Bees as the ghost: an introduction
I have come to speak to you about the bees – the bees and poetry – and the strange hexacomb, which governs everything.
I owe a lot of my thinking about bees and their mystical power to a movie I saw with my husband, Thom Donovan, now over ten years ago, on one of our ﬁrst dates. I was living in Philadelphia and would visit him in his apartment in the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and one night we watched a movie, Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees.
I remember how fond he was of the movie, how he seemed to be enraptured by the strange narrative of it.
In the movie, a man, who is the main narrator, realizes that for his job, he is actually making missiles for the ﬁrst Iraq war in the 1990s. He has a breakdown of sorts, realizing that he is actually doing harm, that his work is, in part, that of a mass murderer.
After having this realization, he turns to his work with the bees, as he is also a bee husbander. He seems to start to have a telepathic communication with the bees and to communicate with the bees as with his dead ancestors.
The movie becomes, then, a mystical conversion between self and other, for every time he is with the bees, he has visions of his ancestors and sees the connections across time. Especially because his ancestors are Iraqi, and so the missiles he has created are being used to kill his past and future selves.
When I ﬁrst saw the movie, it did not make sense exactly. But even though the movie itself was strange – there is something about bees, buzzing and humming on a television set, that does make sense.
As a poet, I have often seen the imagination as a kind of television set with the hum of the dead. Isn’t speaking to the dead what poets do? Aren’t poems a conversion, a mystical conversion between self and other?
In life, I often think of my own body as a kind of conduit and I look at things in the everyday – a car here, the plants, maybe a road – and I imagine these things, these objects, my spirit in another body, in another time. I hum in and out and what does anything make of me. I know, for sure, that I have been here before. I have walked this earth before as a being, as a person, and I have spoken to come back, and speak again.
Whatever the case, as poet, in poetry, things that do not involve the occult – frankly, they just bore me. Bees are the hidden.
I wrote this lecture for the bees, and what, as a living ghost, they have done for me.
The bees as the things that we have done
Rudolf Steiner, in his famous lectures on bees, explains how the mystery of the bees is not just that they make honey, but that they create the hexagonal structures that store the food. They are not just creators. They create everything, as everything is self-contained. He writes:
Having transformed the food by means of its own bodily substances into wax – this the bee produces out of itself – the bees now make a special little container in which to deposit its egg or in which to store up food supplies. This special little vessel is, I should like to say, a really great marvel, It appears to be hexagonal when we look at it from above; looked at from the side it is closed in this way. Eggs can be deposited there, or food can be stored. Each vessel lies next to another; they ﬁt extremely well together, so that this ‘surface’ by which one cell, (for so it is called), is joined to another in the honey-comb, is exceedingly well made use of – the space is well used.
Isn’t that the way we always describe a poem? As Williams writes:
There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.
How isn’t what the bee makes, a set of containers of well-used space, like the non-sentimental machine of a poem? Or is the bee’s body itself the machine, the honey and the wax storage structures the poem, all together, as one thing?
Bees always make me think of telepathy – I think because I have long been in love with the movie Candyman.
In that movie, if you haven’t seen it, a graduate student named Helen Lyle is conducting an anthropologic study on urban legends and goes to the Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green to study the legend of Candyman.
The story goes that Candyman is a spirit who haunts the project, causing evil and murder, especially when you call for him, and that in real life he was an artist and the son of a slave. He had lived a peaceful life as a successful artist until he fell in love with a white woman and got her pregnant. A lynch mob cut off his painting hand and spread honey on him, and the bees from an apiary stung him to death.
According to legend, when you want to summon Candyman, you turn the lights off, stare into a mirror, and call Candyman Candyman Candyman Candyman Candyman, and then he appears. He appears as the summoning of the self in the mirror.
Because he died by bees, he carries a swarm of bees with him. And indeed when he shows up, bees empty out of his cloak, ﬂying everywhere. The image when it happens provides a hum. There is also a sweetness to him, despite his monstrosity, maybe from carrying around throughout time the honey and the bees.
Early on in the movie, after he is summoned, Candyman wants to prove to Helen that he is real and not a story. She wakes from unconsciousness in a woman’s apartment, with the woman’s baby missing and her dog decapitated, and Helen must defend herself from the frantic mother’s attack. After this moment, Helen enters into a love descent with Candyman himself and eventually becomes an otherworldly being with him.
The apartment scene that begins this turn is the most horriﬁc one in the movie. The apartment light is cold, bright – a cheap ﬂuorescence – and the blood everywhere is not softened. As viewers, we know Helen is not to blame, exactly, yet there is guilt nonetheless. After all, we are all here as viewers, implicated in the not-notreal legend – a swarm of bees humming around the story.
And even though the bees stung Candyman to death and are the symbol of destruction, of the demonization of him and Helen and others, the harbingers of death – one can’t help but think within the movie that they bring a structure or goodness to the story. They make Candyman real – they are real bees – and carry the dead Candyman upon summoning him. They live and create the neat hexagonal structures of their honeycomb, which is akin to the neat structure of the projects. They hum across a land of spirits that is and is not the real, but they are.
