Stockport Flats, 2015, 87 pp., $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-9911878-3-6
A review by Robert Kostuck
(First appeared in Concho River Review.)
Suzette Bishop, a past contributor to Concho River Review and a native Texan, writes with a finger on nature’s pulse. She parses the geometric patterns and rhythms of bees; and
blends the detective’s observations with the artist’s observation. The result is serenity ensconced in cacophony. Hive-Mind, her second published volume of poetry, is divided into four parts of free verse, prose-narrative, and concrete poems. Mostly personal and unapologetically politicized (with a focus on the recent mass die-offs of bee populations in North America and Europe which was first documented in 2006, now know as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD), Ms Bishop’s work is a record of human endeavor reflected in insect socialization.
The first part, “Bee Chant,” is a paean to the bee and the author’s personal experiences. “Quilting Bee,” the second part, is subdivided (and sub-sub-sub-divided) into two densely packed section of prose-poetry. The third part, “Swarm Warning,” mixes the ethereal and the earthy; while the fourth part, “Bee-Silent Glade,” defies categorization.
“Bee Chant” segues from the art of the apiarist to more personal reminiscences involving bees, light, and imagination. Deliberately, patiently, the bee-keeper’s tableau is the dream before the dream; moving beehive boxes toward their exact and perhaps arbitrary places is the gist of this section. The meditative quality of preparation is delineated with precision:
Live near a swamp with tupelos,
a stream of glass surfaces
but deep enough to cradle a boat.
Before the tupelos blossom,
stack your bee boxes onto the boat,
untie the boat
and begin floating the serpentine
watery pathway through woods.
(“Capturing the Rawness of This Place” 1-8)
Reflecting the personal aspect, a single evanescent memory—the type of experience which brings gratefulness to the forefront of our mind—ties into to a flashback of a bee sting. In the balance, one wonders: does pain sharpen beauty; or beauty, pain? Alone without being aloof, proud without being boastful, and, finally, simply resting in the moment.
Walking tenderly into the woods,
there were freckled, orange tiger lily tongues
and a fern-edged path to walk,
a spooling dusk to enter.
No one cared that I saw it,
carried it with me.
(“Just the Help” 26-32)
Compromising almost half of this volume, “Quilting Bee” is divided into two sections: “Virtual Return and Departure,” extremely intimate; and “Unafraid of the Resounding Hum,” intentionally provocative. Both are further sub-divided into self-contained prose poems, or, more precisely, interlaced short stories—a blend of narratives represented by different typefaces.
In “Virtual Return and Departure” the author mirrors the unfinished saga of CCD with memories terse as stage direction. There is a positive fascination here, as the author splices personal memories of family and Corpus Christi with excerpts from “Maria von Blücher’s Corpus Christi: Letters from the South Texas Frontier, 1849-1879”. A small slice must stand for the entirety.
My dad struggles to fix breakfast and makes runny eggs, burnt toast. “Away—she’ll be away for a while,” was all we are told. I don’t know if both trips were the same one and ”away” means my mother is only as far away as the other side of town in the mental hospital no one talks about as being a part of the town. Or maybe she is on a trip to see her sister on Long island or her own mother, hospitalized for years there. (“A Virtual Return” 37-42)
Passing through Quemado, which means burnt. As if timed, someone is burning grass, a woman standing in the grass nearby with a baby in her arms. Small towns, then nothing but Brush Country, a burning sea of mesquite. (“Enclosures” 29-31)
“Unafraid of the Resounding Hum” focuses more on the history and rituals of bee-keeping, an enumeration of facts and figures interspersed with redemption:
She returned, unafraid of the resounding hum. The world of bees to watch over in each hive, tray by tray, and stung enough to become immune to the venom. No insomnia, no fevers, no deadly winter. The bees harvested the spring after one of the harshest winters in history. A sleep awakened by the drive for pollination. (“This Wards off Plans of Suicide” 21-24)
The attraction—and immediacy—of these narratives lies in the way Ms. Bishop effortlessly tie together landscape and memory, and past and present. Ephemeral passages stitched together like a quilt; persistent as bees in their millions of miles flown and in their endless milligrams of collected pollen. Here is the epiphany of natural cycles repeating, crests and troughs connected in an endless flow.
In the third section, Swarm Warning, the actual text fades, page by page, from black to light gray; mimicking the attrition of bee colonies attributed to the vaguely named Colony Collapse Disorder. Uncertainty, man-made chemicals, mites: after the knowledge of mass bee die-offs in North America and Europe, only questions remain.
no one tells you anything useful
or that makes sense,
a manic uncommunicative hum,
an imploding colony. (“Bee Hex” 1-8)
Observations from the bee’s point of view, the words swirl across the pages giving the distinct impression of several voices harmonizing on a mission statement. As in the other poems, the personal (an airplane journey) is interwoven with the bee message in this section’s third poem.
After landing, the plane skid on ice. / When young, we take practice runs / outside the hive— / fly forward, / backward, / sideways. / We can be trained to fly / to certain scents, / like explosives. / Just before, / we are tunneling through / the night and / can’t see the storm. (“Mary Celeste Phenomenon” 35-47)
This excerpt does not give any indication of the flightiness of the narrative, as these thirteen sparse lines are spread out over two pages.
The final section, Bee-Silent Glade, consists of two blank pages; a fitting conclusion and warning about the possible ruin to natural and human-made economies. It is a poignant, fitting, and shocking conclusion to the hive mind of the author and her narrative.
Overall, the environmental concerns and personal frailties and epiphanies weave together to form a substantial statement, and, simultaneously, a diary. This approach clearly illuminates the connection between the personal and the public, between the greed born of a lopsided global economy and nature herself. Our technological disconnect from nature often prevents us from seeking and finding this balance. Ms. Bishop admirably delineates and walks this path; these poems are the journal of that journey.
Robert Kostuck is an M.Ed. graduate from Northern Arizona University. His recently published fiction and essays appear in Flyway, EVENT, The Massachusetts Review, Zone 3, The Southwest Review, Kenyon Review Online, Louisiana Literature, Tiferet, Alimentum, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Roanoke Review, Crab Creek Review, Concho River Review, So To Speak, Silk Road, and Saint Ann’s Review, and are forthcoming in Clackamas Literary Review and Lalitamba. He is currently working on short stories, essays, weavings, a novel, the primary series of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, and walking the spiral path through Pantañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. His short story collection seeks a publisher. He lives near an ocean; his heart belongs to the Chihuahua desert.