Humans have set the realm of nature too far away. Emily Dickinson teaches me this. She sits beside me on the bench and tells me to look down at the bees in the grass. She points to the housewife in the ruddy sky.
Emily tells me that we have set a boundary at the space where the wall meets the outside air, where the door opens to the porch, where the shelter we have built keeps us from the elements we do not control. But her poetry defies this imposed line between humans and nature. By blurring the distinction between outer and inner worlds, natural and domestic, her lyrics disorder our definition of home. What does it mean to dwell within the world as a human being who is only a part of a whole? What does it mean to consider that it is a home for more than humanity?
I am a single bead of water on the “trembling web of being.”
Denise Levertov wrote that line in her essay on poetry and prophecy. Love of the world means openness. It means expansion rather than constriction. It means writing poems that are not necessarily welcome in your cultural milieu. It means acting out with your life what you say on the page. It means “a poetry of peace, a poetry of protest, of lament, of praise for the living earth; a poetry that demands justice, renounces violence, reveres mystery.” In order to write out of this engaged stance, the poet must be willing to trace “the interdependence of all things” in order to “reveal that unity, that trembling web of being” that underlies the world in which we live. And his or her poetry must reflect that web of being, working to connect, to manifest belief that there is no separation between humans, our actions, and the world we call our home.
Emily was a prophet. Quiet, volcanic, drawing connections between this and this in order to see. Although she wasn’t standing in the town square of Amherst, making her proclamations, she was writing a long letter to the world over the course of her life. And she meant for us to read this letter. It was her life’s work to discover and ponder the world; it was her life’s work to be faithful to her visions, which she left for us in her bedroom: all those tiny books, sewn up with thread, ready for discovery.
One vision of Emily’s that stays with us is her fondness for bees, which must stem from those countless days spent in her beloved garden. Bees appear again and again in her poems – from the bee “shod with Gauze” and helmeted with gold to the bee brewing “a honey’s weight.” Even the bee is invoked as a member of a holy trinity, one familiar to all who sit outside on a spring day: “In the name of the Bee – / And of the Butterfly – / And of the Breeze – Amen!” She writes that “Of Nature I shall have enough / When I have entered these / Entitled to a Bumble bee’s / Familiarities.” Emily desires to be a member of the world that we often overlook – to meet the intricacy of a flower’s pistils, to bump against the underside of a tulip’s petal. To enter this world is the greatest union she could wish.
Throughout her poetry, she seeks out the particulars. To take part in the small means everything. Nature is not a grand spectacle, or somewhere out there far away. Nature is as close as the bee in the flower next to her hand; it is as close as her desire to become the bee that enters the flower.
I look to Emily as my guide, she who prophesies and explores the consciousness not only of human beings but also of flowers, bees, bodies of water, hills, storms, and trees. Her work underscores the truth that the world of nature is ours and that it possesses us, too. There is no separation, no boundary.
And if no separation, I must imagine myself in many places and as many creatures, and wish, like Emily, “‘But just to be a Bee’ / Upon a Raft of Air / And row in Nowhere all Day long.” And if I imagine myself differently, if I see myself as possessing a bee’s consciousness, alive in the wind, ready to visit the clover – then I can finally understand that to destroy a bee, or anything of this earth, also destroys me.
Jo Vance lives and writes in Seattle, Washington, where she also strives to have a garden like Emily’s. She received her MFA from Seattle Pacific University’s creative writing program, and is currently at work on a book of essays.
Top: Yard at Emily Dickinson Museum. Photo by Jo Vance.
Middle: Wikimedia commons
Bottom: Photo by Jo Vance
One thought on ““Just to be a bee”: An Essay by Jo Vance”
To Jo and Emily: The world, in its sunderedness, thanks you for the heartfelt words and thoughts. To be a bee indeed. If only we would see, truly see . . .