Eric Baus – one of my dearest friends, the kind of inspirational friend that, as Ted Berrigan writes, was that painter I could not get away from – ended his 2009 book Tuned Droves with a poem called ‘Orange Water’ that manifests real bees:
The bloom. The boiling water. Bees. Real ﬂowers release bees. Real ﬂowers bloom orange. Real bees bloom in boiling water. Real water releases bees. Boiling real bees releases ﬂowers. The ﬂowers bloom. The bees bloom. The water blooms. The boiling blooms. Real ﬂowers. Real bees. Real water. Flowers are not real. Bees are not real. Water is not real. Release the bees. Boil the bees. Water the bees. Real water. Orange ﬂowers. Orange water.
This poem has always stuck with me. It seems simple enough – it describes a person (presumably) boiling water in order to separate a solid into its components, to separate liquids – at ﬁrst the moment really does seem to be about making tea. Even though ‘Bees’ is the third phrase, we still have ‘Real ﬂowers release bees’ and ‘Real ﬂowers bloom[ing] orange’, which all seem real enough. It is not until the ‘Real water releases bees’ that we realize we are in the space of magic. Real water doesn’t release bees when it boils. All of sudden nothing is as it seems. There are ‘Real ﬂowers. Real bees. Real water’, and just as soon the poem tells us none of these things are real. Flowers are not real. Bees are not real. Wait, no! And then, no, even water is not real. Water isn’t real? But we are made of water. How can this be?
And then the only thing left to do is to release the bees, to boil them, to kill them, water them, soak them in water until they all drown and make us orange ﬂowers and then orange water. That is what a poem can do – it can turn and twist as we boil the water to soak the bees, no, drown and kill the bees, whose death has bloomed the miraculous orange ﬂower, which leads the way.
One January several years ago, I went to Cabrini-Green to see the housing projects in Candyman, to see if in real life it was the same as in my memory of its movie depiction. A gorgeous artist and curator, Hamza Walker, took me there in his car. It was snowing badly that night in Chicago. And as we got to the projects, I got out of the car and slid everywhere. I had worn slippery shoes coated in cheap glitter, and the ice and night were slippery, and I fell almost to the ground, but Hamza held me up, told me I needed ‘some Chicago shoes’. The projects had been recently demolished. There was nothing there that was like the movie, like in my memory. We got back in the car, and after looking for a few moments at an empty, snowy ﬁeld encased in a metal fence, we sped away.
The Roman poet Horace (65–8 bc), in his poem ‘To Iullus Antonius’, famously compares his work as a poet to that of a bee:
. . . Antonius, I
Am like the humble bee, painstakingly
Seeking to ﬁnd the honey in the thyme
That grows in lowly fragrant groves and grows
Along the watery banks of Tivoli’s stream;
My songs are made laboriously and slow.
In this poem, the bee, like the poet, labors, gathering pollen (like language, like memories) so as to make the honey. To make this honey and reconﬁgure its body processes into wax, to make the comb. And for what? For what we do not know. We only know it is all the plight of both poet and bee.
In the poem, Horace tells Iullus Antonius that this poet’s lesser, worldly plight is to celebrate Caesar, whereas Horace’s work as a poet is to exalt the immortal, human sun:
Alluring and admirable’
During the time Horace wrote, this poet, Iullus Antonius, might have thought that Horace’s bee-like work, worshipping the ‘alluring’ sun, was inconsequential compared to the poetic effort he put in to worship the all-powerful Caesar. But we know that Horace’s I actually does the work of a seer and has an otherworldly master, and that his I is one who steadily worships the divine in the natural world and has the ultimate power to conquer the universe.
In Finnish folklore, there is the story of Lemminkäinen, who went to the North Country to try and win the hand of the fairest maiden in the land. An old cowherd, offended by Lemminkäinen’s plight, killed him, cut his body into eight pieces, and threw them in the river. Lemminkäinen’s mother ﬁshed his body pieces out with a magic rake and put the pieces back together again, only to make a speechless doll of a man.
Knowing that she needed to give her son voice again, she called on the bees to help and bring him honey.
But with all that we know of how hard bees work, her bees really had to work hard. For Lemminkäinen’s sad mother, they traveled to Metsola’s fair meadows to get Lemminkäinen a special honey, but this honey did not help him speak. So the bees traveled again, this time across nine lakes to an island, to bring back an even more special and powerful honey. Still even this honey did not help her son.
So, on a third journey, the bees went past the stars to Jumala the Creator’s realm and brought back a honey that cured Lemminkäinen, who spoke and was alive again.
The bee holds the magic – honey – that makes the voice of a poet. That can make an I speak. And for this reason, the I in poems not only becomes the powerful bee, it respects the work ethic of the bee and in many cases tries to emulate it. The I becomes humble at the magic of the bee and then takes this magic into their poems.
There are so many bees in poems when you start looking for them. And I have found that once you start looking you can’t stop. They almost start to swarm at you.
Plath and the bees
I don’t owe just the movie Television Among the Bees to my husband, Thom. I also owe to him the idea of intense autobiography. The drama of which, I owe to the bees.
One time several years ago, I saw Thom give a talk in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I think it was in Bushwick. I remember we were living in Woodside, Queens, and it was hard to get there, so that’s where it must have been.
It was in a small art space that my friend Stacy – a friend of an old friend of a friend, Katie Geha – had organized. I remember that Bernadette Mayer’s son was in the audience and I got very nervous to see him. It was like seeing royalty – he was the son of the queen.
I remember I got very, very nervous when Thom introduced the idea of intense autobiography with a discussion of Hannah Weiner, Bernadette Mayer, and then he threw my name in, all weighted, not really discussing my work, but throwing my real name in, as part of this history. And I didn’t want to look at anyone as he did this. I felt a real sense of shame.
