Thursday, 28 April 2016

Few Bees; Many Bonnets!

Even as Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales was advising the world how to deliver Hamlet’s best known lines, I was reading an anthology of bee poems.

ThIf Bees Are Fewe compilation** is certainly fit for a prince who’s ultra keen about conservation and who would be thrilled to learn that all book sales are to fund entomological research at the University of Minnesota, USA.

It’s a lovely if whimsical volume – a thoroughly engaging read - whose philosophy is aired early on, first by environmentalist, Bill McKibben and then journalist and poet, James P Lenfestey, who edited the collection.

McKibben, in his foreword, suggests that the swift and immense numbers of bee deaths in recent years is a “kind of early warning system” that conveys bad news about  how new chemicals, new weather and new patterns of habitation are adversely affecting the earth; putting society out of balance.

His view has been unknowingly echoed by Israeli Rabbi Natan Slifkin, director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh,  who writes in his blog, Rationalist Judaism:

Bees in many countries are currently suffering from colony collapse disorder. The reasons for this are not well understood. It has been attributed to parasites, disease, pesticides, cellphone radiation, and a host of other problems. Some suggest that it’s due to the bees having allergies – they always have hives (ba-da-bum!). But it is generally thought that, whatever is causing colony collapse disorder, the reasons why bees are especially susceptible is that domesticated bees today do not have sufficient genetic diversity to cope with these threats. In order for bees to successfully cope with problems, they need genetic diversity – which means that bees must not be perfect, uniform, carbon copies of each other. This used to always be the case – despite the ostensible appearance of perfect uniformity, there is genetic variation in bee colonies. But domestic bees today are all descended from a very limited starter group. There is therefore very little genetic diversity, which renders them especially vulnerable to problems. It’s the artificial farming of bees that put them through a genetic bottleneck and made them too uniform.”

So I’m curious why there is no direct reference to any biblical bee stories like Samson’s riddle (Judges 14: 8) or acknowledgement that the great woman warrior-judge Deborah’s name actually means bee.

Instead it is left to Josephine Dickinson in B to ponder “when did you eat honey from the carcass of a lion?”

But the collection is named after a line from a verse by a yet more celebrated woman poet named ‘Dickinson’ - American ‘Emily Dickinson who wrote:

Part Two: Nature



To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—

One clover, and a bee,

And revery.

The revery alone will do

If bees are few.

Osip.MandelstamBut I  close instead with a personal favourite by the Polish-Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam:

The Necklace

Take, from my palms, for joy, for ease,
A little honey, a little sun,
That we may obey Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat unmoored.
Fur-shod shadows can’t be heard,
Nor terror, in this life, mastered.

Love, what’s left for us, and of us, is this
Living remnant, loving revenant, brief kiss
Like a bee flying completed dying hiveless.

To find in the forest’s heart a home,
Night’s never-ending hum,
Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time.

Take, for all that is good, for all that is gone,
That it may lie rough and real against your collarbone,
This string of bees, that once turned honey into sun.


Since emigrating to Israel, Leave This Song BehindI have become re-acquainted with teenagers while serving as a volunteer English language mentor to local bagrut (matriculation) school students. I never cease to be astounded by how well they speak English, largely – they insist! - from watching English language television and movies.

Now I’ve enjoyed an entertaining  hour or so reading a selection of poetry by equally articulate US teenagers** in an anthology compiled by Stephanie H Meyer and her husband, John.

As a mere Brit I had not previously heard of the Meyers’ work and so was fascinated to discover that paradoxically, Teen Ink is more than 25 years old, during which period the Meyers and their colleagues have published the work of more than 55,000 teens. Leave This Song Behind is their first all-verse anthology.

Just as I received my copy, I saw an interview with the British teacher and poet, Angela Topping explaining how she encourages her students to love, not fear poetry.

“Poetry”, she says, “is brilliant for reluctant readers because a poem is a complete text and gives an instant hit. I don’t approve of cheap laugh type poetry for children though. I think they deserve the best and they should have choice by being given excellent anthologies. I loved William Blake, Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon and Milton when I was 8. Reading and hearing good poems is a sensuous thrill and even babies enjoy patterns in language.”

The collection, with a foreword by Todd (‘The Wave’) Strasser, includes about one hundred of the poems that have been published in the magazine during the past five years. Believe me, far from being scared off poetry, the young contributors are most auspiciously adept at what they do.

I conclude with another paradox: the first poem in the collection is Clothesline by Ariel Miller who explains that he wrote the piece about “other people’s lives during a year when two friends and I challenged ourselves to write a poem every day.” Now, that’s writerly commitment!


She liked to sit in the backyard

And watch the neighbor's laundry

Swing on the clothesline, crisp pale

Blue button-downs of the husband

Wrinkling in the half-wind, Summer

Sighing across the silky surface of

The twisting sundress, first one way,

Then the other, like soft hips

Swinging, one way, then the

Other, and when they were just

Washed and still wet they would

Flap and flick beads into the grass

That would flash fast down like

Little silver raindrops, one way,

Then the other.

** If Bees Are Few: A Hive of Bee Poems is to be published by  the University of Minnesota Press on May 30  2016 @ $24.95 (£17.25;  ₪94.00 approx.).

**  Leave This Song Behind is published by @ $12.95 (£8.90; ₪48.60 approx.).

© Natalie Wood (28 April 2016)