Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sylvia Plath's poem "The Arrival of the Bee Box"


Plath was finally sure of her genius in mid-October 1962, just after completing the Bee sequence, when she wrote to her mother that she was ready to start a new life: “I am a writer . . . I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name”. Though the poems that would ultimately make her name came a few days later--”Daddy,” “Ariel,” and “Lady Lazarus,” among others--she obviously felt that the Bee poems were ones on which she could build her poetic reputation.
There is no question that she considered the Bee poems her culminating poetic statement in addition to her best work. She placed them at the end of her second book of poems, giving them precedence over the other poems in the volume. If we have only recently discovered the importance of the Bee sequence, it is partly because Hughes demoted it to the middle of the book when he put together his version of Ariel and partly because the sequence contradicts the myth of Plath as suicidal poet churning out her greatest poems to meet a frighteningly literal deadline.

Plath wrote the five Bee poems, which she initially titled “Bees” and conceived of as a sequence, in less than a week in October 1962 as her marriage was breaking up. They are unified by their subject matter, bees and beekeeping, and by their five-line stanza pattern, though each poem works its own unique variation of the general theme and form. They reveal a concern with self-assessment and redefinition, both personally and poetically, and proceed by scrutinizing relationships between the speaker and her world. The sequence moves from community, in “The Bee Meeting,” to solitude, in “Wintering,” as the speaker settles her relations with others and with her own former selves. This trajectory from an external preoccupation with others to an inward concern for the self has formal reverberations. Plath’s characteristic stylistic excess eases during the course of the sequence as the speaker retreats from the pressures of the external world, especially the world of gender conflicts, to the inner rhythms of her own exigencies. As the influence of the exterior world diminishes, the stylistic agitation seems to abate as well.

Plath’s Ariel culminates in the Bee sequence because these five poems record her most important vision and embody the farthest development of her poetics. The Bee poems reveal Plath shaping a new aesthetics that is vitalized by the style of excess she had cultivated for so long--but one that is also discovering other energies. The manuscripts show her revising in favor of excess in “The Bee Meeting” and, to some extent, in “The Arrival of the Bee Box”; by “Stings,” the third poem in the sequence, however, they document an effort to minimize stylistic excesses. In the final poem, “Wintering,” we hear an entirely new poetic voice and confront a subtle new poetics.

The fact that the Bee sequence contradicts our received notion of Plath’s poetry accounts for its failure to “make [her] name.” As every modern poetry anthology attests, her reputation rests on her most excessive poems, “Daddy,” “Ariel,” and “Lady Lazarus.” It is an interesting paradox that the most frequent charge leveled against her work--that it envisions only violence and self-destruction--remains untroubled by the final ease and hopefulness of the Bee sequence. Critics bemoan Plath’s single-mindedness but limit their reading to the poems that confirm it.



The first stanza of “The Arrival of the Bee Box” provides, in some measure, a corrective to the excesses and exaggerations of “The Bee Meeting.” The speaker is now able to answer her own earlier question about the box; in fact, overcoming her former passivity, she even takes responsibility for it, “I ordered this, this clean wood box.” Seeing it more clearly in her present state of mind, it is no longer the long, white virgin’s coffin feared to be for her but a prosaic “clean wood box” that she herself owns. As if to demonstrate the unequivocal reality of the box, she says it is “Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.” The choice of “chair,” the classroom philosopher’s favorite object for exhibiting the “real,” is good humored and appropriate. Further, the rhyming phrase, “square as a chair,” gives aural substance to the box, and the word “square” suggests honesty, directness, and exactitude. In three words, then, she has overturned the hallucinatory tone of the first poem.

Yet her fine control over words diminishes rapidly, and she concocts a quick succession of odd metaphors for the box--”I would say it was the coffin of a midget / Or a square baby.” The subjunctive “I would” testifies that she is aware even before she generates them that her metaphors are contrived. These self-conscious tropes preview the numerous metaphors and similes that this poem will hazard. Even when she claims to leave off making metaphors, she slips immediately into another sort of verbal play, “I would . . . were there not such a din in it.” The humming sound created by the three short i’s of “din in it” attests to irrepressible linguistic production. But the difference between “The Arrival of the Bee Box” and “The Bee Meeting” is that here the speaker remains fully aware that she is using poetic language to shape her experience.