It made me almost start sweating, and I could tell he was nervous, too, because we assumed people knew we were married so thought this was some sort of trick. Like when people mention their friends in their writing, as I am doing here. We were part of the same hive.
Especially in the ﬁrst years we were together, I think that Thom wanted to distance his work from mine. I felt ashamed and narcissistic in my shame. Like going to the pool or letting someone see my real face. There was a nakedness to my real name, my real identity. The poet can hide, can hide away, in the space of being a bee, of being a being in the poem, of being just a name.
But this assumption as he spoke my name that day just had so much narcissism. It is hard to know if people even knew we were together, knew what it meant for him to say my name. Out loud. In the public arena.
In his discussion of intense autobiography, he talked about what it meant to use the self as a kind of biopolitic, a kind of body-performance space, what it meant for a female poet to use the events of her life for her art. I think I agree that this is what a bee does, too.
In Ariel, Sylvia Plath summons many bees. She uses bees as a kind of battle cry.
In ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, she describes the conﬁnement of being a bee, of being a poet, a thing being been, in this lifetime, in a box that by the end of the poem is only ‘temporary’.
And her desire is to give these little bees, these poets, these dangerous poets, or Is, a voice:
How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
In Hindu scripture, there is a story of the Ashvins, twin horsemen, who are the lords of light and are also honey-bearing, who along with drawing ‘white horses’ and ‘ambrosial swans’ wherever they go, also bring ‘honey to the bee’ and prolong human life with the magic of the bee (its honey). Because of this, honey was also used in rituals, where people would sing:
Anoint me with the honey of the bee,
That I may speak forceful speech among men.
In Plath’s poem ‘Stings’, the I and a beekeeper visit the bee box full of bees, their ‘cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet’ with their ‘thousand clean cells between us’, and help to create for the bees the ‘hive itself ‘ which is ‘a teacup’, as she looks for the queen bee:
What am I buying, wormy mahogany?
Is there any queen at all in it?
Sure, of course, that ‘she is old’ with ‘wings torn shawls’, a ‘long body / Rubbed of its plush’. Plath is sure that when she ﬁnds the queen, she will be so old and worn that she will be ‘unqueenly and even shameful’.
And of course, there is the obvious comparison here. Sadly, many women, let alone female poets, feel that they are only as good as their youth and beauty. And that after their time of making is over, after they are old and grey, they are not useful to society anymore. They are not a queen to look for.
In a hive, the whole society is ruled by females. The job of male bees (the drones) is only to mate with the queen. How useless these drones must feel. What poems would they write.
The other bees in the hive are worker bees. They are all female and they make royal jelly to feed the queen larvae and if there is more than one queen who is hatched from this process, the multiple queens ﬁght to the death until one queen is triumphant and becomes the queen bee. In Plath’s poem, as she wonders whether the queen bee she ﬁnds will be old, she converts herself into the queen bee, her queenly state unbeknownst to everyone as she ‘stand[s] in a column // Of winged, unmiraculous women, / Honey-drudgers. / I am no drudge.’
Plath summons the queen bee, and her I becomes her, especially as she ends the poem:
They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
Is she dead, is she sleeping?
Where has she been,
With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?
Now she is ﬂying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her –
The mausoleum, the wax house.
Plath’s I has become the queen bee, has taken on her power and gone beyond the ‘women who only scurry, / Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover’. She becomes the horriﬁc thing, the shapeshifter bee monster who with unearthly bravado speaks for more than herself. Who has summoned the demon of the duende, trapped it like the Devil’s horses, and rode it into the town square of the poem, smiling, a face full of brightly colored ribbons.
In the poem, Plath is not a worker bee, a drudge, meant to work and die with no great individual song. She is the queen bee and will make her book, the book this poem is in, her ﬁnal book, Ariel. She writes:
It is almost over.
I am in control.
Here is my honey-machine,
It will work without thinking
As she takes on an identity of the queen bee, she will now ‘scour the creaming crests / As the moon, for its ivory powders, scours the sea’, as a grand being, and make this poem, this book. By the end of the poem she uncovers the hive’s queen bee, who is not willing to sting as a worker bee and die, but only to become queen, and only queen, not one of the worker bees, the drudges, the ‘winged, unmiraculous women’, the worker females, those ‘women who only scurry, / Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover’, the drudges whose only job is to go out to the ﬁelds and return to the hive, to serve the queen.
Instead by the end of the poem when she ﬁnds the queen, ‘her lionred body, her wings of glass’, ‘More terrible than she ever was, red / Scar in the sky, red comet’, she ﬁnds her own red self – the persona of the poem who is in control, the queen poet that the hive (the book, other poets, all of poetry) must serve and submit to. She has a ‘terrible’ power, and the poem’s song, the swarm of it, brings it into being.
‘The bees are ﬂying. They taste the spring’, Plath writes in the poem ‘Wintering’. But bees ﬂy because they must. Do poets write poems because they must? Bees and poets ﬂy and write maybe because the spring is beautiful. It beckons with its soft fruits to the storage of sweet honey and beyond.
In ‘Stings’, the beekeeper becomes the bee. So too, the poet becomes the poem. The hell that’s all we’ve ever wanted. And still do.
We know from Plath’s biography that her father was a beekeeper and this imagery is indebted to personal memory. And scholars have made much of this. But I don’t think I should. And I don’t think I will here.
