Although I love animals, have long been an advocate of their rights and am lucky enough to share my life with two cats, whose wild and radically non-anthropomorphic antics have been amusing me for nine years now, I have never been that inspired to write animal poetry. That does not mean of course that I do not greatly admire others who do. Ted Hughes’s extensive body of animal poetry is a remarkable achievement, and two of my favorite French prose poets—Francis Ponge and Jules Renard—who regularly drew on zoological themes, were a great influence on my earliest work.
On the one hand, this is merely a lack of wit or perceptiveness on my part, on the other a certain conscious wish to avoid anthropomorphism. It is insulting to animals to suggest that they are in any way like us—nine years watching cats and letting them fight (they don’t use bombs, guns or knives and know instinctively when to cede or stand their ground, so that no-one is ever seriously hurt) has taught me that they live in their own, very different (and in many ways better) perceptual and social world. It is insulting to human beings to suggest that we are like animals. We have access to a world of language and spirituality, imagination and emotional attachment, which has brought us great joy and great suffering in equal measure—a complex dynamic of pleasures, consciousness (especially of mortality), sin and redemption, and fights to the death, of which most animals, fortunately for them, are blissfully unaware.
I make an exception, however, for insects and micro-organisms. Despite the vast taxonomic gulf that divides us from such creatures, we are alike in so many ways. Bees, in particular, have enjoyed a long history in poetry and political science, as models of human society. From Book IV of Virgil’s Georgics to Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees to Sylvia Plath’s haunting beekeeper poems, the beehive has been seen as an analogue, for good or ill, of challenges that beset human social life. The pastoral herding, fleeing and bonding instincts of cows, sheep, goats and dogs are uninteresting when compared to the complex urban behavior and division of labor of the social insects that more closely resemble ours.
As the title of this blog shows, my main interests in life are writing and reading poetry, teaching and learning languages, reflecting on linguistic diversity, doing politics as best I can and being a political animal. I am especially interested in the points where these themes converge. The beehive is certainly one of them.
Bees not only have a social complexity and division of labor to rival our own; they also, like us, have a collective linguistic ability to convey knowledge over vast distances in time and space. A cat, by contrast, paws and sniffs, seemingly surprised, at the re-appearance of a toy or its own tail.
This bee poem started out a long time ago and is still very flawed and incomplete and, as I secretly believe all work should be, very much ‘under construction’. The original idea came in 1991. My father had recently got a precarious job as a beekeeper, which involved attending lectures and reading books. As he wasn’t really up to that kind of intellectual activity, I had decided to do it for him and was reading a lot of books about the behavior of bees. At the same time, I was watching the First Gulf War unfold on cable TV. There seemed to me to be some similarities between the warlike behavior of competing hives and that of modern human nation states; between the allure of nectar and that of fossil fuels.
My initial hopelessly ambitious youthful project was to write a poem about bees using only phrases culled verbatim and cut and pasted Tristan Tzara-style from news reports of the war against Saddam Hussein.
At about the same time a book was published—a book I should add that I have never in fact been able to get my hands on—of touching letters written to their loved-ones by US soldiers serving in Vietnam. I must have seen some of these in newspapers or on TV—we had no Internet then—and was impressed by the fact that so many of them began or ended with the word ‘Honey’ used as an affectionate diminutive term of address.
Wanting now to combine content from this new corpus with my notebooks filled with the language of Gulf War journalism to produce my bee poem, the project became hopelessly unmanageable and was abandoned for the better part of the next decade and the first draft eventually lost.
I first went back to it in 1999, when I was involved in an NGO that used the image of the beehive as its logo. I suggested exploring new meanings of the parallels between bees and human beings in contemporary views of collective action and sexual identity. Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down that well among more pragmatically-minded people wanting to build homes for the poor. At the same time, I had a personal reason for returning to the theme. One of the comparisons I had wanted to dwell on in the original poem was that between a fighter pilot shot down over enemy territory and a drone falling from exhaustion from the air because he has failed in his only mission to service his queen. [‘Drone’, I should add, was a purely zoological term at the time (referring to a male bee), having none of the technological connotations it has today]. As an exile struggling with flagging sexual relationships, I now identified with this figure of the drone/POW, whom I had formerly aspired to portray only in an objective imaginative fashion.
The result—two years later—was this first, admittedly rough edged and fragmentary—bee poem for the 21st century.
Like many of the old poems I have been looking back over as part of this online learning and blogging project, Honey at first struck me as something stillborn; the chassis of a crashed aircraft rusting in a jungle.
However, one of the most interesting and rewarding things about looking back at work produced long ago with a view to publishing it afresh and maybe for the first time online is the extent to which one’s own perception has changed over the years and the—often surprising—potential the work has accrued to take on a different meaning for generations of younger people who did not even exist at the time it was ‘originally’ written.
