……….I’ve read many poetry books and anthologies in my time but I have never actually reviewed one before.
I think there are a couple of reasons – firstly I never feel I ever finish a book of poetry. They don’t have a last page for me and I expect to go back it to it time and again. And I find that in reading them at different times and periods in my life, my feelings about them can change, sometimes quite considerably. What might be a poem that confuses me or escapes me on first reading may be one that I am subsequently moved by when I visit the book for the second, third, fourth time and so on. So in that sense my brain is a little bit uncomfortable writing a review of a poetry collection because I don’t feel I’ve finished it.
The other reason that I have for avoiding reviewing a book of poetry in my blog up to this stage is I wonder if the actual experience of reading poetry lends itself to subsequently writing about it. Somehow, there’s a part of me that feels like it might be a bit too personal and too individual to write about how I react to a poem or what moves me. I’m very conscious that what I like or what I think touches me in some way might have little or no significance or value for anyone else. Nevertheless, when I started my blog back in February this year, I’d always intended to include writing about poetry because that’s a big part of my reading “habit”. Therefore I think I need to attempt to review the poetry I read’ alongside the great novels and non-fiction books I enjoy at the same time.
And so to “The Bees” itself.
I found this collection a bit of a bumpy ride if I’m honest. References to “bees” are not surprisingly dispersed through the book and there is a poem “The Bees” which opens the collection – and in a way that poem summed up my overall impression of the whole collection.
There are moments here that I thought were absolutely magnificent. I’ve little to no technical understanding, but it seems to me that when she is on her game, Carol Ann Duffy is an absolute master of her craft. The poem “The Bees” felt like a short introduction to the buzzing words to come and to the way the words had almost been drawn nectar-like from somewhere within the poet’s soul to be transported to the page. And there’s a real feel of the hither and thither about those first two verses – they crackle with energy and vitality. What I loved about them was the way they appeared almost like random-buzz-words and phrases on first read but on subsequent reads they feel like there’s a purpose and structure and destination to all their movement and twists and activity. It was a great start but the third and final verse somehow meandered and ran out of steam a bit and that feeling pervaded throughout the collection for me. The last line of the poem “The Bees” in particular just left me feeling a bit flat and let down. It ends with the line “and honey is art.” It just didn’t live up to the court and spark of what had gone before – all that noise and shape petering out in what felt to me like a bit of a cliché.
However, having said that it’s a bumpy ride, it’s also a ride with some colossal highs. There are a several poems that I loved, particularly those where where Carol Ann Duffy is sort of unravelling time and perspective and telling something backwards. The brilliant “The Last Post” takes a couple of Wilfred Owen lines and then explicitly tries to unravel the tragedy of war. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching to read because it sort of draws out the hope and promise that there might have been and yet we know wasn’t to be for so many millions. She does the same sort of retrospective unravelling for a poem “New Vows” which essentially undoes the marriage vow and it does it superbly.
There are also poems where there is a real anger and ferocity to some of her words and politics is often at the end of the sharpest parts of her tongue. But she does these sorts of poems really well for me. They are never slogans but brilliantly, sometimes beautifully, crafted. I read this collection while the controversial Leveson enquiry was bubbling to the surface and it seemed so apt. These are the opening lines from her poem Big Ask, which throws the spotlight on that thing all our politicians and the chattering political classes seem to do so well, give answers which only fleeting relate to the questions!
What was it Sisyphus pushed up the hill?
I wouldn’t call it a rock.
Will you solemnly swear on the Bible?
I couldn’t swear on a book.
With which piece did you capture the castle?
I shouldn’t hazard a rook.
When did the President give you the date?
Nothing to do with Barack!
Were 1200 targets marked on a chart?
Nothing was circled in black.
On what was the prisoner stripped and searched?
Nothing resembling a rack.
And no prizes for guessing where this poem ends up if I tell you that the “ack” rhyme continues to the end !
Beyond the politics and commentary on what’s around her there are a couple of clever poems which really show off her talent. One is a fabulous pub-crawl and pub name check from John Barleycorn. She essentially uses pub names to craft the poem – it’s really clever and it works wonderfully. I’m also seriously impressed by how many different pub names she fits in – I can’t help wondering if she knows them all as drinking places – if she does then she is clearly a lover of pubs!
But the best poem in the collection for me is “Water”. It’s a whispered and somehow haunting description linked to the death bed request for water from someone dying in a hospice (having read a bit since it is in fact about the death of her own mother). It’s sad and beautiful and yet somehow it celebrates the love of a parent and a child by noting the simple resonance between that dying request at the end of her mothers life to earlier times when her mother would have been answering that self same request from Carol Ann Duffy as a child. It was one of those poems that I know will stay with me and it’s destined to be one of those I learn off by heart I think.
There are many more poems in the collection that I really liked and enjoyed reading. And while overall I found it a bit of a mixed bag, I’d still recommend it to anyone considering reading it. While “Water” is the poem I liked best, perhaps the most stunning lines are in “Cold”, another poem about the death of her mother. It ends with the most heart-bursting three lines – I wept on reading them. They are beautiful, but there’s almost a brutality to their beauty. They rip your chest open and wrap a fist round your heart and then squeeze. Powerful, wonderful stuff and for that reason and many others, this collection is well worth reading.