May is the season of bees. The crabapple in our front yard is flamboyantly blooming, attracting bees so the tree itself seems to be humming. Driving down the alley behind our house we have to watch out for a multitude of bees energetically entering and exiting a hive, their speedy flight crossing the alley. Even on the hot days we roll up the car windows.
Bees have been on my mind as has the poem-reading technique introduced by David Beispiel* at the Northwest Poets’ Concord a couple weeks ago. Searching for bee-themed poems, I quickly encountered Sylvia Plath’s series of five poems: The Bee Meeting, The Arrival of the Bee Box, Stings, The Swarm, and Wintering. Rather, I read references to the five and that they were in the book Ariel, a book I had bought at a used book store about a month ago.
So regarding reading “The Arrival Of The Bee Box,” please bear with me, let’s see how the method of becoming familiar with a poem without actually reading it fares a second time.
The first step is to consider the first and last lines. “The Arrival Of The Bee Box” begins with the line “I ordered this, this clean wood box.” and ends with “The box is only temporary.” A lot must happen between first and last line since it seems unlikely anyone would go to the trouble of ordering a box that is intended to be temporary.
Next look at the last word in each line. Some of the words are intriguing like midget, baby, exit, hands, clambering, mob, maniacs, owner, veil, honey, and free. Within some of the stanzas sounds repeat in the last word, such as in the first stanza: box, baby (first and fourth line) and lift, midget, it (second, third, and fifth lines). In the last full stanza there is repetition of the long “e” sound in immediately, honey, me, and free.
Regarding the first words of each line, many of the lines begin with “I” indicating a self-centered poem, but also a story, or more aptly memoir with conflict, but the conflict is within the poet. The first in Plath’s bee poems, “The Bee Meeting,” shows the beginnings of her bee training, or rather her introduction into the community or culture of beekeeping. She learned about the garments—veils and smocks (or jackets), and gloves—and bee management, including smoke, and the “mind of the hive.” She hovers between fear and empathy.
Writing this, I learned more than I thought, especially taking my time thinking since I began the notes for this post slightly over a week ago (my excuse on the absence of posts—I’ve been thinking, and gardening).
So what have we learned? A bit about structure and language? Before turning you over to the poem, here’s my more story-based discussion of Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Arrival Of The Bee Box”:
Plath ordered a box of bees which arrived (as stated in the poem’s title). The first stanza is thick with facts: the box is clean, square, heavy, and loud (“such a din in it”).
The second stanza: we see the mesmerizing nature and mystery of the bee box (“. . . I can’t keep away from it”), that the inside is invisible and there is no exit.
Third stanza: Plath tries to look inside but the box is too dark, then she compares the box to what is strange and mysterious.
Next there is a ratcheting up of the intensity (“How can I let them out? / It is the noise that appals me most of all,”), and that the din of the bees is “like a Roman mob.”
She listens to the box and considers her options (“I have simply ordered a box of maniacs. / They can be sent back,”) or that as owner she could let them die.
But by the second-to-last stanza Plath becomes more empathetic, wondering if the bees are hungry, if they might forget her if she opened the box and changed herself into a tree (“There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,” / And the petticoats of the cherry.”)
Finally, Plath makes up her mind what to do, but not right at that moment. She will wait until the next day. Notice throughout the poem that the language charges forward, also notice all the questions asked, and the emotions expressed.
What do you think? Have you ordered, owned, or cared for bees?
The Arrival of the Bee Box
I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.
The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.
I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.
How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appals me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.
They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary.
Sylvia Plath. The Arrival of The Bee Box. “Ariel.” Harper Colophon Books, 1966 (59-60).
Photos: Katie Eberhart.