Clearly, there is something about poets and bees. Observe them in Paradise Lost, hear them in Keats, and love them with Plath. The Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy published a whole collection dedicated to them. What is it, then, about bees? Is it their exquisite industry, that sonorous voice, their structured life and space, or their obsession with the minute? All of that and something more. “Light in migration; / Noise of a body in continual repair” (“27TH AUGUST”). This is Sean Borodale’s first published full collection of poetry, but the antecedents are noteworthy; parts have been seen in various distinguished journals, and some bee poems appeared in the pamphlet, Pages from a Bee Journal.
Since so much has already been versified on the subject, what makes this a worthy and original part of the T.S. Eliot shortlist? Keats heard his bees in the glory of landscape; Duffy had us riddling to find her less overt ones but Borodale (with the warmest of accolades from the Poet Laureate) has delved even closer. With a vigilant blackbird, he lived with his bees for nearly two years, as their keeper, companion and close observer. “And we, beekeepers/can only open the book part way to read what is unsaid. /Not being your drones we do not see like you” (“20TH OCTOBER: BROOD NEST HONEY”). Uniquely, Borodale wrote his poems in situ – right at the opened hive, with only his veil and gauntlets between his writing and the “fizzing thousands”. This collection has the feel of a visual artist’s notebook … the samples, annotations, swatches of colour , very like the whole, fascinating journey to create a textile or piece of jewellery. Indeed, Borodale has a not-quite-separate life as a visual artist. “We do observe your plight –/ We, and the blackbird in our danger. / Observe – merely yes” (“19TH DECEMBER: MINUS FIFTEEN”).
As a journal, the collection reads chronologically, each poem’s title being the date, and sometimes a further word or two, all in upper case. There are poems in stanzaic form, some haiku, poems interspersed with textbook notes, found poems, prose poems and lists. At the most intense time of the bees’ year, there are an unusually high number of six line, or six stanza poems. The voice of the bees sounds through much of the collection (and only once do their own words take form). Very rarely, there is end rhyme; but internal rhymes, both full and slant, feature strongly. Even in the structure of those lines, there is that level of intense introspection. Some take few words to say so much; “1ST MARCH” simply reads “Catkins”, followed in “7TH MARCH” by “Snowdrops”.
Those who might grieve at the sometimes pretentious use of the one word poem will surely find integrity and justification here. Most poignantly of all, in “24TH/25TH JANUARY: BEES DIE”, the full title carries the whole sense. Rarely can the white page have been more eloquent. This is a darker, less idyllic life of bees than the romantic, indeed mellifluous one we have learned to expect. With the unsentimental need of the farmer, it is scientific in its documentation. Yet, Borodale soon knows his “bee friends”.
Here is a sharp, modern voice of a poet well used to mixing media – particularly words and film. Without wishing to detract from the pared-back nature of the book, it would have been fascinating to see the original makings of some of the poems, the papers written at such closeness. If there is to be another edition, end-papers from that source would be intriguing. “… their world is articulate” (“7TH OCTOBER: WASPS”).
What is it then, about bees? “May you come back/through the hole in the world’s syllable” (“21ST DECEMBER: SOLSTICE FOR BEES”). The planet needs bees. And poets.