A poet who writes with intense autobiography, who writes of unreal events and makes them real, writes in a high drama. Maybe this is what Plath did. The I of a poem is a place of high drama.
When I write about everyday events, things that have actually happened in my life, I am sure they have occurred, but I am also creating the hive of the poem and becoming the queen bee.
In a song called ‘Beez in the Trap’, Nicki Minaj sings of being in a place of the highest power as a poet. She sings:
Bitches ain’t shit, and they ain’t sayin’ nothing
A hundred mothafuckas can’t tell me nothing
I beez in the trap, bee-beez in the trap
I beez in the trap, bee-beez in the trap
And of course, we are meant to realize that to be a bee is also to be a thing. It is the thing being been. Minaj plays with the words be and being as homophones of bees. Her I ‘beez’, or exists, and plays on this grammatical variation on the word ‘am’. Minaj is in the trap of being a poet. She beez in the trap. To be in this hell here with you, with all of us. All she’s ever wanted. And still do.
In the ﬁrst line of her song, she talks about all of the lesser poets singing today who ‘ain’t sayin’ nothing’ because they ‘ain’t shit’. They have no mojo to bring to their Is and their songs, and subsequently their listeners. She goes on to say that even a ‘hundred’ of them do not have the authority to sing as well as she does or to tell her what to do. Her I beez. It is, and it is not, it hates and loves, but more than anything, it has harnessed the duende and exists. Later she sings:
If I weren’t rappin’ I’d be trappin’
If I weren’t trappin’ I’d be pimpin’
If weren’t pimpin’ I’d be gettin’ it, period
I don’t smoke no bobby, but my denim be from Ricky
Got your girl on molly and we smokin’ loud and drinkin’
Got my top back so you can see what I been thinkin’
And if you know me then you know I’ve been thinkin’
Franklin Money, thousands, True Religion trousers
Got a private home, started from them public houses
Minaj’s I tells a story of what it has overcome. It has started from ‘public houses,’ but by the sheer force of will, talent, intelligence, and strength of spirit, her I now has a ‘private home,’ ‘Money’ in the ‘thousands’ and expensive costumes, these ‘True Religion trousers’. That no matter what, she would ‘be gettin’ it, period’, because of her superhuman swagger and muscle and her skill at making beautiful language. Minaj’s I empowers her listeners, because when we hear her song, we feel all powerful, too. And it is only because she selﬂessly strips her I down bare to its nerve and is able to surround it with ineffable magic.
It’s also important to mention that the word beez can be a person who sleeps around and is used in a derogatory way to signify a woman who has sex a lot, with many partners. Minaj undoubtedly is referencing this usage of the word, too, as a way to own this term and revive it with power and female empowerment.
And Minaj is the bee, but she also beezz and she also bees in the trap, the trap of being the singer meant to sing. The be = beeing after all.
Still, Plath’s idea of being queen bee is in Nicki Minaj’s idea of being. That to be a bee is to rule. Lorde, a young singer, in her song ‘Royals’, sings to the audience that they should ‘Let me be your ruler, you can call me Queen Bee.’
Lil’ Kim, in her song ‘Came Back for You’, sings to her fans, her real fans:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I am the one and only Queen Bee
After me there will be none, but you could call me Miss White
Most people know me as Lil’ Kim the head of the La Bella Maﬁa
Oh, shoutout to my girl Victoria Gotti and the whole family stay up
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It’s the real hip hop mami check the facts
I’m sick of all you acts with your bubble gum raps
Like the sand in the hourglass you out of your time
Tried to go against the queen is you out of your mind?
Even be at number two, your chances is slim
Cause when God made Adam, he should’ve made
Kim I gave a few passes but I never forget
It’s enough I got to put up with this Doo Doo Brown chick
Now you and you wanna come at me from all sides
I’m gettin money, don’t think I just be lettin shit slide
In this song, she is the all-powerful poet, the queen. She lets her haters know she is boss and her fans know that she came from the dead to sing to them, to let them know she is their boss. To both haters and fans, she says she is here to stay. She is quieting the Roman mob – she is their ruler.
Rudolf Steiner talks about the work of worker bees and the queen bee. That their ﬂight to collect pollen and turn it into honey is a marriage ﬂight. I think that this is a moment of high drama, too. He explains that the worker bees visit the ﬂowers and the trees, but that they are children of the sun, just like the queen. And that their lives are governed by the length of time it takes for the sun to rotate on its axis (a length of time he said was twenty-one days, even though now we know otherwise).
I think that when the poet is a queen bee she speaks to her workers, but she also speaks for the sun. The queen bee is not like her workers. Like Plath says, ‘They thought death was worth it, but I / Have a self to recover, a queen’. The I of the poet will always be the bee that is called back into the poem. The I is the bee that is called back, in a ‘lionred body’ with ‘her wings of glass’.
The worker bees live to visit the ﬂowers and trees. Their marriage ﬂight is in the swarm and in the drama of the swarm. They are the children of the sun, as is the queen. But they are governed by the laws of the sun. The queen bee is governed by the laws of the swarm, which is the poem. The marriage ﬂight she makes is with the self – there is no one like her. The ﬂowers and trees come to her through being. And she is governed only by being the only one of her kind. The sun speaks through her. And sun and queen bee are the song of it all.
Such sovereignty. Such eternal dignity we see in bees. We hear this ring of unearthly claim in their song.
The bees and love
How does the song go? That bees do it, that birds do it. Bees do it. Birds do it.