In fact, one could read this as a poem about poetic language. If the box represents form and the clamor inside of it represents content, then “The Arrival of the Bee Box” may best be read as a poem in which the speaker explores the relationship between her “asbestos gloves” and her incendiary subject matter. In this view, the two aborted metaphors, the coffin of the midget and the square baby, can be understood as descriptions of poetic content that becomes malformed or remains undeveloped when cramped into conventional structures. In this sense, her first attempts to describe the box were accurate. “The box is locked” because its contents are “dangerous,” yet the speaker “can’t keep away from it.” As she examines the box and considers opening it, she is faced with the threat that what is inside may destroy her.

This is a box she has approached elsewhere in her poetry. In each case it seems to represent the conflict between rigid outer forms and a suppressed inner life. It is, of course, the long, white box she fears in “The Bee Meeting” that will trap her in a premature grave; but it is also the hive box in an earlier poem, “The Beekeeper’s Daughter”. There, in a line she will recycle for “The Arrival,” the daughter of the beekeeper, like the present speaker, tries to look into the box: “Kneeling down / I set my eye to a hole-mouth and meet an eye / Round, green, disconsolate as a tear.” The eye of the daughter recognizes in the eye of the queen bee a reflection of her own dejection. Both are isolated by their special bond to the father/beekeeper and trapped by structures of power in which they are defined completely by their relation to him. Here, however, the bees are “furious” rather than disconsolate, and she can see nothing of them. When the effort to see fails, “I put my eye to the grid. / It is dark, dark,” she must take recourse in listening, “I lay my ear to furious Latin.” Here again, as in “Words heard,” the persona finds her own voice by hearing the voices of others.

Naturally, then, she begins to create metaphors for the sound in an attempt to understand it. Over the course of the next three stanzas she proposes three analogies for the contents of the bee box, each one an image of power and oppression. First it reminds her of “the swarmy feeling of African hands / Minute and shrunk for export, / Black on black, angrily clambering.” Here her role in relation to the box is that of slave trader or colonizing exporter. The power of the colonizer (exporter/poet) over the colonized (African hands/poems) results in the diminution of the latter, which are “Minute and shrunk for export”; the contents of the box are once again imagined as dwarfed and deformed as the whole notion of containment through forms is repeatedly called into question. The bees (and, we can infer, the poems) resent their captivity and agitate to escape. In this analogy, she is right to feel that the bees are dangerous. Next “It is like a Roman mob, / Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!” Echoing again that line from “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” she says, “I lay my ear to furious Latin.” Relinquishing power over this mob because she cannot understand them, she admits, “I am not Caesar.” Almost inadvertently, these first two metaphors for the din in the box employ exemplary instances from history of domination: the slave trade, white colonization of non-white countries, and autocracy. These political structures, then, are related to the formal structure that controls and contains content. This is the role she rejects in claiming not to be Caesar. Finally, she tries to speak more directly, but even this effort produces a metaphor: “I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.” This line is a continuation of her preceding disclaimer: I am not a tyrant who wants to dominate the bees; I simply ordered a bee hive, but it has turned out to be more than I bargained for. Further, however, it too offers a metaphor of power relations--the mental asylum--this time one that the speaker can perhaps identify with more easily since, in “The Bee Meeting,” she felt herself becoming the maniac in the box.

Realizing now that she is obliged to the box at least for the night, she senses the danger she is in and toys first with the idea of abdicating her power, “They can be sent back” (the passive voice construction is not accidental), then immediately with the idea of exerting it, “They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.” Clearly, the poem views such power as corrupting, for as soon as she assumes the position of authority (“I am the owner”), she becomes aware of her total control (“They can die”).

Fortunately for the bees, the role of autocrat is not one she relishes; thus, instead of executing her control over them, she wonders “how hungry they are”--a line that reveals she is probably not capable of withholding food from them. (Even the syntax of the line that proposes not to feed them is contorted to throw emphasis on the likelihood that she will care for them: the affirmative phrase “I need feed them” comes first and then, as an unconvincing afterthought, the negative word “nothing.”) Indeed, she would like to feed them, or better, to set them free, but she cannot tell how they will treat her if they are liberated. Turning again to the protective myth of Daphne, she tries to imagine freeing them without harm to herself: “I wonder if they would forget me / If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree. . . . / They might ignore me immediately.” These lines are actually quite strange. She does not wonder if the bees will attack her but if they will “forget” her, as though her connection to them is more profound and binding than that of a customer who has just purchased a hive. Likewise, the choice of the word “immediately” suggests a concern with duration rather than with the imminent event of their assault. This language also indicates that she has some prior connection to the bees. In the reading I am pursuing, this connection parallels a career of writing that shuts up her imaginative vitality in rigid forms. The bees, then, represent her own repressed feelings, and she dreads the possibility of being overcome by her own memories and outrages. Would she ever be able to forget the slights and injustices? Would the feelings immediately consume her? The “unintelligible syllables” causing the commotion in the box are the sounds of her own anger and fury, and it is her inability to articulate an outrage that she can nevertheless hear that “appalls [her] most of all.”

