Jane Routh reviews The Language of Bees by Rae Howells (Parthian, 2022)
I remember Sean Borodale’s 2012 Bee Journal as essentially an account of a beekeeper’s manifold anxieties, so was anticipating that Rae Howells’s The Language of Bees might focus on bee communications, might be more bee-centric. While her book is certainly full of bees, it is far more complex and imaginative than a book ‘about’ bees. A sequence of thirteen poems called ‘Dying carder bee in a takeaway box’ is plaited through the book’s main narrative of relationship, motherhood and family, then studded with stand-alone poems on creatures such as fox, wren, trees, magpie, mermaid, crow. Writing with a sense of bee-ness, her perspective couples acute attention to detail with concern for species’ survival. (Jay Griffiths is quoted in her dedication: “We are nature and it is us.”)
Rae Howells describes herself as ‘a poet, journalist, academic and lavender farmer’. Perhaps it is this last occupation that taken her so close to the natural world which she is often able to capture in language both precise and yet surprising — although we’re only out among her lavenders on a couple of occasions in the book. ‘It took too long to learn the language of bees’ has her in a field where:
[ … ] bees called by
knocking into dock leaves
humming and dusting themselves with pollen,
going about their seedpearl work
and I, kneeling, untethered weeds from around the crop
as if lovingly unbuttoning the earth’s shirt —
Language like this has the capacity to refresh how we think; we know bees pollinate, but registering this as “their seedpearl work” acknowledges its value; and as for weeding, I may well be doing this somewhat more meditatively in future.
Rae Howells draws on bees and their life cycle in this way not only for vocabulary but also as an extraordinary and rich source of metaphor to enable her to broach subject matter both personal and painful
Throughout, it is language that holds attention. Dead rabbits in ‘Airlings’ are “two old flannels, loose knots / flung on a heap”. In the poem ‘Dying bee in a takeaway box (2) Hydrangeas’, the speaker is reading on a train about the collapse of insect populations world-wide. Train doors “flex open like elytra”; home is “on a street of honey-lit / suburban gardens, each fence regular as a wax cell”. In the third poem of this sequence, ‘Autobiography’, a worker bee recalls its first taste of honey from its cell as being “[ …] a meat of dim-wood flowers / earth stained and thick as blood”. In the sixth, a dying bee is:
so very intent on her folding-in-ness,
as a daisy latching slowly inwards at dusk
so closing-in that she cannot think to take her medicine.
Rae Howells draws on bees and their life cycle in this way not only for vocabulary but also as an extraordinary and rich source of metaphor to enable her to broach subject matter both personal and painful. ‘The honey jar’ (the impact of this title kicks-in towards the end of the poem), in which she writes about miscarriage, is the most striking as well as shocking example. Of her body, she says:
I was all abdomen, barrel-round, a hive,
striped gaudy with stretch marks.
She was “flower drunk”, her womb “a jewelled cellar, verdigris, amber” before:
[ …] one midnight, I turned on my hip
and felt the jar crack.
I woke to honey down my thighs, drenching the bed,
everything running sticky and black. And there in the mess,
beautiful as a daughter and softly drowned.
Could this have been written without that extended honey jar metaphor? I doubt I’d have been able to read it. Miscarriage is also the subject of ‘Ninety-eight earth days’ — earth days as opposed to days on Venus, which the subtitle notes as 243 earth days in length. This gives the distancing of an altered time scale, in which the child “small as a lychee” lived until the afternoon of the “half day”. But Rae Howells also writes of feeding a new-born child, of her child dropping pebbles into a pool to hear the sounds they make, of cooking for her family while wondering about the nature of love, of the school run. She ends the book with ‘Stories’, in which she says to her children “Girls, if you want to hear them, I know a few stories about bees” — neatly drawing together the books’ two main strands.
The book is rich in surprising imagery and pleasurable phrases
Outwith these groupings are stand-alone poems, including the stand-out ‘The winter-king’, which won the 2019 Rialto Nature and Place Competition. It’s an unpunctuated poem with atypically short lines, which flit and repeat, opening:
little-word bird little wren
feathered lung only built for singing
purifying freezing air through
a feather ball chitter chatter piper
little wren little brownleaf keeneye
built for singing
round like a minim
Rae Howells’s usual line-length is longer and often more variable than this, responding to both sound as well as sense. ‘Woodthinking’ is a poem which spreads out and down across a sideways double page spread expressing the challenge to account for our new understandings of how trees ‘think’:
— why has nobody thought
to change the words for where a tree thinks?
[ … ]
woodthinking is a brain in soil
‘Wind attempts a fox’ is a poem which reaches for elusiveness in lines that follow sounds. “Wind, pats narrow footed through black leaf-litter earthsmell, / searching for that sunpatch place / where red fur folds up to sleep”. She attends so carefully to words, the odd duff note is noticeable – in ‘Crowsong’:
I listen to crows cackle
grate their larynxes
like old wooden rattle crackers
While the ‘old wooden rattle crackers’ is a cracker of a phrase, reading aloud I tripped on ‘larynxes’ — perhaps also because, unlike mammals, birds don’t vocalise through a larynx. ‘Sonicate’ is another word, appearing more than once, that puzzled me — I thought I knew what it was, the buzz, the hum of bees which “makes the colour of a middle C”, as she says in ‘Sonication’. Two dictionaries insist it’s a term from biochemistry, an ultrasonic vibration to fragment cells. When I read more about bees and discovered the term ‘floral vibration’, a process by which bees use vibrations to extract pollen from anthers, only then did I, ah!, fully appreciate the image-dense poem.
The book is rich in surprising imagery and pleasurable phrases; though as a whole, with its interweaving strands, perhaps more difficult to get your mind round — and perhaps why I struggle to find single word to sum it up. But it’s a delight to share her excitement at being in, and her care for, the natural world.
Jane Routh has published four poetry collections and a prose book, Falling into Place (about rural north Lancashire) with Smith|Doorstop. Circumnavigation (2002) was shortlisted for the Forward prize for Best First Collection, Teach Yourself Mapmaking (2006) was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and she has won the Cardiff International and the Strokestown International Poetry Competitions. Jane Routh’s latest book is Listening to the Night (2018) and a new pamphlet, After, is available from Wayleave Press (2021).