The literary goddess Chris Kraus has a song she sings when the bees have gotten too much for her. She said she made it up when she was taking a hike and all of these bees swarmed her and she sang to them:
Oh bees, please
Oh bees, please
Leave us in peace
Or this is how she typed out the song to me, as when I told her I was writing this lecture, she offered this song. When I told my friend Robbie Dewhurst about this song, he told me once he and Chris were in her garden and all of these bees swarmed them and they had to run inside like mad people. And now as I write this down to you, Robbie has recently become a bee husbander.
But when the bees swarmed them in her garden, Chris offered her bee song to them. And when she wrote me about it, she said that she would sing it to me, too, and then she did the next time I saw her. And the song was sweet and sinister, and she repeated the last line, so that the song is really:
Oh bees, please
Oh bees, please
Leave us in peace
Leave us in peace
Maybe she didn’t need to write that last line twice when she sent it to me initially. Maybe when you write a poem, you can just write once what in person you might repeat. Maybe the notation of the poem is the intricate container of wax that can then ﬂy away when you choose to leave the hive of the words.
Sammy Davis Jr. has a song called ‘The Candy Man’, and in the song the Candy Man is very powerful. He’s all-powerful. The song asks us:
Who can take a sunrise
Sprinkle it with dew
Cover it with choc’late and a miracle or two
The Candy Man
Oh, the Candy Man can
I forgot to say earlier that I started thinking seriously about the movie Candyman when I found a copy of its screenplay in a used bookstore. But the screenplay was the notation for the movie, was the hive of the song. On the cover of the screenplay was a honeycomb.
Of course that story has always been about the bees. I think the convergence of self and other is a kind of forgiveness only the hum can bring. Maybe divine love is the forgiveness that a poet must be the bee to survive, but also must sing the bee song to sing.
May Swenson has a love poem called ‘Four-Word Lines’, in which the desire to be a ﬂower pollinated by a bee is all a lover can hope for:
Your eyes are just
like bees, and I
feel like a ﬂower.
Their brown power makes
a breeze go over
my skin. When your
lashes ride down and
rise like brown bees’
legs, your pronged gaze
makes my eyes gauze.
I wish we were
in some shade and
no swarm of other
eyes to know that
I’m a ﬂower breathing
bare, laid open to
your bees’ warm stare.
I’d let you wade
in me and seize
with your eager brown
bees’ power a sweet
glistening at my core.
And of course this sexual sublimity is what a ﬂower might want, but a poet is not a ﬂower, it’s a bee, a real bee bloomed in real water. And Swenson knows that, so really even though she asks the you to be her bee, she turns into a bee herself in the act of loving, with her ‘eyes gauze’, her bee eyes.
Book Four of Virgil’s Georgics is all about bees. First it uses bees as a kind of model of how humans should be – that they should work for the society and the greater good. Later in the book, Aristaeus loses his bees, and tries to get them back by blinding a seer, but it doesn’t work, because he has angered too many nymphs. And Proteus tells him his real crime was to kill Eurydice, the true love of Orpheus, who lost her twice to death and now must sing and long forever, instead of having completeness.
The end of the book is about the life of being a poet. You sing for the thing not even imaginable in your grasp. You are not the army man, as Virgil writes, who holds victory in the body. Your body is a corpse always, beneath the beech tree. You rule the world only in the aftermath, in the spaces between the real and the living.
Harold Acton, a poet and writer from the twentieth century, wrote of a poem that it was ‘as keen as a bee’. Maybe the keenness of a bee is what all poems strive for.
Love, like devotion to a god, is sweet. The Candy Man can make the everyday into candy. The bee can take a ﬂower, who is destined to die, and make the immortal liquid that can cure anything, that can make the unsinging sing again. The poet, too, can do a lot. But the poem cannot cure the unseen from its seeing. It must be and being. There is no peace.
Intuition, the echo of the future
Perhaps bees – a swarm of bees – are related to intuition. Maybe that’s what ghosts are. Maybe that’s what poems do.
What is the feeling we feel when we know something is amiss. Is it just chance or do we really know something? Is life about ﬁnding our mystical opposites and forgiveness, forgiving ourselves in another dimension, creating the comb and the hive? And when we know the spiritual other, do we forgive it still through song?
Being a poet is about telepathy and intuition. It’s about knowing things that you can’t know you know. Have you ever had that experience when reading a poem, that the poem knows you? I have. It has happened when reading and writing a poem. Sometimes I have written things within a poem that I couldn’t have known would come true years later. What part of me knew? Was it my swarm self, in another space, that spoke to me through song?
What is the swarm of bees that enters a poem when language is created? What is the radio the poet is tapping into with its gentle hum? It is the thing of being, moving around and absorbing energy.
Several years ago, in a summer writing program in Amherst, I met a fantastic poet named Lynn Houston, who had, for an entire cycle already, raised a family of bees. She didn’t know that I was thinking about bees and poetry so much when she told our group about queens and wild queens, when she discussed her ‘babies’ as a group of female warriors kept in a hive. Maybe she did or did not know, in those moments when she recounted to me about the bees, that she belonged to a lineage of great, wild, wild women. We were poets. All of us.
A bit into her bee stories, Lynn described how she had recently found out she was deathly allergic to bee stings and had almost died when a swarm attacked her. She said she was feeding the bees and had not suited up properly because she was in a hurry, and the bees kind of ﬂipped out, thinking that their queen was in danger, and after a few seconds all came at her and stung her, hundreds of them, and she went into shock and narrowly survived the attack.
