Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The "Education" of This Poet (3): The Hive


For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak,I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.

They put the big gloves on my hands. They covered my head with the veil. They lit the necessary incense, and the aura of pine surrounded me.

Everything we needed was abandoned there, like theater props left backstage after the play’s run ends. It was as though the Rapture had come, and the inhabitants of a world had suddenly disappeared, leaving behind not less than everything:

I saw an arbour with a drooping roof
Of trellis vines, and bells, and larger blooms,
Like floral censers swinging light in air;
Before its wreathed doorway, on a mound
Of moss, was spread a feast of summer fruits,
Which, nearer seen, seem'd refuse of a meal
By angel tasted or our Mother Eve;
For empty shells were scattered on the grass,
And grape stalks but half bare, and remnants more,
Sweet smelling, whose pure kinds I could not know.
Still was more plenty than the fabled horn
Thrice emptied could pour forth, at banqueting
For Proserpine return'd to her own fields,
Where the white heifers low.

Years later, when I read these lines from Keats’s “The Fall of Hyperion,” the scene was familiar to me, curiously homelike for all its alien imagery and antiquated diction.

But that was in the future. Now, my brother and my cousin were arraying me for the quest they had conceived for me. We were in an old shed on the family farm; it was full of the smell of dust and rotted wood, and another, overpoweringly sweet smell which was not new to me but which I could not identify; shortly it would be forever etched in my olfactory brain: the perfume of beeswax.“He’s ready,” my cousin said to my brother, and then to me, “Out.”

We left the dark shed and entered a perfect day in early June, late morning, sunlight filtered by the leaves of ancient oaks. The armor I was wearing smelled strange to me: mildew and dust and beeswax mixed. The canvas of the bee veil was stiff with disuse; I was wearing blinders. My cousin, from behind me, steered me by the shoulders.

“Which one?” my brother said.

“It don’t matter,” said my cousin. “This one here: the first one.”

The old beehives stood abandoned in the grove, like neglected tenements, a failed housing project in an inner city that Homer would have understood. Some of the hives were empty. Some had abandoned boxes, whole floors of the high-rise gone dark. Others were fully occupied, almost as if they had been tended for the six or seven years that had passed since anyone had paid attention to them. It was toward one of these that my cousin steered me.

“That’s the one right there,” he said, suddenly at some distance behind me. “Do it.”

The hive in question was illuminated by a single shaft of sunlight that slipped in through the canopy of leaves high above me (a perfect cinematic set-up, O Muse of Memory). Its old white paint seemed suddenly blinding. I stood before it utterly strange to myself, like an image of a diver from my Classics Comics version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The decrepit smoker in my hand leaked a little pine-fog. “Pump the smoker,” my brother said. He seemed to be a thousand miles away.

This adventure was my cousin’s idea. He was, stated bluntly, a bully, and I was the primary target of his aggression, being young enough for him to dominate but old enough to be a challenge, unlike his own younger siblings. My brother was not a bully, but he was the B Male in this particular pack; he did not generally oppose my cousin’s will. Furthermore, the Teutonic genes in him, which were leading him toward a career as an engineer even as they were nudging me to become a poet, made him interested in the inner workings of things. Just what was inside a beehive? How did the whole deal work?

It had begun as a dare, which I took because I was defiant, obstinate, and stupid in the face of a challenge, especially from a bully. But as I stood there at the bottom of the grove’s ocean of shadow and light, all of that dropped away. The hive hummed, a mystery. It was my job to take off the lid.

Beyond that, there was really no goal. We knew there was honey in the hive, but none of us had even the glimmering of a clue how to extract it. There were also bees in the hive, and all of us knew what that meant. “You’ll be OK,” my brother said. “These are the things beekeepers use to keep the bees from stinging them. And when you smoke the hive they’ll all go to sleep anyway.”

That was the dare: just take the lid off a three-foot-tall skyscraper full of bees. It was a dare and not a wager; if I did this thing, I gained nothing except the doing. Obstinate and stupid: at least I could have wagered a month’s free passage from bullying. But it never crossed my mind. Did anything cross my mind, ever, in those years? I was seven years old; my brother and my cousin were eleven. What were we even doing in the world? Why did we exist?

I pumped the bellows of the smoker; the smoldering pine straw inside flared and released a dense aromatic fog.

The day receded. I stepped across a boundary between worlds.

When the smoke entered the hive, its pitch and volume changed, but it did not fall silent. I pumped for what seemed hours, until a voice from outside the cloud commanded me: Enough. Open the hive.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Years later I found my way to Yeats. There was much in poetry that I was slow to understand when I first encountered it, but this poem of Yeats’s, like so much in Keats, revealed itself immediately. He spoke not so much of a life I knew as of one that I had glimpsed between the lines of the clumsy poem that was the life I was trying to live. There was a power in certain poems that I intuited long before I grasped its sources; it was the golden lightning not of the gods but of the world, the force that lived, for instance, in the core of a beehive. It could hurt you; it could even kill you. But if you were lucky, if you stood still enough, if you wore the veil, it was a gnosis, a pure illumination.

I did not know that the lid of the hive would be sealed shut from within by beeswax. I expected it to open like an unlocked treasure chest, or a Christmas present. When I pulled on the edge it resisted; I tugged and the rotten wood gave way; the whole hive began to disintegrate. As it fell apart, the lid skewed off in my hands.

They revealed themselves in the hundreds, clustered on their comb. I had not known there would be so many, or that they would be so golden there in the light of that summer morning. I had not known how the music of the hive would modulate in the light, how the swarm would undulate as I watched them through the cloud that rose from my hand. I had not known that lightning lived in the darkness, or what it meant when it came into the light.

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