Ford

Karen Ford: On "Wintering"

In "Wintering" (217-19), the final poem of the sequence, the speaker has come to her last and most important confrontation--that with herself. With her work completed, and with no demands upon her from others, she is able to give herself to the natural rhythms that the seasons decree. "This is the easy time, there is nothing doing," she says in the first line of the poem in a colloquial manner that expresses her own ease and patience. A similar line later confirms that she views her wintering as a distinct phase, a certain kind of time: "This is the time of hanging on for the bees." Her recognition that wintering is one part of a larger cycle of time is important because it qualifies the images of hibernation--elements that lead many readers to assume this is a poem about passivity and death.

She shares the experience of wintering with her bees, and she will learn a great deal from them. Like them, she has put up her winter stores: "I have my honey, / Six jars of it, / Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar." These jars of honey are clearly more than just pantry supplies, however. It is as though she has gathered that overwhelming "sweetness" of the earlier poems and stored it where it is available but also contained. In fact, the number of jars supports the notion that they serve a symbolic purpose: Plath was married for six years, and they may represent that period of memories and emotions that now must be put away. Moreover, "cat’s-eye" is the name of a semiprecious gem distinctive for its band of reflected light that shifts position as the stone is turned. Thus the jars contain treasures that have great value to her and great beauty. And finally, in their similarity to actual cats’ eyes, the jars suggest the power of their vision, especially the ability to see in the darkness she is facing.28

Though she considers her stores precious, she also understands that she cannot survive on memories (or past emotions or former accomplishments) alone. Proof of this comes when she sees that what is preserved in the jars now is not permanent; they may seem so at the moment, but others have been here before and discovered the transience of such things. She places her jars of honey "Next to the last tenant’s rancid jam / And the bottles of empty glitters-- / Sir So-and-so’s gin," evidence that even these domestic treasures spoil and evaporate.

The symbolic importance of the setting is further established through sound, repetition, and metaphors of the unconscious. The cellar parallels the core of the self, where normal perception fails her because she has never before been there.

Wintering in a dark without window

At the heart of the house . . .

 

This is the room I have never been in.

This is the room I could never breathe in.

The soft alliteration of w’s and h’s creates a tone of silent, solitary reflection, yet the sense of calm that these sounds convey does not completely offset the agitation she feels in such surroundings. The repeated, "This is the room," suggests how difficult it is for her to accept where she is. The gothic imagery, accompanied by the alliteration of the explosive b’s, incites her nervous dread: "The black bunched in there like a bat."

She enters the room with "No light / But the torch," a primitive, or again, gothic, source of illumination that is consistent with the atmosphere of imminent revelation. It is significant that she must supply her own light. Further, she is in another sense "carrying a torch" for her lost love, and that aspect of the light may contribute to the distortion of her vision. More important, though, is that she is looking into the room for the first time in "a dark" that receives no other illumination, and therefore she has trouble seeing. At first she distinguishes only "appalling objects"; but gradually her vision adjusts and she sees, in turn, "appalling objects," "Black asininity," "Decay," and finally "Possession." This may constitute a list of things she sees in the room (a psychological hoard of mementos from the past that she has relegated to her emotional "cellar") or shifting views of the same object, perceptual superimpositions, each one more accurate in perceiving the actual thing.

In either case, she describes a progression from lack of control (appalling objects) to control (possession). At the word "possession" the poem seems to pivot in another direction, away from the past and its emotional keepsakes that have previously "owned her," toward a present that distances itself from that past, paradoxically, by accepting it. The word "possession" triggers an ambiguous statement, "It is they who own me," a recognition of (or "owning up to") this new relation of present and past. Like the beekeeper, who possesses the bees and yet is possessed by them (because she must fulfill her responsibilities to them in order for them to survive), the speaker is possessed by the memories that she herself possesses. Thus, in acknowledging her reciprocal relation to the bees, she turns from the appalling objects of memory with a tacit understanding that they too are her possessions in this double sense: "This is the time of hanging on for the bees." The easy, accommodating tone of the line suggests an even deeper acceptance and understanding.

It is significant that this decisive line echoes the opening statement ("This is the easy time") since it signals the shift toward optimism in the poem. Turning her attention, now, away from the appalling objects, she considers the bees.

At first glance, these bees appear similar to those in "The Swarm." Both are compared to soldiers. In "The Swarm" they are clearly doomed, "Walking the plank . . . / Into a new mausoleum"; in "Wintering," however, they are survivors, "Filing like soldiers / To the syrup tin." And in both poems, the bees form a ball, yet the fisted hive in the earlier poem and the huddled hive in this one again have little in common. In the first poem "the swarm balls and deserts," the "bees argue in their black ball." On the other hand, the "Wintering" bees "ball in a mass" in order to concentrate their vitality against the cold and snow. Their unity is necessary for survival (and is proven efficacious in the last line where all the bees fly, not just the queen). No doubt there is something awesome about their wintering, "Black / Mind against all that white." The season of hibernation is clearly stark and extreme, black and white, and it requires stolid obstinacy ("black asininity" even) rather than the emotional self-indulgence of "The Bee Meeting."

The key to the survival of the bees is their willingness to accommodate their circumstances. As the speaker consents to their claims on her, they accept hers on them. She gives them Tate and Lyle syrup "To make up for the honey" she has harvested, and "They take it." It is no surprise to learn that "The bees are all women, / Maids and the long royal lady. / They have got rid of the men, // The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors." The sense of alliance and cooperation that the speaker and her bees share simply has no parallel in the world of gender difference glimpsed in the other poems (with the exception of the bee seller in "Stings," where the business relationships of the apiary are apparently modeled on the social practices of the bees). Some readers make an effort to extract from this passage a vindictive spirit toward men, but the tone is so obviously detached and humorous (the onomatopoeic "stumblers" playing on "bumble-bees," the idea that men are merely boors and not tyrants or attackers) that such an interpretation is unconvincing. Furthermore, the lovely, unperturbed portrait of the mother over the cradle immediately detracts attention away from the men who are not there and refocuses it on this female community: "The woman, still at her knitting, / At the cradle of Spanish walnut, / Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think." The alliteration of w’s (winter, women, woman, walnut) recalls the opening tone where that sound has already been associated with forbearance and equanimity.

The poem has retreated inward, arriving at the image in the penultimate stanza of the woman’s body as "a bulb in the cold." That she is at the moment "too dumb to think" need not suggest stupefaction and passivity; rather, it represents the period of silence that is necessary to still the incessant questions of "The Bee Meeting" or the maniac metaphor-making of "The Arrival of the Bee Box." Plath’s drafts of "Wintering" reveal that this wordless, unthinking confidence in the renewal of spring is a difficult achievement:

What will they taste [like] of the Christmas roses?

Snow water? Corpses? [Thin, sweet Spring.]

    [A sweet Spring?] Spring?

    [Impossible spring?]

    [What sort of spring?]

    [O God, let them taste of spring.] 

                                                            (Van Dyne 169)

Van Dyne observes that "Her final revision, when it comes, moves in the opposite direction from her changes in ‘The Bee Meeting.’ . . . she wills herself to assert a compelling prophecy, continuing to hope, as she has throughout the rest of the sequence, that saying would make it so" (169). Thus, the image of the woman as bulb is unquestionably one of renewal both in its similarity to the (implied) baby in the cradle and, of course, in the realization of the image in the final stanza, where the questions, at last, resolve:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas

Succeed in banking their fires

To enter another year?

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?

The bees are flying. They taste of spring.

It is the lyric beauty of this passage that convinces--the long i’s once again suggesting the unity of the hive, the emotional, anticipatory line breaks, the promising "glad" in "gladiolas," the marvelous image of the bulb’s vitality as fire (bringing both warmth and color to the ending) and the rounded shape of the bulb redoubled in the verb "banking," the perfectly timed forthrightness of the third line, the Christmas roses that are themselves a symbol of renewal, and the three questions that blend into affirmation in the last line.

