Carol Ann Duffy
I won’t be ashamed about my admiration for this book. It’s an unfamiliar and precious indulgence to review something I genuinely enjoyed reading. In 2008, The British Beekeepers Association (yes, it exists) warned that all bees could be extinct by 2018 if the situation was not rectified. The Bees, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s new collection, has a familiar refrain; it goes a bit like this: I’m truly sorry man’s dominion/ Has broken Nature’s social union. That was Robert Burns addressing a mouse in the late 18th century, and it’s a song that, for clear reasons, we’re compelled to keep rewriting. However, I wouldn’t want to be crude with this comparison, since Duffy’s poetry breaks free of anything that we might conceivably call ‘Eco-Poetics’. The range of its tones is characteristically wider, deftly blurring the supposed boundaries between the public and the private or the lyric and the song.
This quality of an ever-widening versatility of poetic vision is clearly what has landed her in the position of Poet Laureate. Yet the significant stance this book takes, the first since her appointment, is not one of ‘living up’ to the title she has earned, but of paying the necessary amount of attention to it: very little.
The dust jacket announces that the book is ‘a work of great ecological…power’ and that ‘the bee symbolizes what we have left of grace in the world.’ This is accurate, but also a necessarily reductive advertisement. In the first poem of the collection, ‘Bees’, we get this:
Here are my bees,
Brazen, blurs on paper,
Besotted; buzzwords, dancing
Their flawless, airy maps.
It is metaphor that liberates Duffy from the pieties of what could be a strictly ‘ecological’ perspective. ‘Bees’ not only symbolize ‘what we have left of grace’, but are also shape-shifting metaphors. Bees are ‘blurs on paper’ (poems), they are ‘the batteries of orchards’, their ‘honey is art’ and the poet is the ‘beekeeper’, extracting what is essential from the buzz of the hive. In poems like ‘Hive’, there’s a kind of solidarity expressed between the swarming populations of a beehive and those of the human world. ‘The hive is love’, ‘honey is art’, the hive is ‘a little church, a tiny mosque’ —the metaphors keep altering, but they all suggest the familiar ways in which poets deal with the natural world they’ve been describing since Virgil and before. They also suggest just how versatile the bee is as a species worth comparing to our own; how the Bee becomes a kind of muse for Duffy. Yet, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is an entire collection of poems about bees. Bees are a persistent presence and a guiding metaphor, but they don’t blindly curve the arc of the collection. A poem like ‘Big Ask’, a kind of high flying rhetorical question and answer session, hazards lines like ‘When did the President give you the date?/ Nothing to do with Barack!’ and somehow manages to be biting, satirical and memorable all at once. Elegies for parents, poems about poems, poems about Dorothy Wordsworth, ‘The Woman in the Moon’ and ‘The Human Bee’ are all in this very mixed bag.
While it may seem a strange or strained comparison, there’s a bit of Robert Frost in Duffy’s collection. An element of what you might call ‘dark pastoral’ is under the surface of many of these poems, animating its metaphorical stances. Our ongoing and helpless existence in the fate of extinction around us might be its actual subject.
The Bees ends with a fable-esque journey toward a ‘Rare Bee’, which ends with the ‘gesturing, dying bee/on the bier of a leaf’. Sometimes the darkness isn’t under the surface at all, as in poems like ‘The Dead’, which observes ‘us in our taxis, them in their hearses.’ That kind of striking, quotidian observation, however, looks like nothing when you’re hit with the last line: ‘We float on our gondolas along the green canals/ and do not die.’ To me, this felt like a pair of brass knuckles to the forehead; which is to say, scrap the piece of powder blue, gilded paper lingerie that is the dust jacket of this book—you’re in for something much darker than you might think.