driving this collection one feels, and something labours in consequence - not on every page, but to the point at times where one is reminded that the word 'drone' is also part of apiary terminology. This is not to say that the poetry does not engage, that it does not sing or fly or even sting. 'Last Post' for example, which is much grittier on the page than Duffy's own reading of it suggests, recalls, or rewinds the war poem, from the moment of death, 'begin[ning] / that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mudÉ / but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood / run upwards from the slime into its wounds; / see lines and lines of British boys rewind / back'. The poem's irony is that it cannot effect this, for, '[i]f poetry could truly tell it backwards / then it would.' Placed immediately after 'Bees', the poem suggests a bittersweet art, in which poetry's function is undermined by its very artistry: honey at least nourishes, beeswax can literally illumine the darkness, but what does art do?  The failure of pattern and form, of sound, is further suggested in 'Echo': 'I think I was searching...' but there is nothing there, only 'emptying air' - the poet is deceived by reflections and her own imagination. It takes 'Scheherazade' to reaffirm the salvationary power of the imagination and utterance, in which even an arrangement of letters takes on the magic of the incantation, while the 'first story I said / led to the light' and imagination can reverse death itself: 'A dead woman unfurled / out of a shroud.'

The collection is beautifully presented: the cover is eggshell blue, with a gold embossed honeycomb pattern; the sections are divided by pages in which a line of Duffy's poetry is inscribed as if in stone. The typography dominates, simultaneously raising the ghosts of poetry as image and of the poet David Jones. But where Jones's work exploits the aesthetic of the 'carved' lines to undermine such easy ennobling gestures, in Duffy's collection it emptily restates the production values - the book wants us to admire it for itself. This puts the poetry in danger, weakens a voice already thin at times: the political poems, such as ... well, 'Politics' say very little rather self-consciously: 'Politics! -
to your industry, investment, wealth; roars to your / conscience, moral compass, truth, POLITICS POLITICS.' This is a rant shouting that it is a poem. 'The Falling Soldier', which follows 'Politics', is also weak, rendering an extraordinary image, ordinary, as if it cannot see that Capa's photograph is enough. Then there are the 'list' poems: 'The Counties', 'Oxfam', 'Drams', which simply list, simply repeat, complacent in the belief that imagery and motif will effect poeisis. This is tired poetry.

There are good, there are excellent poems in this collection. 'Virgil's Bees' is a georgic for our times, 'The White Horses' celebrates the glorious folly of those hillside inscriptions, while 'Dorothy Wordsworth is Dead' distils the gritty and passionate pared essence of the woman that revives her for us. And the final poem, 'A Rare Bee' helps to frame the collection: the poet seeks out muse and inspiration, her 'poet bees' no longer enough, by riding into the forest in search of 'honey so pure' that 'when pressed to the pout of a poet / it made her profound'. This final poem, describing as it does the anguish of one's own mediocrity, is where, for me the truth of the collection lies: in the 'terrible tune of the hermit's grief' a 'gesturing, dying bee' - the poet must be both hermit and bee, feeling and dying - for us. Complacency has no place in this vocation.

        © Kym Martindale 2012