The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy

12th Dec 2012


There is something in bees that elicits poetic awe – the famous impossibility of their dimensions and grace, and the unfathomable flight of something that should by all logic remain grounded.

In The Bees, now available in paperback and beautifully rendered in a gold embossed honeycomb, the strongest poems are those that stick closest to the hive. Duffy aligns artistic endeavour with the bees’ sweet work in a shameless homage to their sounds:

Here are my bees,
brazen, blurs on paper,
besotted; buzzwords
and know of us:
how your scent pervades
my shadowed, busy heart,
and honey is art.

‘Scheherazade’ tells the importance of the sounds of the craft, the background hum of storytelling, lest the world forget to preserve its stories in a ‘lock of rhyme’:

Dumb was as good as dead;
Better to utter.

Duffy extends this comparison beyond the phonetic, however, to suggest that poets, like bees, could be the overlooked saviours of a humanity that busies itself with self-destruction. In ‘Last Post’, she imagines the war poets undoing the horrors of war from the trenches, professing that:

If poetry could truly tell it backwards
then it would.

The Poet Laureate unites the neglect of poetry with damage to bees once more in the opening lines of Ariel:

Where the bees sucks,
neonicotinoid insecticides
in a cowslip’s bell lie

…corrupting Shakespeare’s verse with the very chemicals that proved toxic to bees, and breaking the rhythm with a mouthful of science that leaves only the acrid taste of assonance in its wake.

In line with the matrilineal tradition of a colony, Duffy also pays homage to her mother and daughter, united in Water by their common thirst and care.

In some of these verses, particularly The Woman in the Moon and ‘Dorothy Wordsworth is Dead, lie the echoes of Duffy’s 1999 collection, The World’s Wife.

And, in bee-like service to the Queen herself, Duffy populates her book with poems of national commentary: Politics on the expenses scandal, Achilles on David Beckham’s heel and Rings for the Royal Wedding, in which she deftly avoids her monarchical subjects and instead heralds love in its many circular forms.

With The Bees, Duffy shows she can still forge words like honey, the ‘midas dust’ of ‘The Human Bee’, and render all readers ‘concelebrants’ of the endangered hive.

The Bees is now available in paperback priced at £9.99 from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, or for Kindle priced at £6.26.

Recommended for: Fans of the Poet Laureate and the post-pastoral, who may also may be interested to learn that Duffy is curating Thresholds, and has chosen a series of poets to work in residence at each of the University of Cambridge Museums, the University Library and the Botanic Garden.

Jackie Kay, Gillian Clarke, Don Paterson, Ann Gray, Imtiaz Dharker, Owen Sheer, Sean Borodale, Jo Shapcott, Matthew Hollis and Daljit Nagra have each been assigned a museum and will spend time writing work inspired by their collections. All the poets’ work will be collated for presentation and publication in 2013.

Other recommended reading: Weeds and Wild Flowers by Alice Oswald and Jessica Greenman, Woods etc. by Alice Oswald and Bee Journal by Sean Borodale.

Rating: 4/5

Eve Lacey