Monday, November 24, 2008

James K. Baxter: Wild Bees

In a pleasant exchange of letters on the subject of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, by Nikos Kazantzakis, a reader in Atlanta told me that the poet’s multiple references to honey reminded him of “Wild Bees” by New Zealand poet James K. Baxter (1926-1972). That poem in turn reminded me of a strange little story I wrote in 1997, and later included in a Notebook entry. Here is Baxter’s poem, as harvested from this forum page, which also includes several more of his poems:

Wild Bees

Often in summer, on a tarred bridge plank standing,
Or downstream between willows, a safe Ophelia drifting
In a rented boat — I had seen them comes and go,
Those wild bees, swift as tigers, their gauze wings a-glitter
In passionless industry, clustering black at the crevice
Of a rotten cabbage tree, where their hive was hidden low

But never strolled too near. Till one half-cloudy evening
Of ripe January, my friends and I
Came, gloved and masked to the eyes like plundering desperadoes,
To smoke them out. Quiet beside the stagnant river
We trod wet grasses down, hearing the crickets chitter
And waiting for light to drain from the wounded sky.

Before we reached the hive their sentries saw us
And sprang invisible through the darkening air.
Stabbed, and died in stinging. The hive woke. Poisonous fuming
Of sulphur filled the hollow trunk, and crawling
Blue flames sputtered — yet still their suicidal
Live raiders dived and clung to our hands and hair.

O it was Carthage under the Roman torches,
Or loud with flames and falling timber, Troy!
A job well botched. Half of the honey melted
And half the rest young grubs. Through earth-black smouldering ashes
And maimed bee groaning, we drew our plunder.
Little enough their gold, and slight our joy.

Fallen then the city of instinctive wisdom.
Tragedy is written distinct and small:
A hive burned on a cool night in summer.
But loss is a precious stone to me, a nectar
Distilled in time, preaching the truth of winter
To the fallen heart that does not cease to fall.

A new haiku, “Page One,” added to Songs and Letters. Also: a short poem, “Traveler,” added November 16, 2008, but overlooked.

1 comment:

Joseph Hutchison said...

Baxter is terrific. I need to track him down in print. (Yes, I still have a paper-bound reading addiction...)