10th February: Queen, 2012, 24th / 25th January: Bees Die, 26th July: In the Garden, 27th July, 27th May: Geography, Bee Journal, Cape Poetry, Jonathan Cape, poem, poems, Poetry, Poetry & Landscape with Alice Oswald, review, Sean Borodale, The Poetry Channel, verse
It began as an idle thrumbing, blending with the shiver of the branches. The path ahead looked the same as the path behind: horticultural order and beauty in full summer bloom. However, with each foot forwards the noise grew in substance until it felt as if the world itself vibrated in sympathy. Against my face, against the skin inside my clothes, I felt its power. And then I realized in horror that this was the sound of millions of bees; that, a hop over the wall, was an apiary comprising a dozen hives. Placing another foot deeper into the solid sound was a physical impossibility. Walk curtailed, my pulse regained its equilibrium but I’d never think of monasteries in quite the same way again.
In Bee Journal, Sean Borodale records his experiences as a newbie beekeeper and the poems were written in the moment, at the hive, over 14 months. In 27th May: Geography, Borodale initially appears to use the bees as a vehicle to present the concerns of our society: ‘Bees in the roof, bees on the walls / stitching the house in a net of flightways, / just like surveillance, just like snoopers / in the open air’. ‘Surveillance’ and ‘snoopers’ remind us of anti-terror legislation and the government’s recent draft Communications Data Bill. This hive actually has bugs in its roof and walls, reminding us of the ruthless realpolitik of the animal kingdom. Successive stanzas open with the phrase ‘they rig it’ conveying the time, effort and skill required to create the mental flightways which link hive to landscape. Borodale’s image also romanticizes the bees’ activity, as they become mariners mapping uncharted shores and the collection of nectar and pollen reminds us chests laden with booty. Yet, despite the police state that Borodale invites us to imagine, apian society is also fragile. ‘You are a brain in impermanence, / coding, knowing, keeping / the latitude and longitude of this, our house; / each bee a synapse slowly forming on arrival’. Together, the bees form the electrical impulses of a single brain: the hive. This reading has both pagan and Christian associations. In Romans, Paul writes that ‘So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members of one another’. St Ambrose uses the bee as metaphor to elaborate on Paul, describing the hive as the church and the bees as the faithful.
Yet, as well as the community, Borodale also observes the individual. In 26th July: In the Garden, a bee is described with tenderness. ‘There it is: one pulsing abdomen; / light brown, familiar, gently striped. Tongue / at drinking water. // Frail, how it concentrates / not solely for itself. / It makes one part’. As the poem opens, the bee is described as ‘it’ but, as it ends, this idea of the bee working for others turns ‘it’ into ‘she’ and the bee is anthropomorphised into a mother. This differs in approach to someone like Ted Hughes, who insists on the spiritual, terrifying otherness of nature. Borodale the beekeeper is no impassive observer, alien and excluded from the hive he might be, yet he is intimately connected to the bees by his flightway of care.
10th February: Queen, presents Borodale at the height of his descriptive powers: ‘How downy she is, fur like a fox’s greyness, like a thistle’s mane. / Wings perfect, abdomen subtle in shades of brittle; / her rear legs are big in the lens; / feet like hung anchors are hooks for staying on cell-rims. / Veins in her wings are a rootwork of rivers, / all echo and interlace. This is her face, compound eye. / I look at the slope of her head, the mouth’s proboscis; / her thin tongue piercing is pink as cut flesh, flash glass. / Some hairs feather and split below the head. / Those eyes are like castanets, cast nets; / woman all feral and ironwork, I slip / under the framework, into the subtle’. The writing is rich, as the dead Queen is presented as weighty, anchored to her hive by hooks as well as by the wings clipped by the DEFRA bee inspector. The ‘rootwork of rivers’ is a life-giving image which destabilizes our sense of perspective as to see a ‘rootwork of rivers’ is to view an aerial photograph of a river delta.
Borodale’s Journal uses shorter forms to great and sometimes devastating effect. The whole of 27th July reads ‘Is she in?’ Borodale again plays with perspective, characterizing the beekeeper as the tourist, excluded, peering between the bearskins and through the railings to scan the roof of Buckingham Palace for the royal standard. This playful juxtaposition of large and small may have humorous intent but invites us to reconsider our assumptions, as the humble bee is vital for the pollination of our crops. Following January’s false spring and cold snap, Borodale is lost for words and, below the title, 24th / 25th January: Bees Die, sits a blank page as articulate as any poem on the subject of grief and loss.
Alice Oswald, in discussion with Naomi Jaffa at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, talked about experimenting with ‘blind field-note taking’, where she just jots down whatever she’s ‘seeing or feeling at the time, doing it very quickly’. Her notes are prose but full of full stops and could easily accommodate line breaks. These poems feel a lot like that: fleeting, rough – honest. Borodale’s collection of plein air Impressionist poems have no time for elaborate, or even simple forms. Instead, Borodale works deftly with the tools of language and line break. However, even with this restricted palate, he’s able to achieve a lot and the collection’s overarching journal form, injects the drama of seasonal cruelty. Reading these poems, you’ll learn a lot about bees but, along the way, Borodale’s engaging language is a royal jelly.