The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy
The Bees is Carol Ann Duffy’s first collection since becoming poet laureate in 2009. For those who may have doubted the appointment, this book is a slim and pleasing confirmation of her skilled craftsmanship.
Using the bee as subject, metaphor and guide, Duffy warns us of what we have to lose (‘bees / are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them’), and constructs bitter memories of what we have lost, weaving the homicide of war with the neonicotinoids that have devastated bee colonies and that are ‘seething in the orchards now.’ Like bees on flowers her language and rhythm are efficient and often captivating. And like a bee scenting its way home, she knows every route and rhyme, as well how and when to shock and surprise.
Along with the loss of precious pollinators and human life, there is a poem on the destruction of English elms (‘great, masterpiece trees, / who were overwhelmed’), the death of her mother (the title of which is another vital resource that we’d do well to guard – ‘Water’) and the passing of the country’s last remaining World War I veterans. There’s also an amusing take on the pathetic frailty of English footballers (‘It’s the bloody shirt!’). One of the pleasant surprises, meanwhile, is ‘Big Ask’, an embittered jab at the War in Iraq:
Who planned the deployment of shock and awe?
I didn’t back the attack.
Inside the Mosque, please describe what you saw.
I couldn’t see through the smoke.
Your estimate of the cost of the War?
I had no brief to keep track.
In ‘Drams’ she makes use of the delicate haiku form to recall whiskey-filled nights in her native Scotland: ‘Drams with a brother / and doubles with another… / blether then bother.’ Yes, it’s not all doom and gloom. Similarly uplifting are the references to her teenage daughter – ‘She squeals, loud / snowflakes melting on her tongue, then topples / down, cartoon joyful, brightly young.’ Less endearing is her fondness for alliteration, listing and alliterative lists, though thankfully these are often followed by a return to better form. One gets a sense of this in the opening poem, ‘Bees’:
Been deep, my poet bees,
in the parts of flowers,
in daffodil, thistle, rose, even
the golden lotus; so glide,
gilded, glad, golden, thus –
wise – and know of us:
how your scent pervades
my shadowed, busy heart,
and honey is art.
Like a jar of honey, this collection will provide long-lasting, delicate enjoyment.