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What I like about “Tell the Bees” by Sarah Lindsay

7 November 2010

I have been slowly making my way through The Best American Poetry 2009 and have come across a handful of poems that reach me in a way that’s hard to explain. Something about them makes me love that poem more than most other poems I read–something in them connects with me on a deeper level. Sarah Lindsay‘s “Tell the Bees” is one of them, and here I am going to try and explain why I like it.

From my understanding of the poem, there has been a death, presumably someone in the narrator’s family. Instead of addressing death or grief directly, Sarah Lindsay focuses on what life continues to go on unaffected by this person’s death. The bees in their hive live parallel to the familly in the house, yet because they are difference species and don’t interact directly with the family, the news of a death of one of the members won’t affect them. Yet Sarah says, “Tell the bees… lest they sicken / from the gap between their ignorance and our grief.” I like the notion that perhaps the bees will be affected by this person’s death, if only in an offhand way, like noticing something is missing from a room but not being able to name what it is.

Sarah goes on to name a few other creatures that should be told of the person’s death: “the fly that has knocked on the window all day” and “the redbird that rammed the glass from outside / and stands too dazed to go.” I like how these everyday occurances of these two creatures are made to seem as if they are there to inquire about what’s going on in the house, what the problem is. The fly could be knocking to get a closer look, and the bird could be demanding an explanation.

We know there is some sort of wake occuring in the house from these lines: “From the fortress of casseroles and desserts / built in the kitchen these past few weeks / as though hunger were the enemy.” This made me wonder what the enemy is. Grief? Death?

Sarah moves on from creatures to the earth itself–snow, trees, grass, boulders, hills–and I wonder if she believes each of these will be slightly different from now on because of the death, and if so, are they different because of the death itself, or are they different because the narrator perceives them differently?

She ends the poem with the bees flying out “to look for sweetness” and finding their way, as they always do, “because nothing else has changed.” Meaning to me that the poem was a speculation, and she leads herself to the conclusion that no, these outside elements of the world won’t change because of the person’s death, even though she herself may have changed, or believes the death warrants bigger change. It’s common to feel like the world shouldn’t continue to happen just as it always did after someone close to you dies, isn’t it? You feel that your life just changed so immensely, and their life just ceased, yet everything else continues normally as if nothing happened.

After I wrote my response to this poem, I turned to the author’s biography to read what she had to say about this poem. I was spot on! Sarah says she “read about the tradition of informing domestic bees of events, such as births and deaths, in the keeper’s household. This gave me a way to think about what I’d been thinking about. I had come back from my father’s funeral to my home in a city where no one else knew him, no one else knew to grieve. I don’t keep bees, but I could pass along the instructions.” How lovely!

I wish every poem had an author’s bio this detailed. I love learning about the writer’s inspirations behind the poem, and what it means to them.

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