“Bee Journal” – New Poetry by Sean Borodale

By Rob Packer

A honey bee (Wikipedia Commons taken by Maciej Czyżewski)

If bees didn’t exist, poets would have had to invent them: mechanical, organic, strange and beautiful, they make honey—for centuries one of man’s few sources of sugar, until sugar-making techniques were developed in Asia—, they sting but so doing take their own life and they live in a highly ordered caste society that at first glance look chaotic.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that they have a long history in poetry: in Virgil’s Georgics (worth reading if you haven’t already), the bee colony seems not too far from Platonic Ideal City and stands as Rome’s model for the future after the chaos of its civil war. Shakespeare also comes to a similar Virgil-inspired moment in Henry V when the Archbishop of Canterbury gets Hal off to France with a judicious bee metaphor. In today’s post-Renaissance individualism, however, the bee colony as very deterministic model for the polis sounds tasteless, with its echoes from Brave New World to The Matrix. And the analogy may have fallen out of fashion amongst male poets, once science proved that the ‘bee emperor’ is a queen—listen to this essay by Adam Gopnik for more. But the fascination with the strangeness and our need for bees continues to this day from Sylvia Plath to Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees (2011) and this year’s Bee Journal by Sean Borodale.

Bee Journal charts two years beekeeping in 74 chronological poems, mostly written at the hive. As the reader progresses through the collection, he or she learns about apiculture at the same time as Borodale, learning “Nuc, / new word” under the “toiling air” and “beacon sun” of Exmoor, the dangers of imported honey or that:

The smaller bees are kittenish.
Tapped hive, the noise continues long.
Supposed to be a sign of health.
The drones are vast, bothersome.

With words like “kittenish”, the poems sometimes feel like undeclared love poems to the queen: they obsess about her asking where she is, looking for her endlessly in a mass of bees. At other points, “bees touch and re-align their touch”, giving their touch (a frequent word in the collection) a vaguely sexual connotation, but far from an affectionate one: after all the bee’s touch is its sting, which has the potential to be fatal to both bee and human.

The very strangeness of bees creates a challenge for poets, especially to express their constant, non-verbal sound in words, and Borodale excels in this, sometimes dissecting sentences of their syntax and creating a disjunction of the senses. These can be joyous “Jutting harp strings of light, / ligaments of noise take flight” or threatening “Slowly you are tuning yourselves / into the small misheard scales, into a purpose”. But my favourite metaphor is a repeated one of bees, fire and vitality: “Our bees are not yet lit but stagger out / like gauze mantles for a gas light.” These lines are set at the beginning of spring and I think the metaphor captures perfectly the dopiness of insects in early spring or late autumn.

In their single sound and single-mindedness, Borodale frequently sees the bee colony as one living being, as an “anima” with “its mechanism, its quartz pulse”, or even digitally as a “Motherboard of many; each light, residual: / element, lumen, diode, valve.”

If the bees of Bee Journal work as a unit, then there is also a holistic interconnectedness that extends into the environment and time as well. Honey is not just the bee’s product or a food: it’s as much a distillation or time capsule of the natural world, “a ghost of goings-on” or in ‘Winter Honey’, a highlight of the collection about “bitter battery-tasting honey. The woods are in it.” These interconnections seem to have even further implications and lines like, “Part of the moon bees have / was found in flowers”, made me wonder if flowers don’t taste of the sun (or moon), sustained as they are by photosynthesis.

But any views of nature as a whole are counteracted by the isolated, claustrophobic and restricted feel of these poems in their tight geographic space with the narrator wrapped in protective clothing. The outside world becomes the realm of the bees, “turning this house to align with yours” and the bees themselves an obsession and ritual with “vestments” (or maybe spacesuits):

Gloves, gauzes, white suits slumped—
I live in here.
That strange squat Jack-in-the-Box
seems prominent – out there.

Fundamentally, the bees of Bee Journal—and in real life—are inscrutable and mysterious. They’re constantly and unexpectedly changing and Borodale exploits this language that twists and turns, replicating the bee’s strange otherness. The results are engrossing and create a fascinating story-telling sequence of nature poems.

Sean BorodaleBee Journal, Cape Poetry, 2011

Link to the poet’s website: http://www.seanborodale.com/index.html

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