by Jehanne Dubrow | Contributing Writer
Each night before bed, I eat a slippery spoonful of raw honey. Derived from the nectar of mānuka trees in New Zealand, it’s thought to have medicinal purposes. Some people use it to treat skin infections and open wounds. I take it because it’s thick and dark, with a slight shadow of the bitter; I prefer sweet things that resist giving in entirely to syrupy, cloying sweetness.
That great philosopher of the Ursidae family, Winnie-the-Pooh, Bear of Very Little Brain, tells Christopher Robin what he likes “best in the world” is the “moment just before” one begins to eat from a pot of honey. Perhaps what Pooh loves is the imagining—his thoughts buzzing like a bee in search of a cluster of yellow flowers—that precedes the first taste. Even for a bear, I suspect, honey can be too sweet at times, while the anticipation of honey contains more complexity: the pine tree’s needling bitterness, the green of clover, the wispy purples of heather.
In her lecture “Madness, Rack, and Honey,” the poet Mary Ruefle writes about what she calls “the honey of poetry,” explaining that what makes the artform miraculous is its transformative effects: “once there was a blank page—scary!—now there is something in its place that is attracting flies.” She quotes a brief Persian verse: “I shall not finish my poem. / What I have written is so sweet / the flies are beginning to torment me.” According to Ruefle, sweetness defines the process of writing poems. The making of metaphor is an event the poet experiences; it leads to the discovery “that everything in the world is connected.” To make a metaphor, after all, is to bring together, surprisingly, luminously, two unlike things.
But while poetry offers the writer a taste of honey, it causes problems too. Ruefle reminds us that “honey has its complications.” It summons flies with its yellow-orange sugar. This is the rack of poetry, she explains. It is a torture device, causing the poet to put a strain on language, and the words, in return, stretching the poet “beyond normal extent.”
The second problem of poetry is the madness of how it is stored inside us. Ruefle recounts a story of a soldier, “wounded, dazed” at Hiroshima. Standing among the devastations of the city, he comes across a group of women who cry out in horror at his injuries. When he sees the women’s reactions to his pain, the soldier is reminded of a poem by Li Po he read thirty years before. “For the first time,” he realizes that the text “was not just a piece of skillful description, but a work of intense emotion.” Ruefle is amazed by this anecdote: “There’s the madness of honey—a poem by Li Po! after thirty years!—and there’s the madness of rack that was Hiroshima. That they are capable of exchanging energy is what I mean by madness.”
A poem’s sweetness leads to its own devouring. As readers, we are flies consuming language the way we might eat servings of honey straight from the jar. It’s easy to swallow all that liquidized sugar. It goes down smoothly. “The madness of poetry is that it creates sweetness,” writes Ruefle, “so that the flies might come and eat it till it is gone.”
In her memoir, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A Year of Keeping Bees, Helen Jukes recounts the first time she announced to other people that she might “get a beehive.” The response from a colleague was a single word. “Madness.” Jukes is less interested, however, in honey, than she is in learning whether it’s possible for us to keep a thing as wild as a bee. Can these whirring, waggling creatures really be kept? Or do they simply choose to use the human-made homes they’re offered, because the wooden frames provide some protection from the rain and wind?
Jukes spends a year looking after a hive positioned at the edge of her small garden in Oxford, worrying daily about the colony. She wonders whether it might be possible to come to know each bee intimately, to see each one as an individual, to know each distinct voice. A bee lands on her hand, and she studies its mandibles. “Everything about her is somewhere between reaching and receiving,” Jukes observes; the bee “probes the world, tastes and touches it, as she bites and chews it.” In Jukes’s understanding, the bee is a creature incapable of leaving the landscape untransformed, pollen sticking to the insect’s body like a nubby, multicolored cloth, nectar sloshing in the stomach, waiting to be changed into honey.
As for the honey, Jukes writes that it “doesn’t come from heaven as Aristotle suggested but from nectar, which is contained within the glands of plants—a thin and easily spoiled liquid that is converted by the worker bees into a stable, highly concentrated and high-energy food source.” Worker bees use the proboscis, a tongue shaped like a straw, to slurp the nectar from flowers. Then they return to the hive, where they pass the sweet liquid on to bees too young to wander in the larger world. The nectar is processed in their mouths and stomachs, enzymes altering its flavor and composition. Next the bees deposit it in small hexagonal compartments. The colony fans it with their thousands of wings until the temperature inside rises and the nectar begins to evaporate. Nectar is converted to honey once its water content reduces to approximately 20%. Finally, the bees seal the six-sided containers with a lid of wax, readying the honey for storage.
Conversion, it seems to me, is a synonym for metaphor. Nectar starts as a clear fluid and is transformed by its contact with bees into something dense and golden, viscous, occasionally crystalized and creamy. This transfiguration helps to explain why honey is so suited to the figurative. Honey is everywhere in the Song of Songs, the beloved’s mouth filled with it, sweet as it. In The Iliad, Achilles speaks of anger as sweeter than dripping honey. Sappho mourns both the absence of honey and the honeybee from her life.
And then there is the honey of Emily Dickinson’s stitched packets of poems, what she called fascicles, a word that comes from biology, meaning bundle of nerves or muscle fibers, and from botany too, meaning the vascular tissue in certain kinds of plants. Dickinson’s poems practically hum with bees, the bee compared to fame, the bee an interlocutor, a thing with pedigree, a creature forever circling the clover.
In a letter from 1884 that she sent to her friend Elizabeth Holland, Dickinson enclosed these four quick lines:
Within that little Hive
Such Hints of Honey lay
As made Reality a Dream
And Dreams, Reality—
Here, the honey in the comb leads the mind toward musing. And why not? The interior of a hive must be a place of discombobulating sweetness, all that sound and heat, the shivering of wings, the vivid smell of pollen and the queen’s pheromones, the movements of the colony both real and dreamlike. The poem ends before we’ve barely started reciting the words. It demands we reread it, that we try to imagine honey as a medium through which thought might flow, dreams and reality moving in the closed circuit of the bees’ community.
I’m reminded again of Ruefle’s story of the soldier at Hiroshima. That a poem and a site of atrocity can be linked, “[t]hat they are capable of exchanging energy”—this is what Ruefle calls the relationship between madness, rack, and honey.
A friend once gave me a photograph of dozens of jars of honey for sale at a farmer’s market. She took the picture in the Polish town of Oświęcim, a place that most of the world knows as Auschwitz. “Miód Naturalny,” reads the label on each jar. Natural honey. The contents glow like Baltic amber. The whole picture shimmers as if the honey has thickened the sunlight to glittering liquid. The composition is entirely beautiful.
I was standing beside my friend when she pointed her camera toward the display of local honey. “That will be a spectacular picture,” I said. And it was. As she snapped the shot, I was already thinking about the sonnet I would write.
Without context, a viewer would not know that madness and rack are held within the honey. A viewer would not know that, beyond the frame of the photograph, one of the death camps was only a short walk from where we stood. Not far from us were barbed wire perimeters but also the grasses thick with wildflowers and even the nectar waiting for the pointed, inquisitive touch of bees.
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of nine poetry collections, including most recently Wild Kingdom (Louisiana State University Press, 2021), and a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes (New River Press, 2019). “Such Hints of Honey” appears in her second book of creative nonfiction, Taste: A Book of Small Bites, which will be published by Columbia University Press in 2022. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review. She is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.