Grammy Award-Winning Jazz Vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant Reads Audre Lorde’s Poignant Poem “The Bees”
A fierce anthem for the alternative to destruction.
By Maria Popova
Bees hum the essential harmonics in the symphony of life — crucial pollinators responsible for our planet’s diversity, responsible for the flourishing of the entire food chain, responsible even for Earth’s resplendent colors. It is hardly a wonder that they have long moved poets, those essential harmonizers of human life, to rapture and reverie. Emily Dickinson reverenced “their velvet masonry,” Walt Whitman their “their perpetual rich mellow boom” and “great glistening swelling bodies,” and Ross Gay their murmured assurance, “saying everything is possible.”
And yet these tiny, tenacious creatures, older than us by millions and millions of years, now face the very real possibility of demise by colony collapse disorder — a direct consequence of the destructive choices we have made as a species. It is a terrifying thought, the possibility that the honey our ancestors took from them to tuck into the tombs of Egypt — a substance so miraculous that its deliciousness remains unspoiled by the passage of millennia — might outlast the entire species that makes the miracle.
It took another of humanity’s great poets to insist that against every choice of destruction, there is always the choice of creation; that against the extractionist, there is always the generative, against the exclusionary, always the inclusionary and the generous.
Half a century after Bertrand Russell observed that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it,” Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) — a human miracle who catalogued herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and who became Poet Laureate of New York in the final year of her tragically truncated life — draws on these miraculous creatures for a delicate and powerful illustration of this counterbalance in her poem “The Bees,” originally written in 1974 and posthumously included the excellent anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (public library) pollinated by poet and essayist Camille T. Dungy.
At the fourth annual Universe in Verse, Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant — whose unexampled one-woman orchestral storytelling masterpiece Ogresse, a lyrical meditation on race, otherness, belonging, and becoming, is one of the most original and breathtaking works of art I’ve ever seen — brought Lorde’s poem to life in a spare, stunning reading:
by Audre Lorde
In the street outside a school
what the children learn
Little boys yell as they stone a flock of bees
trying to swarm
between the lunchroom window and an iron grate.
The boys sling furious rocks
smashing the windows.
The bees, buzzing their anger,
are slow to attack.
Then one boy is stung
into quicker destruction
and the school guards come
long wooden sticks held out before them
they advance upon the hive
beating the almost finished rooms of wax apart
mashing the new tunnels in
while fresh honey drips
down their broomsticks
and the little boy feet becoming expert
trample the remaining and bewildered bees
into the earth.
Curious and apart
four little girls look on in fascination
learning a secret lesson
and trying to understand their own destruction.
One girl cries out
“Hey, the bees weren’t making any trouble!”
and she steps across the feebly buzzing ruins
to peer up at the empty, grated nook
“We could have studied honey-making!”
For a conceptually kindred forgotten treasure, reach back across the epochs to George Sand’s only children’s book — a bee-inspired parable about choosing generosity and kindness over cynicism and destruction — then join me in supporting Cécile’s soulful art on Patreon and revisit Lorde on kinship across difference and the importance of unity in movements for social justice, the indivisibility of identity, and the courage to break silence.
For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor James Baldwin’s humanistic-scientific meditation on light and time set to song, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Marie Howe’s poignant poem about our inter-belonging in an animated short film, and a breathtaking choral tribute to Rachel Carson’s courage by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and composer Paola Prestini.
Published June 1, 2020