Poetry Review: The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy

The Bees - a poetry book by Carol Ann DuffyA couple of years ago I went to Swansea to see Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke performing their work together. That’s where I bought The Bees – a treasure trove of bright, rhythmic poems by the UK’s Poet Laureate. The theatre was small – an audience quietly buzzing with anticipation, as we waited for the two poets to come on stage.   

When they appeared at last my immediate thought was that they must have planned their outfits together – both of them wore voluminous black dresses, almost like nun’s habits. And the poetry was prayer-like too – musical, pulsing, flowing. Carol Ann Duffy read a number of poems from The Bees, and Gillian Clarke focused on some of her more wintery creations.

The Bees is a multifarious work of great depth, whilst holding seamlessly together on the theme of bees. The insects represent everything from what is precious in the world to the poems themselves, which create their “honey is art” as stated in the opening verse.

I love the sheer enjoyment of words, rhythm and rhyme that permeates through each poem. Duffy’s style is lyrical and her message is ecological. Here is an example from ‘Virgil’s Bees’, in which assonance and alliteration are used to great effect, particularly in the last line:

“let gardens grow, where beelines end,
sighing in roses, saffron blooms, buddleia;
where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
in pear trees, plum trees; bees
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.”

The theme of nature as a gift to be cherished runs throughout the book, with references to disappearing elm trees, oil spills, and lines such as this one, from ‘The Woman in the Moon’:

what have you done, what have you done to the world?

This is particularly compelling in the poem ‘Parliament’, where Duffy anthropomorphises birds as they mourn and protest against their dying habitats:

“A bird of paradise wept in a willow.
The jewel of a hummingbird shrilled
on the air.
A stalk shawled itself like a widow.”

The collection is full of political references and thought-provoking observations on topical debates, but there are also personal moments of grief and love. The final lines of the poem ‘Water’ are particularly moving, as the poet remembers the painful experience of losing her mother, but tempers this with the ongoing life of her own daughter, using the rhyme of “water” and “daughter” so naturally that it is almost imperceptible.

‘Cold’ is equally powerful in its simplicity, using repetition in a list poem which echoes the traditional sonnet form, written in fourteen lines with a rhyming couplet at the end. The word “cold” is repeated ten times in this short piece, building up to a crescendo of pain in the final lines:

“But nothing so cold as the February night I opened the door
in the Chapel of Rest where my mother lay, neither young, nor old,
where my lips, returning her kiss to her brow, knew the meaning of cold.”

I especially like the haiku sequence ‘Drams’ which sticks to the traditional syllable pattern, providing a series of impressions to create a narrative of memory and loss:

“The unfinished dram
on the hospice side-table
as the sun came up.”

The Bees shows how it is possible to write poetry in a way that is accessible and clear, with a breadth and scope that will satisfy the most academic of readers. But it is also playful, imaginative and full of humour, celebrating life, nature, humanity and the power of language. And I would encourage you to hear Carol Ann Duffy reading her work if you ever get the chance – it would be an opportunity not to miss.

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