In Listening to the Bees, two writers of different genres undertake the seemingly impossible task of creating an organic osmosis of scientific knowledge and poetry through the language of bees. In his preface, Mark L.Winston (a scientist and bee expert) states that while “[b]ees provide superb opportunities for… subterranean layer[s] of reflection” through scientific research, there is a need to “prob[e] further.” His desire to “listen” to the bees goes beyond rational inquiry, leading to this collaborative project with Saklikar, an Indian-born Canadian poet. The book is an artefact of scientific ruminations on bees, poetry by Renée Sarojini Saklikar based on Winston’s scientific papers, and photographs, images, and drawings by both authors.
There is a narrative flow to many of the essays and poems. “The One-Room Schoolhouse,” for instance, is an essay where Winston deals with the recording of bees, followed by a poem by Saklikar. The poet delves into the fossils of preserved bees in “embedded and set,” tracing a geography of language that highlights terrain and space in “derived from” and “that photograph, framed” to the still form of the preserved bee and its call (“o sing to us, they said”) in the rest of the poem. Here both scientist and poet seem to be in symbiosis. Later, however, this symbiosis is interrupted. While the cadence of Winston’s voice changes halfway through his essays, Saklikar’s poems do not seem to fit into that vocal shift. The essays transition from personal accounts to eco-politics, and delve into community building and research efforts into sustainable agriculture, moving from the personal to the communal, whereas Saklikar’s poems look into the world of bees through the self.
In “the legend of the bees,” Saklikar refers to her own anointment ceremony as a baby, where her forehead was anointed with honey so that it “drew bees to dance around her” (Winston, “Preface”). The poem describes the hidden process of flowers attracting bees in cosmic terms, likening the flower/tree to “Mahalakshmi,” the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. The bees here are like devotees of Mahalakshmi, where their “time” with the goddess is suspended, “[a]lmost… [a] tree-clock teleology.” Saklikar’s use of religious references to explain the way bees function is evident in “bee-raga to Bhramari Devi.” The visual poem mimics the beating wings of a bee on the page, while dealing with the duality of imagery (mystical versus personal) that surrounds her understanding of bees.
There is a ritual haunting quality to some of Saklikar’s poems in the way they repeat and invoke the language of scientific process. Whether it’s in the rhythmic cadence of the villanelle in “hollow wax,” or the almost incantatory “all along that hedgerow,” we see a conscious awareness of her play with form. This play with formal verse allows Winston’s otherwise strict, temporal and plodding scientific language to flow through the structures of poetic verse, and the two voices come out almost as a dance, like the dance of bees.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.