I often wonder how difficult it is for writers to select which pieces of their work they will include in a collection. The burning question for them must be – what to put in or leave out? No doubt this was the choice that Rae Howells faced when deciding which of her poems to include in her first collection of her work, The Language of Bees, published this year by Parthian. I can well imagine how hard that must have been as Rae Howells is very much an accomplished poet in her own right and has been prolific, her work featuring in many publications such as Magma, Poetry Ireland, etc. and also winning poetry competitions like the Welsh International and the Rialto Nature and Place.
Rae Howells’ The Language of Bees is a delightful yet heartfelt collection of poems that I have really enjoyed reading. It is a collection that can be dipped into and read in one go as it is a slim volume or my preferred approach was to read one or two of Rae’s poems a day so I could savour the rich and meaty flavours of the sensory images shaped through her words for Rae is a meticulous crafter when it comes to creating visual and sensory imagery in her poems. At times, I could physically “touch” or “see” the images in her work. To give an example, in her final poem, Stories, Rae writes of gazing out of a window at night and seeing that “….the stars are like
small white hands pressed against
the night’s belly.” (Page 74)
The star-hand imagery is so vivid that for me, I could almost “see” those small silvery fingers of starlight against the dark sky. The images are visual while at the same time tactile as I could almost “feel” those silvery fingertips digging into the night’s soft, downy belly; very much a maternal image of a bonded mother and child.
The themes of grief, death, loss, remembrance and love permeate Rae’s poems. In her work, there is not only the grief of losing a child expressed but also the grief of how the Earth is being managed by humans. The recurring motif of a dying bee in a takeaway box that threads its flight path through her poems is discordant, defining the careless way we humans treat our Earth and Nature. In all, there are thirteen poems with this recurring motif in the title.
The grief of losing a child through miscarriage recurs in a number of Rae’s poems in this collection and is explored in The Honey Jar; a vivid and at times, raw account of her miscarriage. However, the poem is also infused with a sense of expectant maternal joy until she experiences the harsh reality of losing her child whom she describes as “ ….. the queen,
Beautiful as a daughter and softly drowned.” (Page 13)
In The Honey Jar Rae’s physical description of her pregnant body is evocative as she likens it to that of the shape of a beehive:-
“….I was all abdomen, barrel-round, a hive,
striped gaudy with stretch marks.” (Page 13)
In reading those lines, I could visualise the physical changes to Rae’s body that pregnancy brings with a growing child inside. I could “see” those white ribbed lines stretching over her abdomen that mark the growing child within:-
“I was bursting with it.
Gorged on honey, a fat, drowning sweetness.”
Rae’s body is a vessel or hive that houses her child. While pregnant, she feels “flower drunk,” basking in the glow of maternal bliss with so much to look forward to with the eventual arrival of her beloved child. However, the honeyed flow of words is soon stopped when “…. one midnight, I turned on my hip
and felt the jar crack.
I woke to honey down my thighs, drenching the bed,
everything running sticky and black. And there in the mess,
beautiful as a daughter and softly drowned.” (Page 13)
Having experienced miscarriage, this poem and others in Rae’s collection like Mermaid, Ninety-eight earth days, etc., are particularly poignant to me. Her words are so moving and filled from that deep well of grief that only losing a child can evoke. When grieving, I have usually found myself turning towards poetry which brings me comfort as well as defines in so few words the essence of the meaning of loss. For me, Rae’s work captures these deep emotions and I think I would turn to her work for comfort if ever I feel again the loss of someone I love.
Woodthinking is another of Rae’s poems with which I was particularly taken. It focuses on the story of trees and interestingly, is structured over two pages in the book to resemble a tree with its “branches” of words reaching upwards into the canopy above while towards the end of the poem, tendrils of words and images like roots shoot out to mimic the root system of a tree reaching downwards into the earth. The middle part of the poem is the “trunk” which is more conventional in style and consists of lines stacked one on top of the other. While reading the poem, one’s eye automatically travels to its “trunk” and for me, this is a fascinating and unconventional approach to shaping the subject matter in a writer’s work. As a reader, I did not find this layout to be too disconcerting as my gaze shifted over the fractured lines that topped and tailed the poem. The centre or trunk focuses on the history of the tree that encapsulates the “ancient knowings;” from the moment when the tree first unfurled itself from “its gleaming seed,” pushing upwards through the earth.
Towards the end, the poem’s structure fractures again, forming the tree’s root system – “This dark fist of roots” where “the trees’ nerves” sink down into the dark earth ….
Listen and marvel at the shuffle of worms.” (Page 43)
Rae Howells’ The Language of Bees is a poignant, well crafted and moving collection of work that I have found a delight to read. She is a skilled observer of the Natural World and of Human Nature too and is not afraid to tackle difficult themes in her work but does so with sensitivity and very creatively.
- The Language of Bees by Rae Howells is published by Parthian Books (£9.00). To order a copy go to www.parthianbooks.com
Sharon Carr is a performance storyteller living in the Midlands. Originally from Canada, Sharon can trace her love of stories back to her Welsh mother who delighted in telling family stories from Wales. Sharon started storytelling in 2010 and until 2018, was one of the resident tellers at Birmingham Storytelling Café. She has performed at festivals, museums, libraries and spoken word events throughout the Midlands, Sharon loves to share funny and magical stories from all over the world that are enchanting to all age groups.