Rose Kamel

Rose Kamel: On "The Arrival of the Bee Box"

In "Arrival of the Bee Box" and "The Swarm." the victim’s counter-aggression takes a political rather than sexual form. In the former the persona-beekeeper contemplates a box of dangerously noisy bees:

The box is locked, it is dangerous

I have to live with it overnight

And I can’t keep away from it.

There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.

There is only a little grid, no exit.

 

I put my eye to the grid

It is dark, dark,

With the swarmy feeling of African hands

Minute and shrunk for export,

Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?

The bees now resemble exploited blacks in the Third World. Their mood is sustained by a series of link verbs, bound in a syntax written primarily in the active voice to suggest a much less helpless persona. As a kind of Pandora she toys with the notion of unleashing their violence on the world: "Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free. / The box is only temporary." Their release, however, would not ensure her safety, for their political instability has a long history:

It is like a Roman mob,

Small, taken one by one, but my God, together!

 

I lay my ear to furious Latin.

I am not a Caesar.

The "bees’" contemporary restlessness has a historic precedent that portends disaster for Pandora as well as for their political oppressors. Thus she contemplates disguising herself once again—first as a tree, then as a spacewoman:

I wonder if they would forget me

If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.

There is the aburnum, its blond colonnades

And the petticoats of the cherry

 

They might ignore me immediately

In my moon suit and funeral veil

I am no source of honey

So why should they turn on me?

But she contemplates donning these disguises after she has released the bees. The impulse to hide from forces beyond her control like those in "The Bee Meeting" exhibits in "The Arrival of the Bee Box" the "fingers in the ears" gesture of one who has every intention of unleashing violent aggression upon the world.

From "'A Self to Recover': Sylvia Plath’s Bee Cycle Poems." Modern Poetry Studies 4.3 (1973)

Rose Kamel: On "The Bee Meeting"

Given the problematic quality of both personal and collective existence, the persona moves toward death amid attempts to evade it. In "The Bee Meeting," she tries to evade a social milieu that moves in on her relentlessly. Her flight takes the form first of social disguise and then of stasis. The poem introduces us to villager-beekeepers who present a frightening picture of social sham:

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? they are the villagers— 

The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees

In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,

And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?

They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

In contrast to the heavily veiled, protective disguises of the villagers, the persona wears only a sleeveless dress, and her separation from them is emphasized by the juxtaposition of "I" and "they": "I have no protection—they are all gloved and covered"; "why did nobody tell me?—They are smiling." The repetition of sibilants—"sleeveless," "summery," "smiling," "hats"—in a diction with clearly wholesome connotations gives us an eerie, nightmarish feeling and a sense of something thing familiar gone awry.

The persona’s dominant impulse is to resist her exposure to an expansive and threatening milieu that encompasses the natural world as well.

[….]

The secretary of bees tries to turn her into an officially costumed beekeeper, but this attempt only increases the persona’s terror. She assumes the disguise of "milkweed silk," an inanimate and consequently a safer means of evading both the rigidity of village social life and the aggressive power of the bees. Yet even in such evasions reversals of order augment her sense of nightmare. One reversal involves the menacing animation of inanimate objects: the winking tinfoil, feather dusters with hands, black-eyed bean-flowers, and "leaves like bored hearts." Another reversal occurs in the violation of the bees’ natural domestic pattern when the villagers smoke the bees out of the snug hive:

[….]

The bees react hysterically and become the "outriders" of such poems as "Stings" and "The Swarm," while the speaker disguises herself as a passive vegetable—"cow parsley." Plath reinforces this resistance to exposure in the depiction of the old queen bee for whom the villagers are searching:

[….]

Although she identifies with the queen, the persona differs in a fundamental respect. Despite the fact that she must inevitably be supplanted by a new queen, the old bee remains secure in the pattern of the hive; her role within the natural hierarchy defines her being. The persona’s terror, on the other hand, cannot be assuaged in the ritual of nature and her surreal ceremonial interplay with the villagers only whittles away at a nebulous sense of identity. Her sole recourse lies in yet another disguise, ultimately that of the "magician’s girl who does not flinch" from the shower of knives that threatens her with extinction

"The Bee Meeting"’s questions are really ontological ones, reaffirmed through link verbs such as "They are," "I am," "it is," and "is it?" For Plath "being" and "female being" are virtually the same, and for the persona, to be female is to be manipulated by nature, history, and inevitably by contemporary politics—and either openly or more obliquely to be threatened with death. To succumb to the terror of extinction means self-annihilation. To resist it makes for the dramatic tension that permeates the poems. The persona constantly resists the impulse to flee or to retreat into psychic stasis. Given the state of extremity in the poems, she resists in three basic ways: through flight, through counter-aggression that is both sexual and political, and through a stoic endurance of horror.

From "'A Self to Recover': Sylvia Plath’s Bee Cycle Poems." Modern Poetry Studies 4.3 (1973)