Bee Dance by Cathy Cain
The Poetry Box (June 15, 2019), 87 pp, $16
ISBN #: 978-1948461221
Available at: https://thepoetrybox.com/bookstore/bee-dance
In Bee Dance, Portland poet Cathy Cain brings a fresh take to one of the most venerable themes in modern poetry: the troubled relationship between the natural world and human society.In 51 tightly crafted poems, Cain explores her theme from a full circuit of perspectives, contemplating such issues as the link between poetic creativity and natural genesis, the alienation engendered by digital technology, and the generative power of women.
From its very first poem “Hint of Hexagon,” Bee Dance leaves no doubt about its primary concern: the lack of harmony between nature and human creations. The poem begins with a speaker reading the news and seeking a safer read / beyond the headlines. She recallsa story she saw earlier about Saturn’s north pole and how it gathers and swirls in a handsome hexagon. Realizing this fearsome harmony also is found on Earth, she focuses on the clean design of the honeycomb, contrasting it with the amorphous perversity of human designs.
But all is not lost for the human race. Another news story says our own nerve tracts, / may also be loosely packed / as if in a beehive / a hint of hexagon. The poem concludes with a lovely stanza that gives us the book’s title:
The pleasure of pattern
through the rough human expanse
between perfect flower and honey trance
I could show you where I’ve been
do my best bee dance
Bee Dance never loses focus on this theme. The final poem “La Lune de Miel” echoes the first by contrasting the hexagon of bee life with the sway of human curve. In between these points, Cain’s reflections unfold like a flower, with each new poem forming a petal that grows in a fresh direction from the stem. In some poems, humans find awestruck connections with nature; in others, they are at odds with it in ways they don’t understand. Some poems have naturalistic Northwest settings; others are dream-like and mythic. Some are optimistic, others pessimistic.
All of the poems feature surprising images presented in a lyrical free verse that often adapts traditional forms. Several of my favorites were free-verse sonnets with strong conceits and echoes of traditional rhyme schemes. “Without Defense,”for example, uses a portrait of two young surfers to subtly warn of the dangers in taking nature for granted. The poem begins with a quatrain that features very direct rhymes:
Their swim suits mimic the surf’s crisp blue sheen,
bare skin echoes wet sand, dark and rich.
Two young brothers, maybe twelve and fourteen.
One waits. One skims. Then they switch in the morning mist.
The rhyme scheme relaxes in the second and third stanzas, which portray the boys’ bravado as they laugh and wager against cold waves and boiling sea, even when they’re crashing without defense. The final quatrain ends with a concerned question: When will the sure surge roar in / to undo their cool, upright innocence? The poem closes with a couplet true to its Shakespearean heritage:
For now, engaging the sea with a glinting glide,
they throw the board, thinking only of the ride.
As well as critiquing humanity’s engagement with nature, Bee Dance celebrates the joy to be found in intimate relationships with non-human life. For instance, “Planting Spring Bulbs,”a very short poem near the end of the book, uses simple, affecting language to show how the creative power of women expresses the power of the Earth:
the way this earth mounds up
as new life surges
I touch your belly
like the sun
More complex lyrics portray this unity as the fruit of determined searching. “Sitting Cross-Legged in the Forest, I BecomePeziza, an Upturned Cup Mushroom”uses a free-verse variation on terza rima to portray a speaker longing for communion with nature as she meditates. The first of the poem’s seven tercets describes how a gesture used in Buddhist meditation suggests a mushroom awaiting rain:
My hands form a cup of spores, each an ornamented dream.
Come now, rain, with your clear and focused drops,
splash my spores far into this forest gleam.
After calling on the breeze to touch my smooth curve, the speaker recalls earlier contemplative efforts and declares my secret source of growth / has prospered. As her meditation deepens, her silence bursts and reveries rise together. The poem ends in expectancy:
I remain ready to greet the rain.
Listen for the longing of letters, hungry
to reveal my name.
Other poems find Cain fleeing digital culture to connect with the natural world through poetry. In “Dream of a List of Names,”the speaker begins by asserting I will live in the forest with the fairies. To fulfill this dream, she must hold in her heart the list of our names… that were caught in our ruthless digital life. Having hacked the machines, she rescues our names and takes up the poet’s work:
Now among the trees I drip an inky trail
With my feather quill I rewrite our names by hand
She ends by wishing all of us back into our dreams, which lead to an Edenic forest:
damp earth scented fir
the forest canopy sways
bursts with the light of birds
To Cain’s credit, as I finished Bee Dance, I found myself struggling with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was sad to be reminded so poignantly that a vein mined by poets from Wordsworth to Merwin remains so rich and disastrously relevant. On the other hand, I was glad to be reassured that we can still dance with the bees and love the voices of our poets.
Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in Verseweavers, Children, Churches and Daddies, and Currents, a journal published by the Body-Mind Centering Association. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019. He is a two-time finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest.