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The Problem With Bees and Other It-Creatures

We’d gone to a place called Doe Bay, a hippie-ish resort on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington State for what felt like the last weekend of summer. The sun was warm, but fickle, and walking through the shaded forest to our campsite felt like a polar journey. As if it wasn’t clear enough that Fall was coming, every member of the bee family was angry. My friend, Betsy, was stung early on in the weekend, an un-provoked attack that resulted in a salad-plate sized welt on her thigh. Later, while watching two hairy bees go at it on a log near our plein air happy hour of wine and cheese, she suggested bees would make a good subject for a poem.

“Oh no,” I responded right away, “too easy.”

In my head there’s a hierarchy of animals and insects worth writing about. Dragonflies, for instance, with their pretty iridescent wings, seem too discovered. They feature prominently in gift shops and as jewelry. (Hold on, though, a little internet research reveals that a vernacular name for the dragonfly is “devil’s darning needle.” And here Robert Hass puts them into service nicely. The plot thickens.) They were also, I’m horribly embarrassed to admit, the “theme” for my wedding seven years ago. We joked we didn’t have a color scheme, we had an insect. We joked, but it was true all the same. Dragonflies were on our invitation. One hovered near us, according to my teary father, while we recited our vows.

I also, early in my attempts to be a poet, worked for a long time on a poem about bees. I still like the poem, but I consider it juvenilia, if not of the age-sort, then of the maturity sort.

Yet, I remind myself, everything has already been written about, both well and badly. Nothing should be off limits, right? What scares me is falling into the trap of the too-beautiful, or too-obvious, too-cliched, too-done. Bees are a little too picturesque. They are a pretty little danger we like to admire from a distance.

To add to the poetic problems of say, Dickinson already having written a kick-ass fly poem, there’s the problem of the way our culture commodifies these creatures. Any shopper of two falls ago could not avoid the owl. And in the world post-Giant Squid discovery, cephalopods suddenly seem like a deep-sea ticket to cool.

Bees are long past their status as it-girl of the insect world.

And yet, and yet. They keep offering us such sweetness and such danger. They keep making us remember first dangers, first pain. That time when we were a kid and at our grandparents and on the swing and suddenly (the swinging must have dislodged the nest) the whole damn hive is on us. We are yellowjacketed. And we don’t run because they have told us not to run. So we stand and scream, taking the stings. And this is metaphorical for it foreshadows how we will just take it for the rest of our life, right?

owl2(Also, I like an owl sake pot. And an octopus dinner plate.)octopus

See what I mean? I’m a danger to myself.

Now, I know that there are many better poets than I who have written wonderful poems on bees and dragonflies and owls and squid and every other animal and insect under the sun and under the sea. What I think I’m meaning to say is what’s scariest to me is getting stung by the sentimentality bug, by the hit-you-over-the-head-with-the-meaning-of-it-all bug. (Pliny says that “bees like the sound of bronze when it is struck, and assemble when summoned by this.” )

But I suppose what’s scarier is when you’re not bitten by the bug at all (sorry, bad pun).

So go there, “speaker.” Stop stopping yourself. Take a chance and strike the gong.