Karen Ford: On "The Swarm"

The sense of anonymity that opens "The Swarm" (215-17)--"Somebody is shooting at something in our town"--has the opposite effect of the atmosphere of anonymity in "The Bee Meeting." In the earlier poem, the speaker’s inability to distinguish the identities of others serves to heighten her own extreme subjectivity. Here, however, the speaker is not concerned with determining who the particular actors are; on the contrary, the poem will argue that "somebody" is ultimately "everybody."26

In "The Swarm" the speaker parallels her own personal story with world history; however, unlike a later poem such as "Daddy" (222-24) that makes historical facts a questionable image for private feelings ("Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. . . . / I think I may well be a Jew"), "The Swarm" extends its interest outward to others. Only in the first stanza does the speaker briefly account for the shooting in terms of her own experience: "Jealousy can open the blood, / It can make black roses." Her first impulse when she hears the shooting is to think what would motivate her to violence--jealousy. She indulges her imagination in one vivid metaphor--that visualizes blood-saturated gunshot wounds as "black roses"27--but then immediately turns to the larger question: "Who are they shooting at?"

The voice that emerges in the second stanza to answer this question is powerfully accusatory, marshaling a variety of rhetorical resources to the task of declaring an important truth about history. It begins, "It is you the knives are out for / At Waterloo, Waterloo, Napoleon"; the long, repeated u-sound of "Waterloo" echoes the direct indictment, "It is you," and insistently recalls the place name of his crushing defeat. The image of the throats is used again in this poem to suggest victimization and vulnerability--the facts about the masses that "somebody" like Napoleon would deny:

Shh! These are chess people you play with, Still figures of ivory. The mud squirms with throats, Stepping stones for French bootsoles. The gilt and pink domes of Russia melt and float off

In the furnace of greed.

The narrative of Napoleonic aggression is interwoven with that of the swarm. The bees have swarmed into the top of a tree; the sound of the gun shots is supposed to draw them down (it is not the case, as some readers suggest, that the man is actually shooting into the hive). The bees, like "everybody," have learned that the lesson of history is violence:

So the swarm balls and deserts

Seventy feet up, in a black pine tree.

It must be shot down. Pom! Pom!

So dumb it thinks bullets are thunder.

 

It thinks they are the voice of God

Condoning the beak, the claw, the grin of the dog

Yellow-haunched, a pack-dog,

Grinning over its bone of ivory

Like the pack, the pack, like everybody.

The bees "argu[ing], in their black ball," the "yellow-haunched" pack-dog, Napoleon with "The hump of Elba on [his] short back, the "man with the gray hands" (whose hands turn out not to be human hands at all but "asbestos receptacles") all appear stooped and deformed by violence. Each has learned hostility at the hands of the other and chooses to return it, believing that the sound of aggression is "the voice of God." In fact, the gunman’s excuse for shooting at the swarm is that "They would have killed me."

The pervasiveness of violence is what allows Napoleon to be "pleased" at the end of the poem, even despite his own defeat at Waterloo. The weapons of the bees, "Stings big as drawing pins!" (their version of the "knives" and "cutlery" and possibly an image suggesting map pins used by military strategists to pinpoint battle sites), prove to him that the "bees have a notion of honor / A black intractable mind." Like the swarming drudges in "Stings" who attack the scapegoat in an act of self-sacrifice for the hive, the bees in "The Swarm" also lay down their lives for the pack. "Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything" because he recognizes that "everyone," indeed "everything," condones the beak and the claw.

The speaker, however, knows from witnessing the self-destruction of the bees in "Stings" that violent retribution is not "worth it"; she comes to "The Swarm" from "Stings" able to confront the abuses of history because she is not susceptible to the lesson they teach. Yet the task of confronting such a history is strenuous. Not surprisingly, the poem employs excess as if to steel itself against its own revelations. The stylistics of excess can be heard in "The Swarm" in the alliteration ("Somebody is shooting at something" and at every repetition), the assonance ("The man with gray hands stands," "marshals, admirals, generals," "black intractable mind,"), the frequent repetitions ("pom, pom" [repeated eight times], "Waterloo, Waterloo," "Mass after mass," "Shh! // Shh!" "Clouds, Clouds," "The pack, the pack," "Elba, Elba," "Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything"), the buckling anagram ("Elba, Elba, bleb on the sea!") and the onomatopoeic "pom, pom." Additionally, the poem ricochets from metaphor to simile as the parallel between Napoleon’s army and the bees provides constant opportunity for analogy. Thus, the speaker, who has been striving throughout the sequence to relinquish verbal excesses, discovers in "The Swarm" the efficacy of such a style once more. The poetic excess that characterizes the poem is, I think, necessitated by the speaker’s attempt to square off against history. What she confronts in the poem is the same oppression she experiences in her private life--played out on a world scale. Understandably, then, the tactics that enabled her to withstand her own hardships permit her to address the suffering of others as well.

From Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permission of the author

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Karen Ford: On "The Swarm" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Karen Ford Criticism Target Sylvia Plath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 29 Jan 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags Ford, Stings

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