Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Taste of Honey

Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry and prose poems in Honeybee, her newest collection, will draw readers to the page as surely as bees are drawn to nectar to start the honey-making process.

From the moment Nye began studying the behavior of bees in a college linguistics course called “The Nature of Language," she found herself fascinated by the activity of bees.

“I buzzed about the campus for a happy semester, researching in farm journals and encyclopedias, writing strange, dramatic papers, hoping to be stung.”

And was she stung... to the point of becoming obsessed these many years later with the fate of bees today (which appears to be in danger, given the recent reports of drops in bee population).

“So, I’ve been obsessed,” writes Nye. “This is what happens in life. Something takes over your mind for a while and you see other things through a new filter, in a changed light. I call my friends 'honeybee' now, which I don’t recall doing before. If I see a lone bee hovering in a flower, I wish it well.”

Throughout this collection, with prose and poems interspersed, Nye shares her obsession with bees, building on themes of loss and change, and writing through that "new filter" about the things that are outside our control–like aging and death–and the things within our control–like war and pollution–and how we, like bees, may prove to be an endangered species if we don’t learn how to master the forces--like poverty, ignorance, prejudice, aggression, and blindness to the needs of others--at work to defeat us.

Here, in an excerpt from “Parents of Murdered Palestinian Boy Donate His Organs to Israelis,” is Nye at her best, sharing her feelings about how sharing and kindness can overcome hatred and grief:

Ahmed Ismail Khatib, you died,
but you have so many bodies now.
You became a much bigger boy.
You became a girl too–
your kidneys, your liver, your heart.
So many people needed what you had.

In a terrible moment,
your parents pressed against
spinning cycles of revenge
to do something better.
They stretched.
What can that say to the rest of us?
And here is another poem written with such powerful emotion that it touches the reader’s imagination with the force of an ice-pick shattering ice:
The Dirtiest 4-Letter Word

is “self” says the sign on a church
and I almost run off the road.

What about Kill? Hate? Rape?
Even “whip” sounds worse than “self”

or might we try “lies”? Now I remember why
Sunday School gave me a stomach ache.
What, you may ask, do these poems have to do with honeybees?

Nothing, and everything.

These poems are both valiant protest against a world intent on destroying the goodness and beauty contained within it, and, at the same time moving paeans to the beauty and potential sweetness contained in the world, if only we take the time to open our eyes to see it.

They warn of a world that we’re at great risk of losing, as well as a plea for its survival, lest we lose something that we can never regain.

Put another way, they're poignant reminders of the beauty around us that can disappear as quickly as the honeybee if we’re not protective of the riches that surround us and contribute to the richness of our lives.

Nye is a poet whose words are like the notes of a musical composition. Listen closely, and you can hear the music rise off the tip of your tongue and fill your mouth with the same sweetness and pure pleasure of honey.

If you take a moment to taste this collection, inhale its poems, and savor its prose, you'll see why poets like Nye are as valuable to us--and to the existence of our planet--as those precious honeybees.

For more reviews of Honeybee, visit:

For more information about Nye, visit:

And to read her letter to a terrorist:


Unknown said...

I enjoyed your review, Bruce! I shared a few poems from this collection at, but the two poems you shared here were two more of my favorites from this book (especially that first one). The whole book looked like it was blooming Post-It notes when I finished reading it!

Bruce Black said...

Thanks for buzzing by. Blooming Post-It notes, indeed. I'd have marked every page with one, if only to linger a little longer over each poem.