What struck me in her story was the way she described the sounds of her bees and how these sounds changed when they were about to attack. She described the normal hum when bees are happy in the hive, then how they shift to a louder tone, and then to a screeching sound when they are about to attack, which in my imagination sounds like a scene in a traditional horror ﬁlm, when the murderer has come into the room with a knife and sets it in the air to stab you. Maybe I was thinking of the shower scene in Psycho a bit, yet the swarm of knives seems even so much more sinister.
In a conference paper called ‘Silent Summer’ Lynn gave at the Western Literature Association Conference in Berkeley during the fall of 2013, she described these very sounds more eloquently than I could even begin to, so I will share some of her writing with you now:
Bees make noise through the vibration of their wings. When you approach a healthy hive of bees, you hear a hum. A sound that ends in an ‘m’ – emmm. This is their tranquil, resting, go-about-their-business noise. It becomes even duller at night, just the letter ‘m’ – mmmm – when most of them retreat deep in the hive. Once you get close enough to the hive, guard bees that stand along the entrance will spot you and begin a new sound that is picked up by the rest of the hive, a song that warns of a potential intruder. That’s when the ‘b’ and ‘z’ sounds start – ‘bzzss’ which can rise to the same sound ending in a sharper staccato ‘t’ if you make more movements to approach – ‘bsstt’. This is often the sound the bees make as you open up the hive, expose it to the sun, and begin examining the frames. Eventually, sooner if you jar or knock any of the hive furniture, the disturbance to the hive increases the pitch to almost a siren, an ‘errr’ sound, aggressive. At this point, bees begin to ﬂy around you and land on you trying to ﬁnd a vulnerable place to attack this intruder to their home. Your movements, smell, and exhalation of breath, if not controlled, could convince them that you mean harm, at which point the guard bees ﬂy straight into your face with a very high pitched ‘reee’.
Of course it is the bsstt and reee a person would need to look out for, before it was too late. But maybe it would be too late. Maybe it is the bzzss that are the worst, because things are about to get bad. And is this where we get the buzz of buzzing bees from? Do we ever, as humans, hear the hum? Or is every sound of a bee a battle cry, calling out to the wild for the brethren, in search of solidarity and aid?
And how do the bees speak to one another, to communicate when it is time to worry, and to attack? It isn’t intuition that they speak together – it is sound. But are these things one and the same? I do not know.
I mentioned the bees in Virgil’s Georgics a bit earlier. Even in their glory, there is no escape from the poison darts, the bees’ anger, the poets’ strikes. He writes:
There’s no end to the wrath of bees – vexed, they’ll inﬂame their stings with poison and, fastening to a vein, deposit darts that you can’t see – inﬂicting harm, they’ll forfeit their own lives . . .
The more trials sent to test them, the keener they become, one and all, to throw themselves into the mending of their tumbled world.
Perhaps here, too, Virgil makes the bee akin to a poet. After all, it is a poet who also becomes keener with the more trials sent to test them. The more a poet has to translate emotion, and thought, into language, the sharper their ability to do it again and better the next time. The best poems are the ones a poet is just about to write.
Fifteen years ago now, I taught some third graders in a Writers in the Schools program. We were reading W.S. Merwin together, and when we read his poem ‘Vixen’ during class, the children noticed that he did not use punctuation. It was probably in that moment that I decided to use as little punctuation as possible in my poems. Merwin did this to create poems that spring off the page. Maybe he did it, too, to let the poems be bees, free and wild from their honeycomb.
Merwin’s poem ‘The River of Bees’ describes a swarm of them, come to speak through intuitive forces and the dreamworld:
In a dream I returned to the river of bees
Five orange trees by the bridge and
Beside two mills my house
Into whose courtyard a blind man followed
The goats and stood singing
Of what was older
Soon it will be ﬁfteen years
He was old he will have fallen into his eyes
I took my eyes
A long way to the calendars
Room after room asking how shall I live
One of the ends is made of streets
One man processions carry through it
Empty bottles their
Image of hope
It was offered to me by name
Once once and once
In the same city I was born
Asking what shall I say
He will have fallen into his mouth
Men think they are better than grass
I return to his voice rising like a forkful of hay
He was old he is not real nothing is real
Nor the noise of death drawing water
We are the echo of the future
On the door it says what to do to survive
But we were not born to survive
Only to live
This poem reverberates with the Eric Baus poem I discussed earlier. Merwin exclaims toward the end of the poem that the man he describes ‘is not real’ and ‘nothing is real’. Baus exclaims something awful in his poem, too, as he writes, ‘Flowers are not real. Bees are not real. Water is not real.’ In Merwin’s poem, we see a man who is actually blind follow the sound of bees into the day, obliterated by the beauty of nature (the ‘Five orange trees’) that he may or may not be able to see, but can intuit – he knows it, he goes into it. Merwin reminds us in his poem that we are not real and this is because we were not meant to be. We are meant ‘Only to live’, and that in itself is not a reality, because the physical existences we get so used to in bodies are endlessly changing, until the alchemy of death renders them into a form that is so unlike what is familiar as a human being, it must not be real at all.
Merwin also writes, ‘We are the echo of the future.’ I think that this is a very real thing. In a poem, we echo what will already be. Maybe we make what will be by being it already through language. Whatever the case, the man in Merwin’s poem is always me, because I can read it. The man is Merwin, too. And he is you, too. Because when the bees reee they speak for all of us, to warn of the impending end we all face, but we face it with bitter breath together, in a neverending song.