The speaker learns from the bees in "Wintering" that spring will follow this time of introspection and stillness, of uniting resources and waiting. The answer to her questions comes in the form of an act rather than in words and thus embodies certainty through enacting it. Only then is she certain that they actually "taste the spring" and have not been deceived by the early blossoms of the Christmas roses. She concludes Ariel on this rather simple and understated note of hope; its subtlety is a measure of its sureness. "Wintering" achieves a perspective Plath had advanced years before in her journals: there she promises to herself to write "without any moral other than growth is good. Faith too is good" (169). Here, at last, she seems to have listened to herself--a development only made possible by first recovering that self.

From Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Karen Ford: On "The Swarm"

The sense of anonymity that opens "The Swarm" (215-17)--"Somebody is shooting at something in our town"--has the opposite effect of the atmosphere of anonymity in "The Bee Meeting." In the earlier poem, the speaker’s inability to distinguish the identities of others serves to heighten her own extreme subjectivity. Here, however, the speaker is not concerned with determining who the particular actors are; on the contrary, the poem will argue that "somebody" is ultimately "everybody."26

In "The Swarm" the speaker parallels her own personal story with world history; however, unlike a later poem such as "Daddy" (222-24) that makes historical facts a questionable image for private feelings ("Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. . . . / I think I may well be a Jew"), "The Swarm" extends its interest outward to others. Only in the first stanza does the speaker briefly account for the shooting in terms of her own experience: "Jealousy can open the blood, / It can make black roses." Her first impulse when she hears the shooting is to think what would motivate her to violence--jealousy. She indulges her imagination in one vivid metaphor--that visualizes blood-saturated gunshot wounds as "black roses"27--but then immediately turns to the larger question: "Who are they shooting at?"

The voice that emerges in the second stanza to answer this question is powerfully accusatory, marshaling a variety of rhetorical resources to the task of declaring an important truth about history. It begins, "It is you the knives are out for / At Waterloo, Waterloo, Napoleon"; the long, repeated u-sound of "Waterloo" echoes the direct indictment, "It is you," and insistently recalls the place name of his crushing defeat. The image of the throats is used again in this poem to suggest victimization and vulnerability--the facts about the masses that "somebody" like Napoleon would deny:

Shh! These are chess people you play with, Still figures of ivory. The mud squirms with throats, Stepping stones for French bootsoles. The gilt and pink domes of Russia melt and float off

In the furnace of greed.

The narrative of Napoleonic aggression is interwoven with that of the swarm. The bees have swarmed into the top of a tree; the sound of the gun shots is supposed to draw them down (it is not the case, as some readers suggest, that the man is actually shooting into the hive). The bees, like "everybody," have learned that the lesson of history is violence:

So the swarm balls and deserts

Seventy feet up, in a black pine tree.

It must be shot down. Pom! Pom!

So dumb it thinks bullets are thunder.

 

It thinks they are the voice of God

Condoning the beak, the claw, the grin of the dog

Yellow-haunched, a pack-dog,

Grinning over its bone of ivory

Like the pack, the pack, like everybody.

The bees "argu[ing], in their black ball," the "yellow-haunched" pack-dog, Napoleon with "The hump of Elba on [his] short back, the "man with the gray hands" (whose hands turn out not to be human hands at all but "asbestos receptacles") all appear stooped and deformed by violence. Each has learned hostility at the hands of the other and chooses to return it, believing that the sound of aggression is "the voice of God." In fact, the gunman’s excuse for shooting at the swarm is that "They would have killed me."

The pervasiveness of violence is what allows Napoleon to be "pleased" at the end of the poem, even despite his own defeat at Waterloo. The weapons of the bees, "Stings big as drawing pins!" (their version of the "knives" and "cutlery" and possibly an image suggesting map pins used by military strategists to pinpoint battle sites), prove to him that the "bees have a notion of honor / A black intractable mind." Like the swarming drudges in "Stings" who attack the scapegoat in an act of self-sacrifice for the hive, the bees in "The Swarm" also lay down their lives for the pack. "Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything" because he recognizes that "everyone," indeed "everything," condones the beak and the claw.

