Given the recent scientific concern about the health of bee colonies and the ramifications for pollination and agriculture, it's time for a pair of poems about bees.
Sylvia Plath's "The Arrival of the Bee Box" is not objective and scientific. Instead, the speaker signals her unease through words like din, dangerous, moon suit, funeral veil.
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,The unintelligible syllables.It is like a Roman mob . . .I lay my ear to furious Latin.I am not the Caesar.I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
Plath's poem concludes with an implied threat:
Tomorow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.The box is only temporary.
In "Telling the Bees" by Deborah Digges, the speaker faces a different task, one that is unavoidable: dealing with the death of a loved one. True, the Digges poem also conveys the sonic horror of the bee colony:
. . . I set out, this onceobedient, toward the hives' domed skepson evening's hill, five tombs alight.I thought I heard the thrash and moaningof confinement . . .
Or is that confinement not of the bees within the hive but of the beloved's soul upon death?
The voice that found me gave the news.Up flew the bees toward his orchards.
Note the subtle choice of words: not "I found the voice" to be able to face the fact of his death, but rather "The voice that found me" [emphasis mine]. And perhaps unlike Sylvia Plath's bees, which will probably be allowed to remain, the bees in the Digges poem are released, like the soul of the departed.
I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.
The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.
I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.
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 the 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.
I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.
They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary.
(from The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, editor Ted Hughes, pages 212-213: Harper Perennial, New York, NY © 2001)
It fell to me to tell the bees,
though I had wanted another duty—
to be the scribbler at his death,
there chart the third day’s quickening.
But fate said no, it falls to you
to tell the bees, the middle daughter.
So it was written at your birth.
I wanted to keep the fire, working
the constant arranging and shifting
of the coals blown flaring,
my cheeks flushed red,
my bed laid down before the fire,
myself anonymous among the strangers
there who’d come and go.
But destiny said no. It falls
to you to tell the bees, it said.
I wanted to be the one to wash his linens,
boiling the death-soiled sheets,
using the waters for my tea.
I might have been the one to seal
his solitude with mud and thatch and string,
the webs he parted every morning,
the hounds’ hair combed from brushes,
the dust swept into piles with sparrows’ feathers.
Who makes the laws that live
inside the brick and mortar of a name,
Selects the seeds, garden or wild,
brings forth the foliage grown up around it
through drought or blight or blossom,
the honey darkening in the bitter years,
the combs like funeral lace or wedding veils
steeped in oak gall and rainwater,
sequined of rent wings.
And so arrayed I set out, this once
obedient, toward the hives’ domed skeps
on evening’s hill, five tombs alight.
I thought I heard the thrash and moaning
of confinement, beyond the century,
a calling across dreams,
as if asked to make haste just out of sleep.
I knelt and waited.
The voice that found me gave the news.
Up flew the bees toward his orchards.
(from Trapeze: Poems, pages 5-6: Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY © 2005)