The allusion to Daphne in this poem is not merely an image for the speaker’s isolated problem; rather it represents other women as well. She recognizes precedents for the metamorphosis: “There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades, / And the petticoats of the cherry.” Here for the first time she detects the traces of other women in these trees, their blondness and their petticoats. To refuse the metamorphosis is to attempt to remain in the world as she is, an extremely vulnerable position for a woman (even more so for a woman writer). It necessitates protective gear that is hardly less alienating than bark and leaves, a “moon suit and funeral veil.” Moreover, the gear that is meant to protect her human vulnerability seems instead to dehumanize her (the moon suit suggests her strangeness).

In a last effort to find a way to release the bees without risking injury, she reasons that since she is “no source of honey,” they have no cause to attack her. Yet she overlooks the irony that whoever liberates the bees must inevitably be exposed to danger. This point is conveyed through the verbal play on “honey” and “sweet”: “I am no source of honey / So why should they turn on me? Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.” Ironically, by being sweet she will be like the honey that the bees are after; in fact, it is her sweetness--her desire to help and her willingness to release the bees--that makes her so vulnerable. On all levels of the poem, the beekeeper opening the box, the woman giving vent to repressed emotions, or the poet uncovering her real subjects, the liberator will likely get hurt.

“The Arrival of the Bee Box” is the only poem in the sequence that exceeds the five-line stanza pattern. It closes with an extra line--significantly, a line about form that the form of the poem is not able to contain--that asserts “The box is only temporary.” This final utterance not only announces the inevitable displacement of the box but also outstrips the formal boundaries set by the poem (and the sequence). The speaker will release the bees. The content will exceed the form. More important, of course, the hand that penned the apocalyptic last line will remove its asbestos glove.


In “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” Plath writes an omnisciently authorial and colonizing “I.” The poem begins with the claim “I ordered this, this clean wood box.” With this line, Plath introduces us to the speaker as commander and requistioner. The speaker imparts that the box is “locked” and “dangerous” and that she cannot see into it. In the third stanza, when she puts her “eye to the grid,” the speaker discerns layers of blackness and darkness that she associates with “the swarmy feeling of African hands.” At this moment in the poem, the box metaphorically becomes a vessel carrying slavelike creatures from Africa, “Black on black, angrily clambering.” In the following stanza, the speaker, having somewhat adjusted to the visual aspects of the black on black creatures, proclaims that the noise they make appalls her. She describes their language as “unintelligible syllables” and expresses fear of them as a mass. In this role as white spectator of the Other, Plath’s speaker expresses utter disgust with Otherness. She diminishes her fear of this threatening collective by assuring herself that “they can be sent back.” After all, she asserts, these creatures are her commodities: “They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.” We read the poem as one in which Plath experiments with the various roles endowed upon white peoples and thereby explores how she, as a white woman, best fits the various molds of whiteness.

Immediately upon having soothed herself by proclaiming her ownership of and, therefore, power over the black creatures in the box, she permits herself a moment of compassion in which she “wonders how hungry they are.” In this white role, the speaker envisions herself as provider for Others. The next line swiftly undercuts her moment of tenderness by shifting the white role from that of caretaker to that of self-preservation. In this new role, the speaker wonders whether the black creatures would forget her should she set them free. Concern about their forgetting her suggests that she might want credit and homage for freeing them, and as well, she might want them to overlook her mistreatment of them. Upon wondering about their ability to disremember her, she suggests that they might be far more attracted to a laburnum, which she personifies as blond and female. In this white role, she vacillates between wanting credit for her liberal compassion and wanting the security of knowing that other, more superlative white women, the exotic blondes, exist to distract the black creatures away from desiring her.

In the last stanza, the speaker explores the ultimate white role, that of God: “Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.” Van Dyne suggests that in “Arrival of the Bee Box,” Plath is “mimicking male hierarchies” and “toying with the freedom that male authority might bring”. Broe, too, recognizes Plath’s play with power, but she claims that ultimately the speaker concedes to the power of the creatures when she promises in the last line that the box will be temporary. The fact that the poem ends with the creatures still boxed and with freedom rescheduled for tomorrow does not signify a concession nor mere mimicry of male authority. The white female speaker in “Arrival of the Bee Box” displays a determined complicity of her own in prolonging the enslavement of black creatures.

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