The speaker, however, knows from witnessing the self-destruction of the bees in "Stings" that violent retribution is not "worth it"; she comes to "The Swarm" from "Stings" able to confront the abuses of history because she is not susceptible to the lesson they teach. Yet the task of confronting such a history is strenuous. Not surprisingly, the poem employs excess as if to steel itself against its own revelations. The stylistics of excess can be heard in "The Swarm" in the alliteration ("Somebody is shooting at something" and at every repetition), the assonance ("The man with gray hands stands," "marshals, admirals, generals," "black intractable mind,"), the frequent repetitions ("pom, pom" [repeated eight times], "Waterloo, Waterloo," "Mass after mass," "Shh! // Shh!" "Clouds, Clouds," "The pack, the pack," "Elba, Elba," "Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything"), the buckling anagram ("Elba, Elba, bleb on the sea!") and the onomatopoeic "pom, pom." Additionally, the poem ricochets from metaphor to simile as the parallel between Napoleon’s army and the bees provides constant opportunity for analogy. Thus, the speaker, who has been striving throughout the sequence to relinquish verbal excesses, discovers in "The Swarm" the efficacy of such a style once more. The poetic excess that characterizes the poem is, I think, necessitated by the speaker’s attempt to square off against history. What she confronts in the poem is the same oppression she experiences in her private life--played out on a world scale. Understandably, then, the tactics that enabled her to withstand her own hardships permit her to address the suffering of others as well.

From Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permission of the author

Karen Ford: On "Stings"

The third poem of the Bee sequence, "Stings" (214-15) fulfills this prediction. Not only have the bees been set free (they now dwell in and around their hive) but the speaker, too, we learn in the first word of the poem, is "bare-handed." In some ways, "Stings" is another bee meeting, but this time the speaker and the bee seller are equals--working together and similarly attired for the job: "Bare-handed, I hand the combs. / The man in white smiles, bare-handed." The short fifth line, containing only the pronouns "he and I," and the stanza break that follows it with a gulf of white space, suggest the insularity and detachment of the two workers. The basis of their relationship appears to be the orderliness of their work. There is something sterile in their association yet also something undeniably tender:

Bare-handed, I hand the combs.

The man in white smiles, bare-handed,

Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,

The throats of our wrists brave lilies.

He and I

 

Have a thousand clean cells between us,

Eight combs of yellow cups,

And the hive itself a teacup,

White with pink flowers on it,

With excessive love I enameled it

 

Thinking ‘Sweetness, sweetness’.

The imagery makes clear that there are no more battles, even parodic ones, as there were in "The Bee Meeting." Taking up an image of armor from that poem, "Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits," "Stings" reworks it, infusing it with the tender tidiness that characterizes these opening stanzas, "Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet." Similarly, the ghastly image of feeling "nude as a chicken neck" finds its delicate counterpart here in "The throats of our wrists brave lilies." The inside and the outside of the hive alike exude domestic refinement and charm when they are compared to china teacups that are "yellow" and "white with pink flowers." Everything about this passage is "sweet"--the relationship between the workers, the honey, the hive, the paintings, and, most of all, the speaker’s former love.

"Stings" is so renowned for its ferocity that it is easy to forget this painfully tender opening. The aspects that are said to give it vehemence--the speaker’s refusal to remain a drudge (and the jealousy among the female figures this decision supposedly sets off), the drudges’ attack on the scapegoat, and the queen’s "violent" bride flight--are simply not enough to negate this gentle beginning. Plath drafted and finalized "Stings" on the backs of her husband’s own writing work sheets. She began the poem two months before the burst of writing in October that produced the Bee sequence when the pain of losing Hughes was probably sharpest. Further, the earliest drafts of the poem were written on the reverse sides of several Hughes’ poems about the birth of their first child (Van Dyne 159); these were pages that documented their lost happiness. Thus, she began the poem in a period of acute pain and on the very papers that could only serve to intensify her misery. The threat of stings in this passage comes less from the bees than from the evocation of the "excessive love" the speaker recalls as she performs her beekeeping tasks. The stings the scapegoat receives from the bees can be nothing compared to the stings the poet experiences in writing under these conditions or those the speaker evokes in remembering her former relation to the hive. At the very least, the sensitive opening must give another resonance to the title that readers of the poem seem reluctant to acknowledge.

