Aug 15, 2013

Mona Van Duyn’s “A Time of Bees”: Manly Men in Half-Rhyme

Mona Van Duyn’s “A Time of Bees”:  The Half-Rhyme of Men Being Men

A Time of Bees by Mona Van Duyn : The Poetry Foundation

“A Time of Bees” by Mona Van Duyn (1921–2004, our first female Poet Laureate) might seem daunting as we look at it on the page. Her lines are long; there are two pages of them, and maybe there’s something a little intimidating about stanzas that are consistently (rigidly?) five lines long. It’s a good time to practice what I’ve preached before:  look for small gifts along the way, in single images, or find in single lines the hints of larger ideas, even if we must wait to see if they ever expand and cohere. All the while we’re hoping the whole is worth our patience. (Ditto the length of my post).

It would also be easy to overlook Van Duyn’s use of form in “A Time of Bees.” I first noticed the uniformity of the five-line stanzas. Then I saw that quite a few of the line breaks, the enjambments, came at odd places (emphasizing some interesting meanings in individual lines, apart from their meanings in the poem as a whole). In a few lines, chosen randomly, I counted syllables and listened to stresses, but found no consistent pattern. Eventually, however, I saw the half-rhymes, in lines 1,3,5 and sometimes in lines 2 and 4. Some are so subtle, so “halved,” that we might call them eighteenth rhymes; but the rhyme becomes more definite as the poem goes along, and it’s reasonable to claim a rhyme scheme of ababa.
Sneaky Crawling

Why does this matter? Rhyme and meter can be merely decorative, and they often create comedy, as in limericks. To a poet, they can be as much a risk as a weapon. But in the hands of serious writers,  they suggest the poet’s tendency toward perceiving and valuing order in her subjects and her world view. A sense of music is another likely result of rhyme and meter, but not so much when the form is as understated as Van Duyn’s, where the rhyme is hanging by a thread.

So is she just a sloppy, half-hearted formalist? I don’t think so. The poem centers on the menacing but perhaps alluring way men tear things apart as they pursue a prey, an enemy, in order to repair and make things right and safe. Yes, that sounds a little pre-feminist, but in casual conversation, I’ve heard a number of intelligent women confess to finding muscle, sweat, labor and combat appealing. Some brainy women like seeing the torque of a man as he rips at things in order to fix them—to build, make, create. Isn’t that the end to which he’s been evolving?

And maybe the sweaty stuff becomes more appealing as technology evolves away from our need for physical labor on the home front. Let the robot do it. Or let the men, women and children from afar do it. For better or worse, our airplane drones even show the potential for an evolution away from physical combat.

Wouldn’t the law of supply and demand tell us that, as hunks thin out in the work force, giving way to I.T. guys and lab techs, the appeal and the price of hunks will grow more dear? I’d guess gym memberships are at an all-time high and will continue to grow, unless some dire upheaval returns us to an economy of agriculture and heavy industry.

So, as Mona Van Duyn’s speaker watches her husband rip up part of their home in order to destroy an animal-enemy, she loves him. She embraces his animal nature as protector of the home as she watches it emerge. His tearing into things becomes almost a paradigm of the erotic.

But she’s not a dumb woman, and she’s aware that this is something like a double-edged sword. Shall she be cold and mechanical about being rid of the nuisance bees? Or shall she sympathize with an animal that was only doing what it was designed to do? She is so honest that she does both:

                        they writhe, some of them, but who cares?
                        They go to the garbage, it is over, everything has been said.

                        But there is more. Wouldn’t you think the bees had suffered
Love, labor and war make tenuous what she thought she thought—and valued. She’s a bit uncertain, so there is in Van Duyn’s poetic structure an air we might call tenuously formal—rhymes that almost challenge the definition of rhyme. And her clinging to a symmetrical five-line stanza gives way at the end to a single line that highlights a grubby softness” that “wants to give, to give”—which is surely a reference to women as well as infant bees.
Such a world, such a mind, an experience such as this bee hunt, is surely not as neat and orderly as tidy, self-conscious, exact rhyme or meter would imply. Yet there is some kind of order in Van Duyn’s world of partially-evolved cave dwellers. If someone wants to call her rhymes crude, it’s all right because the world she’s presenting and accepting is also crude—in part. Eroticism is crude. Survival is crude. It’s about tearing things up to get to the bottom of things, where enemies live.

Still, the couple reads “books on bees” and later they bring home a scientist friend, for “they need/the idea of bees” (what an expression, by the way!). But in the end, understanding is secondary to elimination. There are only two forces: the squirming of bees with some life left in them and, with a remarkable adjective, the “unpleading” male’s need to kill them all, permanently, to protect home and hearth. 
There is nothing to plead about here; he is doing the necessary work.

Hiding Its Head in the . . . Sand?
Van Duyn denies us our penchant for simplistic dichotomies. She won’t let her gender, or any of us, say,  “I’m all brain, beauty, and spirit. I am not a savage. I am lofty. God made me in his image.”

To which Van Duyn calmly replies, “Don’t be silly. That sweaty, aggressive, murderous, rampaging, repairing man makes me aware of my own softness. I accept it. Maybe I even like it, and I’m honest enough to say so.”

“A Time of Bees” presents a rough-hewn, physical, even bestial world that continues to call to us, contain us, define us. It has a kind of order, but it’s a brutal order, and trying to prettify it with loud, exact rhymes or overly sweet music, would miss the point, would be a lie. 


Anonymous said...

I love the mathematics of poetry, just as I love the mathematics of music. Good essay, John. I sensed the form in this poem, that something was making the imagery work and pop, so it was interesting to take it apart and look at the gears.

As for the theme, I don't agree with her general assessment of men versus women, but then, I don't have to agree in order to like a poem. This one clearly comes from a place of great intelligence.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Her poem reminds me of an article I read in the New Yorker - in essay form!!!
I love how you introduce us to new/old poets and make us think, Banjo. I must go ponder...

Jean Spitzer said...

With this one, read the poem first, your essay second. Probably approaching it in reverse order would have been better.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, folks. I know I'm pushing it with length on this one, both Van Duyn and myself. I appreciate your hanging in there.

AH Karin, I like that gear metaphor a lot! And I agree with you about gender and V.D.'s intelligence. I've said before here that good poetry often stirs the pot more than it comforts, and this might be a case in point.

Brenda, thanks! Hope you'll give us a sentence or two on the NYer essay.

Jean, Just when I think I've decided which is the better way to go at a poem, I hit an example of the opposite way. We poetry folks are high-risk high rollers!

Stickup Artist said...

Beautifully articulated and written one cannot deny, but this poem so often left me feeling positively squeamish.

RuneE said...

Thank you for a thorough lecture about the interpretation of poems - I should have had that one when I was 15. It gave me a better appreciation of the triple meanings in the poem, especially the self-irony.

BTW - Have you compared this bee-post with your former bee-post?

PS Compliments with the photos!

John Evans said...

I have heard a woman or two speak about the husband in the bemused wonderment that perhaps this poem expresses.

Quite a lurch here:

" . . . when some great lurch

of heart takes place, or a great shift of season."

And this play on words, among others:

"This evening we go to a party, the breeze
dies, late, we are sticky in our old friendships and light-headed"

I first read this yesterday. I'm commenting too soon. It's a poem to revisit tomorrow. Thanks, and thanks for your commentary.

Lovers' Lane