The bee, the splendid spring, the fall
In ‘To make a prairie’, Dickinson writes:
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
I’ve always thought that in this poem, she means to say that you can make an expansive space of nature, you can make in your mind a wideopen ﬁeld of ﬂowers and being, with just one clover and a bee and, of course, ‘revery’. But by the end of this short poem, we learn that in the absence of bees, you must have daydreaming, you must have revery. And in such a short time, she shows us that bees and daydreaming are somehow the same – that bees make dreams appear.
In a letter to her sister-in-law, Susie Gilbert, from the winter of 1853, Dickinson writes:
How fast we will have to talk then – there will be those farewell gaieties – and all the days before, of which I have had no fact, and there will be your absence, and your presence, my Susie dear, sweetest, and brightest, and best of every and all the themes. It is sweet to talk, dear Susie, with those whom God has given us, lest we should be alone – and you and I have tasted it, and found it very sweet; even as fragrant ﬂowers, o’er which the bee hums and lingers, and hums more for the lingering.
I ﬁnd it very lonely, to part with one of mine, with mine especially, and the days will have more hours while you are gone away.
Susan Gilbert was married to Dickinson’s brother, Austin. Many scholars believe Susie was the love of Dickinson’s life and her muse; she showed more of her poems to Susie than to any other human being. She lived across Dickinson’s lawn in her brother’s house her entire married life, and Dickinson called again and again to her in letters like this one.
Whatever the true nature of Dickinson’s emotions, one can feel the aching Dickinson expresses to Gilbert, as she writes of her ‘presence’ which is the ‘sweetest, and brightest’ and so ‘very sweet; even as fragrant ﬂowers, o’er which the bee hums and lingers, and hums more for the lingering’.
Just like many of the other poets I have discussed in this lecture, Dickinson makes the work of a poet akin to a bee’s. For just as the bee lingers more over the sweetest ﬂowers and gives off in sound a (nonthreatening) hum, a poet too in the midst of beauty sings more in the space of it, not to survive, because that’s not the point, but to live. The bees talking. The sweetest bees.
Walt Whitman, in ‘Specimen Days’, writes of bumblebees:
May-month—month of swarming, singing, mating birds—the bumblebee month—month of the ﬂowering lilac—(and then my own birthmonth.)
And he writes of the sensual overload of nature and living, and because he is a poet, he feels to record this overload with his characteristic and large, undulating detail:
The blue birds, grass birds and robins, in every direction. . . .
. . . the croaking of the pond frogs and the ﬁrst white of the dog-wood blossoms. Now the golden dandelions in endless profusion, spotting the ground everywhere. The white cherry and pear-blows—the wild violets . . .
But it is the bees that capture his poet heart with their metaphysical kinship. As he writes, the bees are ‘conveying to me a new and pronounc’d sense of strength, beauty, vitality and movement’ with the
deep musical drone of these bees, ﬂitting, balancing, darting to and fro about me by hundreds—big fellows with light yellow jackets, great glistening swelling bodies, stumpy heads and gauzy wings – humming their perpetual rich mellow boom. (Is there not a hint in it for a musical composition, of which it should be the back-ground? some bumble-bee symphony?) . . .
. . . these wild bees, whose loud and steady humming makes an undertone to the whole, and to my mood and the hour.
For Whitman, it is the hum of the bees that makes them like the poet, with the gift of musical composition, of song. They are overwhelmingly strong, beautiful, and vital, with immense mojo. They have magic in their song, creating a symphony with their loud and steady humming, with their overwhelming power, which overtakes even a wild garden in spring. In their incessant undertone, they overtake everything.
Whitman’s ‘Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun’, a love poem about the fall and Manhattan, talks of bees:
Keep your splendid, silent sun;
Keep your woods, O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods;
Keep your ﬁelds of clover and timothy, and your corn-ﬁelds and orchards;
Keep the blossoming buckwheat ﬁelds, where the Ninth-month bees hum;
Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes! give me women! give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day! let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching—give me the sound of the trumpets and drums!
(The soldiers in companies or regiments—some, starting away, ﬂush’d and reckless;
Some, their time up, returning, with thinn’d ranks—young, yet very old, worn, marching, noticing nothing;)
—Give me the shores and the wharves heavy-fringed with the black ships! O such for me! O an intense life! O full to repletion, and varied!
The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!
The saloon of the steamer! the crowded excursion for me! the torch-light procession!
The dense brigade, bound for the war, with high piled military wagons following;
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants;
Manhattan streets, with their powerful throbs, with the beating drums, as now;
The endless and noisy chorus, the rustle and clank of muskets, (even the sight of the wounded;)
Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus—with varied chorus, and light of the sparkling eyes;
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.
Whitman mentions the ‘Ninth-month bees’ in the space of a bright day and within the ‘endless and noisy chorus’ of the ‘Manhattan crowds’ that he loves with their ‘turbulent musical chorus – with varied chorus’, their gorgeous urban hum.
These ‘Ninth-month bees’ are so odd – they seem not of this world, and I, for one, am not sure what ‘Ninth-month’ is supposed to mean. I think it means September – that this walk is the end of summer, as newness of sun is silent and diminishing. These bees are old.