Additionally, that resonance ought to inform the other aspects of the poem. For example, the speaker’s attitude toward other women, represented by the beekeeper’s relationship to the queen and the drudges, is not at all condescending or competitive. Though she makes the important disclaimer, "I am no drudge," she clearly has been acting the part of one for years. She is sympathetic with the "women who only scurry" and worries that they will hate her for refusing to continue scurrying herself. Virtually every critic who discusses the speaker’s relationship to the drudges quotes the paradoxical line that describes them but invariably misses the paradox (or avoids it by eliding part of the line). The speaker says, "I stand in a column // Of winged, unmiraculous women." At least half the quotations of this passage omit the word "winged"; the rest treat the line as though it read "wingless unmiraculous women." "Winged, unmiraculous women" is paradoxical because a woman with wings would be miraculous; "winged" suggests flight, transcendence, loftiness. The drudges, then, are not inherently ordinary; rather they represent women whose strangeness has evaporated in the service of others, here of the hive and the queen, elsewhere of husbands and children, women whose energies have been "pour[ed] . . . through the direction and force" of others. Their attack on the scapegoat verifies that they are not utterly servile. The speaker recognizes this.

Even the description of the scapegoat is affected by the tone of the opening. The key word from the first two stanzas, "sweet," unexpectedly appears again here: "He was sweet, // The sweat of his efforts a rain / Tugging the world to fruit." There is an initially negative connotation in the "sweat of his efforts," some sense that he has encouraged the world to fruit (probably best read as having fathered her children or more generally having made her blossom) and then left it in a state of vulnerability to suffer. Yet "sweet" and "sweat" associate themselves through sound for a much more positive effect and reveal that the speaker recalls him with tenderness.

Further, she alludes to the Cinderella story in her description of his disappearance: "Here is his slipper, here is another, / And here is the square of white linen / He wore instead of a hat." These lines acknowledge his vulnerability by feminizing him; he is Cinderella who leaves behind her slipper or the coy woman who drops her hankie in an attention-seeking gesture. It is not surprising that such descriptions are followed by the conciliatory phrase, "He was sweet." It appears that she delegates revenge to the bees--"Molding onto his lips like lies, / Complicating his features"--yet this simile hints that his own evils are his undoing. The bees merely dramatize his crimes. His deceptions have complicated his features, have made him seem altered. However, even his change is qualified by the Cinderella allusion, another tale of personal transformation. Further confusing the purpose of the allusion is the speaker’s own implication in it; she, too, is a Cinderella figure: "for years I have eaten dust / And dried plates with my dense hair." (These lines are laden with other allusions as well. The serpent’s punishment for tempting Eve was to eat dust; Mary Magdalene washed Christ’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.) Finally, calling him "a great scapegoat" overtly acknowledges that she is transferring her own guilt to him. When he is chased off by the bees, he carries away her sins as well as his (we recall from "The Bee Meeting" that her black veil "mold[ed] to her face" like the bees here have molded to his); this is perhaps the source of the feminine imagery.25

Though some of these lines seem to establish a connection between the speaker and the scapegoat, the passage is framed by the speaker’s detachment. First she says, "A third person is watching. / He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me." After the bees sting him, an act which assures their death, she asserts, "They thought death was worth it, but I / Have a self to recover, a queen." Her detachment is clearly a much more significant victory for her than revenge would have been. If "Stings" is a vengeful poem, it is only ambiguously so.