Honey was written as a flawed attempt to outdo and update Virgil—a 2000 year-old Latin poet, whom I doubt many school kids study today—to play Dadaistically, in the manner of the early Modernists, with media coverage of the First Gulf War, to look back plangently to Vietnam and the long sad history of young men lost in action, and finally to bear some ironic witness to contemporary politics, personal experience and social change.
Reading back over it, it doesn’t seem that out of place in a younger world of crueler-than-ever capitalism, crowd-sourcing, ecological degradation and disappearing bees, a division of labor that ranges from zero contracts to high-paid snipers to ISIS fighters and back again, fluid sexual, ethnic and cultural identities, and a generation enslaved by student grants and online games and obsessed with the imaginary Medievalist political intrigue of Game of Thrones.
I am fully aware that this longish poem still requires an enormous amount of work and welcome any comments, criticisms and suggestions.
As a thought is born in us
when we slip a sweet spoon of honey
between our lips
and ancient smells
incite instinct and reflection
in equal measure
and inspire us to grow in words and thought;
so the young queen
is nourished by her chemical laborers
and awakes half-drunk
on the rich jelly and affection
that has been pumped into her.
Proud, she’s stirred by fragile destiny;
stings to death her unborn sisters
and with a pregnant pause
injects the same venom
into her flagging mother;
and with this act of euthanasia
inaugurates her own ascension.
Ageing workers laud and coddle her.
Enthused, celebrate with scents
this new infant; and the queen
into this luxury of destined power-
like baby burbling in cradle.
If bees could think, the old maids
would remember the dear murdered queen,
in the babyish ointments exuded
by the new; but, for nostalgia’s sake,
they rush off to mine from flowers’ mouths
the nectar that feeds her
that they might taste again
that flavour that made them well
and whole; and in their last days
that are numbered, if they knew it,
spare no effort to provide
the queen’s needs and, thereby, their own.
Being mortal, drop dead on the wing
of work. High on queen-sweat feel
saved as they faint in death; keep
at it till the queen is ready to leave her
sweet perfumed nest for a while. She
yawns and shakes pollen from her wings
and sets out on her brief single Odyssey.
But if a bee that has a different smell
strays into their air-space; the patient wet-
nurses transform themselves into squadrons
and sally forth to repel what –
if they could think – they would see
as the aggressor. Blessed by nature
with a gun embedded in their bodies;
but doomed to die if ever they have to use it;
they circle round the aggressor;
and, if need be, sacrifice their intestines,
for the sake of a decisive strike.
And the wounded, reduced to mere individuals,
are left to die in the no-man’s-land –
the desert beyond the home.
And when some return to celebrate
their victory, their joy is tempered
by the knowledge that one day they
too may stray and suffer a similar
fate. And, if they were human,
they would sing of the fatal sorrow
of being lost in a foreign land and
praise the joys of home; bunched
around their warm dear familiar queen.
IV Death and Sex
If bees had instruments and flags,
the horns would be blasted and the bunting
raised, the day the queen stirs herself
from the passive luxury of her survival
to survey – for one time only –
the real outside world. Flanked by
loyal body-guards, she launches
her buxom self into the air
and flirts with the cultivated drones,
who flock about her – desperate for sex.
Trained to love one only, they
have spent the spring of their lives
shunning the plain workers.
The queen is the only true beautiful thing
they have seen in their whole slight lives;
and they flock around her, like scientists
around a new truth. Eager to lap the sweet
forbidden juices from her back; and sink
themselves to the hilt into her deathly body.
Half knowing, if they could entertain a thought,
that this first pleasure will be their last
and, more excited for that, thrust their seed
more vigorously into her; drawing half their bellies
out with it. And fall back in a unique ecstasm
to drown – wriggling and exquisitely –
in the two dimensions of the putrid earth.
And those who fail, even in this only duty,
are left alienated in the three dimensions
of the air to harp out their famished lust
serenading the meaninglessness of death.
Winter is drawing in and the workers
stream back to the hive to warm
their queen with a slow flapping of wings.
VI Culture and Nature
Though spring must come for the bees
and a new queen settle into the confines
of her prison-cell; and new workers awake
from non-being to work themselves sterile
and sick for the drug the queen exudes
and they crave; and a new crop of drones
arise to preen and prepare themselves for
the triple festival of jubilee, wedding-feast
and funeral; and, though, there is no escape
from the cycle, unless the bee could pause rapt
for a while before the beauty of a flower
on a brief holiday from economic production;
yet, we, who keep and watch them,
by producing honey, knowledge and art,
can extract from their tragic annual lives
a quintessence that we take from them;
but does not cease to be theirs;
a magic melting together of subject and object,
complete, when we recognise that as they
are trapped in their cycle of nectar and reproduction;
sex and drugs; so we, tread our own special mill
of reason and language. They provide sweetness and example for us;
in return, we confer meaning upon them.