The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy
In every collection, a reader learns about the poet’s life. In the case of Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees, her first collection since becoming Britain’s poet laureate in 2009, we learn of the responsibilities of her job. From what can be gathered, it’s mildly soul-destroying. An authorial and politically-conscious voice rises from The Bees, which, due to poems about the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and David Beckham, feels more serviceable than personal.
To begin, one must understand Duffy’s broad metaphor of bees. Bees represent people at work, language and virtue. “I became a human bee at twelve”, Duffy narrates in a poem about an early job picking fruit. Bees also represent the sound and structure of language. Duffy describes the qualities of bees in the opening poem: “brazen, blurs on paper, / besotted, buzzwords, dancing / their flawless, airy maps”. Duffy mimics these attributes in her work. Media buzzwords sting in the poem entitled ‘Politics’: “to you industry, investment, wealth; roars, to your / conscience, moral compass, truth, POLITICS, POLITICS.” Duffy also conveys the erratic motion of bees with staccato beats, jazzy rhythms and mid-line drop offs. In ‘Echo’, the disjointed yet repetitive lines on the page successfully create a swinging motion:
“when your face…
when your face,
like the moon in a well
where I might wish”
However, the bees in these poems also represent purity, a metaphor that puzzles. Is she commenting on the purity of poetry as the highest art form? Perhaps, as in the poem‘A Rare Bee’ where a bee blesses a poet with inspiration: “and that this bee made honey so pure, / when pressed to the pout of a poet / it made her profound…” Romantic imagery of bees as munificent creatures is evident in this poem and in many others.
Poems about ‘bees’ aside, the remainder of the collection is a blend of civic-duty poems and those which shed light on Duffy’s life. To her credit, the royal wedding poem ‘Rings’ is a gentle, lyrical poem which celebrates marriage in general, and does not specifically mention the royal
couple. However, the poem about David Beckham entitled ‘Achilles’ loses its appeal when the
reader realises it’s about the football player and his injury. As laureate, Duffy also includes political poems such as ‘Big Ask’, which addresses government secrecy in a series of rhyming questions. The answers provided are deliberately evasive and ironic: “Guantanamo Bay – how many detained? /How many grains in a sack?” Though sharp-tongued and timely, the long pairs of q’s and a’s take on a flippant tone after a while.
It can be concluded then, that Duffy is best when she has no agenda. We start to hear her personal observations and naturally majestic voice in the poem ‘Drams’. The lovely, wintry three line stanzas create a pleasing rhythm: “Barley, water peat, / weather, landscape, history; / malted,
swallowed neat”. Other soft-toned poems include a poignant tribute to her mother entitled ‘Water’, where Duffy describes their final moments together: “Your last word was water, / which I poured in a plastic hospice cup, held / to your lips – your small sip, half-smile, sigh”. But despite these gems in between, Duffy ends the collection on the subject of bees. Returning to ‘A Rare Bee’, the narrator goes in search of a mystic bee that inspires artists, and prays: “Give me your honey, bless my tongue with rhyme, poetry and song”. This parting line from Duffy makes it sound as though for Britain’s poet laureate, writing has become work.
Puss In Boots
Carol Ann Duffy
Picador, rrp £14·99, 96pp