The drafts of "Stings," however, disclose a much more brutal treatment of the scapegoat. The speaker’s self-possession in the final version is shown to be hard won as the scapegoat enters the poem a stanza earlier and cuts a quite different figure:

He was sweet,

 

The sweat of his efforts a rain

[On the world that grew under his belly]

Tugging the world to fruit.

Now he peers through a warped silver rain drop;

Seven lumps on his head

And a [great] big boss on his forehead,

Black as the devil, and vengeful.

 

                                (Original Drafts 14)

In this version, he begins to look more like the ominous male figure in "Daddy," a later poem that indulges its speaker’s resentment. That resentment surfaces here in the evidence that the scapegoat has been recently beaten--he has bumps on his head. The drafts confirm that Plath edited out a more vicious caricature of the scapegoat. Likewise, she deleted many elements from the drafts that added tension and hostility to the poem--gagging repetitions, the idea of desertion, and the specters of dead men. Noticeably, these are the kinds of elements that she emphasized in "The Bee Meeting." "Stings," then, is a poem that self-consciously suppresses excess; yet it is still a poem of tremendous energy and "terribleness."

Here the speaker, like the queen, is "more terrible than she ever was" because she confronts tenderness, loss, anger, resignation, and release bare-handed--as the first word of the poem asserts. And despite the way we generally read it, "Stings" is neither obsessed with maiming the male figure nor with the violence of the queen’s flight. She is, after all, a "red / Scar," not a bleeding gash; thus, she embodies a wound that has already begun to heal. And even the "red comet" that leaves such a fierce impression is nevertheless ambiguous--potentially (and historically) a sign of good luck. (Like the red meteor in The Scarlet Letter, this comet is susceptible to multiple readings, an intertextual resonance that Plath’s poem exploits.)

It would be foolish to deny that the lion-red queen is the precursor of a group of terrifying female images that Plath will create in the next few weeks and days. As the material miseries of her solitary life bear down on her, her anger justifiably explodes. In "Fever 103o" (231-32) the woman is the lantern "going up" as "The beads of hot metal fly, . . . a pure acetylene / Virgin / Attended by roses"; in "Ariel" 239-40) she is "the arrow, The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning"; in "Purdah" (242-44) she is "The lioness, / The shriek in the bath, / The cloak of holes"; and, most famously, in "Lady Lazarus" (244-47) she is the phoenix figure who rises "with [her] red hair / And . . . eat[s] men like air." Though these poems postdate the Bee sequence and may articulate Plath’s final emotional perspective, they cannot be considered her concluding poetic statement. Around Christmas 1962, after all the Ariel poems were written, Plath carefully arranged them for the book placing the Bee poems last. "Stings," with its contradictory emotional swings, is therefore a crucial part of her culminating poetic vision.

Finally, it is the sweetness that causes the sharpest pain in "Stings." Remembering lost tenderness and "excessive love," catching a glimpse of the man who "tugg[ed] the world to fruit," putting the hives in perfect order with another man, even standing with the honey-drudges, watching the honey-machine, and witnessing the queen’s ascension--each of these has an element of sweetness that she cannot ignore.

The breakthrough of "Stings" is that it is intensely personal in its themes yet not excessive in its final style. This new relationship between subject and style enables the poem to articulate complex and ambivalent emotions without attempting to depict them as monolithic and overwhelming. In this, it anticipates "Wintering," where the speaker adds resignation and hope to the emotional range she has been developing throughout the sequence. In "Wintering," the speaker faces the most difficult confrontation of all--that with herself. At this point, however, having assessed her relationship to the community in "The Bee Meeting"; to her art in "The Arrival of the Bee Box"; to her husband, children, other women, and her own contradictory fictional selves in "Stings"; she next addresses her relation to history in "The Swarm."

From Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Karen Ford: On "The Arrival of the Bee Box"

The first stanza of "The Arrival of the Bee Box" provides, in some measure, a corrective to the excesses and exaggerations of "The Bee Meeting." The speaker is now able to answer her own earlier question about the box; in fact, overcoming her former passivity, she even takes responsibility for it, "I ordered this, this clean wood box." Seeing it more clearly in her present state of mind, it is no longer the long, white virgin’s coffin feared to be for her but a prosaic "clean wood box" that she herself owns. As if to demonstrate the unequivocal reality of the box, she says it is "Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift." The choice of "chair," the classroom philosopher’s favorite object for exhibiting the "real," is good humored and appropriate. Further, the rhyming phrase, "square as a chair," gives aural substance to the box, and the word "square" suggests honesty, directness, and exactitude. In three words, then, she has overturned the hallucinatory tone of the first poem.

Yet her fine control over words diminishes rapidly, and she concocts a quick succession of odd metaphors for the box--"I would say it was the coffin of a midget / Or a square baby." The subjunctive "I would" testifies that she is aware even before she generates them that her metaphors are contrived. These self-conscious tropes preview the numerous metaphors and similes that this poem will hazard. Even when she claims to leave off making metaphors, she slips immediately into another sort of verbal play, "I would . . . were there not such a din in it." The humming sound created by the three short i’s of "din in it" attests to irrepressible linguistic production. But the difference between "The Arrival of the Bee Box" and "The Bee Meeting" is that here the speaker remains fully aware that she is using poetic language to shape her experience.

In fact, one could read this as a poem about poetic language. If the box represents form and the clamor inside of it represents content, then "The Arrival of the Bee Box" may best be read as a poem in which the speaker explores the relationship between her "asbestos gloves" and her incendiary subject matter. In this view, the two aborted metaphors, the coffin of the midget and the square baby, can be understood as descriptions of poetic content that becomes malformed or remains undeveloped when cramped into conventional structures. In this sense, her first attempts to describe the box were accurate. "The box is locked" because its contents are "dangerous," yet the speaker "can’t keep away from it." As she examines the box and considers opening it, she is faced with the threat that what is inside may destroy her.

This is a box she has approached elsewhere in her poetry. In each case it seems to represent the conflict between rigid outer forms and a suppressed inner life. It is, of course, the long, white box she fears in "The Bee Meeting" that will trap her in a premature grave; but it is also the hive box in an earlier poem, "The Beekeeper’s Daughter" (118). There, in a line she will recycle for "The Arrival," the daughter of the beekeeper, like the present speaker, tries to look into the box: "Kneeling down / I set my eye to a hole-mouth and meet an eye / Round, green, disconsolate as a tear." The eye of the daughter recognizes in the eye of the queen bee a reflection of her own dejection. Both are isolated by their special bond to the father/beekeeper and trapped by structures of power in which they are defined completely by their relation to him. Here, however, the bees are "furious" rather than disconsolate, and she can see nothing of them. When the effort to see fails, "I put my eye to the grid. / It is dark, dark," she must take recourse in listening, "I lay my ear to furious Latin." Here again, as in "Words heard," the persona finds her own voice by hearing the voices of others.

Naturally, then, she begins to create metaphors for the sound in an attempt to understand it. Over the course of the next three stanzas she proposes three analogies for the contents of the bee box, each one an image of power and oppression. First it reminds her of "the swarmy feeling of African hands / Minute and shrunk for export, / Black on black, angrily clambering." Here her role in relation to the box is that of slave trader or colonizing exporter. The power of the colonizer (exporter/poet) over the colonized (African hands/poems) results in the diminution of the latter, which are "Minute and shrunk for export"; the contents of the box are once again imagined as dwarfed and deformed as the whole notion of containment through forms is repeatedly called into question. The bees (and, we can infer, the poems) resent their captivity and agitate to escape. In this analogy, she is right to feel that the bees are dangerous. Next "It is like a Roman mob, / Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!" Echoing again that line from "The Beekeeper’s Daughter," she says, "I lay my ear to furious Latin." Relinquishing power over this mob because she cannot understand them, she admits, "I am not Caesar." Almost inadvertently, these first two metaphors for the din in the box employ exemplary instances from history of domination: the slave trade, white colonization of non-white countries, and autocracy. These political structures, then, are related to the formal structure that controls and contains content. This is the role she rejects in claiming not to be Caesar. Finally, she tries to speak more directly, but even this effort produces a metaphor: "I have simply ordered a box of maniacs." This line is a continuation of her preceding disclaimer: I am not a tyrant who wants to dominate the bees; I simply ordered a bee hive, but it has turned out to be more than I bargained for. Further, however, it too offers a metaphor of power relations--the mental asylum--this time one that the speaker can perhaps identify with more easily since, in "The Bee Meeting," she felt herself becoming the maniac in the box.