I also think of course of childbirth and the gestation of a human baby. In the ninth month the baby as a being inside the womb is over and it must be born, but also be reborn in a way. It is entering the world in the form that we can fathom it as living humans, but it has already lived an entire lifetime as a being inside the hive of its mother’s womb. It dies, in a way, to be born and with us.
I once did Elizabeth Kray’s fabulous Walt Whitman walking tour of historic New York City. I learned so much about Whitman on that day. Kray had us go through several locations on Broadway that most of us (especially the seasoned New Yorkers) might have taken for granted, regular old bodegas and shops. In one particularly interesting part of the tour, we stopped in front of Victoria’s Secret on Broadway, which used to be a brothel. I can’t tell you how much it delights me to encounter this Victoria’s Secret now and to know this ‘secret’ to this day. What I really learned in the tour was something else about the sound and length of Whitman’s lines that Kray may or may not have intended me to uncover. Part of the tour has you walk along until you get to Brooklyn. It is a relatively long walk and one that Whitman did almost daily. While walking along, I had an almost mystical experience and heard not just the sound of the cars and people along the road, but the horse-drawn carriages of Whitman’s day, the ‘endless and noisy chorus’. Suddenly I realized why his lines were long and extended seemingly on and on. The walk, like poetry, like Manhattan, had no end. The bees’ song was an endless, splendid spring we must walk along.
And it’s an honor to make this walk my lifeline.
John Keats, in an 1818 letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, writes of the bees:
It has been an old comparison for our urging on – the Beehive; however, it seems to me that we should rather be the ﬂower than the Bee – for it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving – no, the receiver and the giver are equal in their beneﬁts. The ﬂower, I doubt not, receives a fair guerdon from the Bee – its leaves blush deeper in the next spring – and who shall say between man and woman which is the most delighted? Now it is more noble to sit like Jove than to ﬂy like Mercury – let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey, bee-like buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at; but let us open our leaves like a ﬂower and be passive and receptive – budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favours us with a visit – sap will be given us for meat and dew for drink. I was led into these thoughts, my dear Reynolds, by the beauty of the morning operating on a sense of Idleness – I have not read any books – the Morning said I was right – I had no idea but of the morning, and the thrush said I was right . . .
It seems as if Keats might agree with Dickinson’s poem, that bees are related to revery, as he seems to favor the scene of bees and ﬂowers, and the ‘sense of Idleness’ of daydreams, which make poetry.
Still, he seems to favor the passive work of a ﬂower to that of a bee. The bee actively collects pollen, but Keats thinks that it is better to accept what the world gives as knowledge. To not seek it out as a master of knowledge, but as receiver.
I think that he is right in part. A poet must listen to the radio waves of this world and the next one and respond through poetry. It’s true. But I think the poet must be more than the ﬂower. He must be the bee – with all its valor, to leave the inside and seek the truth.
James Schuyler, in ‘Hymn to Life’, writes:
Through it all the forsythia begins to bloom, brown
And yellow and warm as lit gas jets, clinging like bees to
The arching canes where starlings take cover from foraging cats. Not
To know: what have these years of living and being lived taught us?
Not to quarrel? Scarcely. You want to shoot pool, I want to go home
I think I prefer Schuyler’s relationship to the bees to Keats’s. After all, being a bee and a ﬂower is about living, and ‘what have these years of living and being lived taught us’ anyway. There is strife everywhere. Even in our most intimate relationships, we don’t share the same goals – ‘You want to shoot pool. I want to go home.’ As people, we don’t move as bees, all knowing what we are meant to do – to mate the queen, to protect the queen, to be the queen, to be a wild queen.
No, Schuyler would not like to come back to life as a ﬂower. He wants to come back into his voice as a bee. After all, orange ﬂowers, the bees – none of it is real. Only the voice, the sound is real. Replace everything else for sound, the poems tell us.
The grey room
In ‘The Room of My Life’, Anne Sexton describes the ‘room of [her] life’ where the ‘objects keep changing’, but all hang ‘like a cave of bees’ that she feels and feeds as its own ‘world’. It is in this room, with its endless pit of bees, that ‘the sea . . . bangs in [her] throat’.
My favorite poems are the ones with broken lyrics and gut-wrenching, imaginative realism. I think it is because too they make me think of bees. Because a bee’s life is broken, just from the start of it.
Everyone knows that the events in poems are real and then aren’t, too. Even if they happened – that doesn’t mean they are real. Most readers of poems don’t have the privilege of knowing the difference – if the poem means something and lasts, they won’t know the poet as a real person, just an abstraction – a set of black type on page or sound wavelength on recording. That’s it. So, is the plight of a poet for naught? Oh, I don’t think so. What’s most important to a poem is real pain (and pain can be sweet). It has to feel real. (Whatever that means.) And I think that poems that feel real are somehow beyond the real.
What is the pure being that is the poet that writes the poem? It is never pure. It never speaks from a pure place. It is the monster in the poem with a confusing set of emotions, based in real love and real hate.
It is a swarm of bees, ﬂying everywhere. After all, not everyone is aware there is a demon-queen living inside each of us. But the poet knows. The demon fractures the self. Into its mystical opposites. It does it for the love of you.
Dear reader, the pure me loves you. Remember: ‘The bees are ﬂying. They taste the spring.’
You know I’ve always loved you. We lived as one in dreams. And I’ll come back again to tell you so.
Just watch me.
This essay is taken from Dorothea Lasky’s new collection Animal, published by Wave Books.
Image © KaCey97078