Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Girl with Bees in Her Hair

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Girl with Bees in Her Hair.
Eleanor Rand Wilner.
Copper Canyon Press. 2004. 104 pp.
ISBN 1-55659-203-5.

Eleanor Wilner's poem "Theory and Practice in Poetry" is as good as any in her recent volume. Nine lines into the poem she describes a place:

where, among a thickness of flowers
so redolent and sweet as to dizzy
even the bees, summer slides in

It is a nice image. Because it does not strive for effect, it may be necessary for readers to clear their palates of all the strident imagery they have become used to in order to fully savor it.

But, like so many of the images in The Girl with Bees in Her Hair, it does not stop there. There is so much more to a summer day:

bringing a haze of heat like the skin
shed by a river when a mist rises
from its indolent wet back

The mist on a river is like a snake shedding its skin. No need even to mention the snake. The river is, after all, long, thin, undulant. Less is more here, metaphor is more. The blink of recognition is a quiet pleasure both author and reader know.

This is image enough for most poets. The thing would seem to be said. But, then, most poets say less:

of water (each carrying a world)
that traveled on the back of a sequined

The poem is beginning to be as busy as summer is and as languorous. It would seem to think it is about the theory and practice of poetry. The reader, though, could be pleased to forget all about theory and practice and to just enjoy the beautiful summer day where the aforementioned wind goes:

to that meadow woven of
grass, flowers and guesswork—so
intricate a tapestry of greens
that in all that steam, and heat, and
growing matter

Even the lines meander unhurriedly on the page, themselves a kind of river. Or a kind of thought process, perhaps. This is the theory and practice of poetry, not of botany, and thoughts flow rather than march; the meadow is a tapestry of flora we do not strain to make out, to give names, though we do apparently guess at one or two.

This day is such a pleasure, in fact, that the idea of water droplets carrying worlds—something of a poetic commonplace—can not provoke the least complaint; the random line-endings necessary in order to achieve the meandering effect—more than we might generally approve of—all but go unnoticed. Her effects quietly accumulating, until we've delightfully lost our way, the poet must bring us back:

the ideal of a poet
finding her poetic
s is lost like
a ball in tall weeds

Yet nothing has been gratuitous. We were finding our way to this ball. To find a ball in another, more direct way, is to find a different ball. We first had to do the work of getting lost in a summer day.

Not that the image has ended here. There are still some thirty lines of it left. Nor that the reader will even know what the actual image is at this point in the poem: what this traveling from image to image in pursuit of an inclusive metaphor, so much the trademark of Wilner's poetry, will add up to.

Eleanor Wilner's poems are themselves a tapestry. They have a woof and warp, a texture, a unity that comes together a thread at a time. Because the reader watches it woven, rather than standing before a finished work of visual art, the weaving itself is a part of the experience together with the patience that the shuttle requires. To read these poems quickly is to miss too much of what they are about.

The Girl with Bees in Her Hair is an unbrowsable book. The individually quotable lines are there. There is the shock of concision:

smart clay, our thumb opposed, we work

There is knowing:

Whatever we name, we exceed.

But such lines are difficult to single out in poems in which each image is so carefully interwoven, each line so carefully in place.

All of this said, like any tapestry, one of the joys of it is coming upon surprising details that add to its intricacies. Even the epigraph of the poem "Just-So Story" is a small delight:

Do not make treaties with these people.

Wilner's beloved world of nature and strange and common things is no Eden. After "Theory and Practice in Poetry," the politics of the world begin overtly to leak in and soon the meadows are overwhelmed with it. In the poem "Don't look so scared. You're alive!" the Muses, "their once-firm breasts old dugs sagging," have been replaced by "Clear Channel." The implications inspire a simple but powerful line break:

          Truth lies choking in a shuttered room;

We are reminded of "the slow brown wash of tides" and "the dust and shit/of the road." The poet suggests that the world would be much improved if the wounded past rose up, in the form of the great statutes of the Vatican and Rome collectively rising up off their pedestals, and rejoined the mountains from which it was hewn.

It is puzzling, however, that so good a poet can indulge in such naive simplifications, and, in several of the more overtly political poems, language must be separated from idea. In "Be Careful What You Remember," when the statues return, "like salmon returning to the waters/that spawned them":

the mountain is whole again, the great rift closed,
and young trees grow thick again on the slopes.

The sense of healing is palpable. But the statues neither can nor should return to the quarry. Arm lopped off by time, or genitalia covered by the church, at worst they are now a marvelous object lesson. At best, they are rungs on the unsteady ladder that connects the degradation of late paganism to constitutional rights, amniocentesis and ultrasound testing for pregnant mothers, computers, and much more. They are threads in another tapestry even more inextricably interwoven than Eleanor Wilner's own.

Still, who can help but appreciate the world of The Girl with Bees in Her Hair, a refreshing palimpsest of the stories of Demeter, Semele, Sappho, Aphrodite and their graceful Attic sisters played out in vaster galaxies? A world in which the tables have at long last been turned against the kings of the past?

In the poem "Orpheus on Sappho's Shore" (originally a libretto), Orpheus' spirit, wafting (perhaps a little conveniently) past Lesbos, calls upon the gods to set him free from his endless existence as "a mind awake inside a jar." Sappho sets him free and is left his lyre. The song passes on to Wilner and her sisters. While a reviewer is required by the ethics of the trade to withhold judgment, in this particular, until Sappho has played a concert locked in the lion's cage of the nearest zoo, more mortal accolades are certainly in order for this fine volume.


This review first appeared in the Tamafyr Mountain Poetry Review (now defunct).


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