Realizing now that she is obliged to the box at least for the night, she senses the danger she is in and toys first with the idea of abdicating her power, "They can be sent back" (the passive voice construction is not accidental), then immediately with the idea of exerting it, "They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner." Clearly, the poem views such power as corrupting, for as soon as she assumes the position of authority ("I am the owner"), she becomes aware of her total control ("They can die").

Fortunately for the bees, the role of autocrat is not one she relishes; thus, instead of executing her control over them, she wonders "how hungry they are"--a line that reveals she is probably not capable of withholding food from them. (Even the syntax of the line that proposes not to feed them is contorted to throw emphasis on the likelihood that she will care for them: the affirmative phrase "I need feed them" comes first and then, as an unconvincing afterthought, the negative word "nothing.") Indeed, she would like to feed them, or better, to set them free, but she cannot tell how they will treat her if they are liberated. Turning again to the protective myth of Daphne, she tries to imagine freeing them without harm to herself: "I wonder if they would forget me / If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree. . . . / They might ignore me immediately." These lines are actually quite strange. She does not wonder if the bees will attack her but if they will "forget" her, as though her connection to them is more profound and binding than that of a customer who has just purchased a hive. Likewise, the choice of the word "immediately" suggests a concern with duration rather than with the imminent event of their assault. This language also indicates that she has some prior connection to the bees. In the reading I am pursuing, this connection parallels a career of writing that shuts up her imaginative vitality in rigid forms. The bees, then, represent her own repressed feelings, and she dreads the possibility of being overcome by her own memories and outrages. Would she ever be able to forget the slights and injustices? Would the feelings immediately consume her? The "unintelligible syllables" causing the commotion in the box are the sounds of her own anger and fury, and it is her inability to articulate an outrage that she can nevertheless hear that "appalls [her] most of all."

The allusion to Daphne in this poem is not merely an image for the speaker’s isolated problem; rather it represents other women as well. She recognizes precedents for the metamorphosis: "There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades, / And the petticoats of the cherry." Here for the first time she detects the traces of other women in these trees, their blondness and their petticoats. To refuse the metamorphosis is to attempt to remain in the world as she is, an extremely vulnerable position for a woman (even more so for a woman writer). It necessitates protective gear that is hardly less alienating than bark and leaves, a "moon suit and funeral veil." Moreover, the gear that is meant to protect her human vulnerability seems instead to dehumanize her (the moon suit suggests her strangeness).

In a last effort to find a way to release the bees without risking injury, she reasons that since she is "no source of honey," they have no cause to attack her. Yet she overlooks the irony that whoever liberates the bees must inevitably be exposed to danger. This point is conveyed through the verbal play on "honey" and "sweet": "I am no source of honey / So why should they turn on me? Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free." Ironically, by being sweet she will be like the honey that the bees are after; in fact, it is her sweetness--her desire to help and her willingness to release the bees--that makes her so vulnerable. On all levels of the poem, the beekeeper opening the box, the woman giving vent to repressed emotions, or the poet uncovering her real subjects, the liberator will likely get hurt.

"The Arrival of the Bee Box" is the only poem in the sequence that exceeds the five-line stanza pattern. It closes with an extra line--significantly, a line about form that the form of the poem is not able to contain--that asserts "The box is only temporary." This final utterance not only announces the inevitable displacement of the box but also outstrips the formal boundaries set by the poem (and the sequence). The speaker will release the bees. The content will exceed the form. More important, of course, the hand that penned the apocalyptic last line will remove its asbestos glove.