Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees

On Monday night I went to see our current Poet Laureate, the Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy, read from her latest collection, ‘The Bees‘.

While I was taking my English Literature GCSE, A-level and degree, I read quite a few of her poems, but she had slipped from my mind since. Until I heard about ‘The Bees’, a collection of poems loosely inspired by bees, some more obviously than others. The recurring motif of the bee is interspersed amongst themes of love, loss, war and politics.

The Southbank Centre was packed out on Monday night. I had booked fairly late so had a seat far up at the back, next to a man who kept muttering to himself. Like me, many of the audience seemed to be lone poetry fans, and it was quite amusing to look down on us all busily reading our pale blue honeycombed editions.

Dressed all in black, jewels glittering at her neck, Carol Ann Duffy came out on stage accompanied by a gentleman whose name I didn’t catch but who played a brilliant trumpet solo to announce her arrival. Throughout the evening he accompanied her on various instruments, many of which I had never seen or heard before. She didn’t talk much, apart from reading from The Bees, but she did say that the bee was an image she found had crept into some of the poems. And that there are wonderful long connections between bees and poets, from Virgil to Sylvia Plath.

The Human Bee – this poem she described as inspired by the problems being suffered in the southern Sichuan province of China, following pesticide poisoning killing all the local bees and forcing local farmers to have to hire people to pollinate their orchards by hand.

The Human Bee
I became a human bee at twelve.
when they gave me my small wand,
my flask of pollen,
and I walked with the other bees
out to the orchards.
I worked first in apples,
climbed the ladder
into the childless arms of a tree
and busied myself, dipping and
tickling,
duping and tackling, tracing
the petal’s guidelines
down to the stigma.
Human, humming,
I knew my lessons by heart:
The ovary would become the fruit,
the ovule the seed,
fertilised by my golden touch,
my Midas dust.
I moved to pears,
head and shoulders
lost in blossom; dawn till dusk,
my delicate blessing.
All must be docile, kind. unfraught
for one fruit –
pomegranate, peach
nectarine, plum, the rhyme1ess
orange
And if an opening bud
was out of range,
I’d jump from my ladder onto a
branch
and reach.
So that was my working life as a bee,
till my eyesight blurred,
my hand was a trembling bird
in the leaves,
the bones of my fingers thinner than
wands.
And when they retired me,
I had my wine from the silent vines,
and I’d known love,
and I’d saved some money  –
but I could not fly and I made no
honey.

Here’s a review of the collection by fellow poet Liz Lochhead: www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/04/bees-carol-ann-duffy-review and a less positive one at www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/06/carol-ann-duffy-bees-review.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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4 Responses to Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees

  1. beatingthebounds says:

    This looks like another first-rate cultural pointer.
    When I did my O-Level English Literature we ‘did’ Betjeman, Auden, R.S.Thomas and Wilfred Owen. White males and all dead. (Well – actually Betjeman was a couple of years on the right side of the grave and Thomas was alive and kicking, but as far as I was concerned they both might as well have been from another age.) How refreshing to have a chance to study a poet in their prime.

    Like

    • Emily Heath says:

      I never thought of it like that… we did plenty of dead poets too, but also quite a few live ones…Liz Lochhead, Ted Hughes (just) and others I’ve forgotten. It was quite special to hear the poems read out loud, I particularly enjoyed one she did from her Christmas collection, accompanied by some haunting flute playing.

      Like

  2. What a beautiful poem. My friend Lisa has recently sent me a beautiful book also inspired by bees and honey called ‘The Honey Month’. I think you would enjoy it! http://www.papaveria.com/portfolio/the-honey-month/

    Like

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