Black Bough review: The language of bees

August 2022

I’ve been long-awaiting a poetry collection by award-winning writer Rae Howells, and ‘The Language of Bees’ is the Swansea poet’s debut. Parthian Books know the value of commissioning an arresting cover and ensuring a tightly-assembled collection and it would be impossible, firstly, not to be grabbed by the cover’s appearance, with three, yellow-gold worker bees surrounding a giant queen bee against a dark green background; the impressive presentation of the work is complimented with testimonies by Welsh writers Mari Ellis Dunning, Jonathan Edwards, Matthew Francis and Robert Minhinnick. This is definitely one of my favourite covers on a poetry book this year; so far so good.​

As readers we are offered various points of perspective. There are poems that look at bees from distance and use aspects of their appearance and behaviour metaphorically for poems about the self and the human world. One of my favourite poems, ‘Silk Buttons’ takes the reader on a family outing and ruminates on the magic of childhood and loss of childhood innocence.

​I am afraid to break the spell

of childhood in you. Your waterlily eyes,

hair flying up like swallows

Another personal favourite, the first poem ‘Honey’, wittily presents an ageing queen bee undressing for her lover and another poem on the visceral, painful re-enactment of breastfeeding, which culminates in the feeling of complete intimacy between mother and child. There are also observation poems about bees, for example, several ones presenting their death of bees, such as in a takeaway box, a watering can and a box of Lego, symbolizing the continuous threat of humans.​

What a disappointment

to flick his tongue in hopes

of honeysuckle, and find only

acrylonitrile butadiene styrene.

In other poems, we are taken swiftly and immersively into a micro, alternate world, somewhat distant from the looming, threatening backdrop of human activities that destroy their habitats and threaten global insect populations. This is evident in ‘Stories’, which focuses on the sound of bees and Egyptian myths surrounding the creature. It’s this microscopic focus, from a poet who harvests lavender from a Gower field, that enables us to explore much closer the life of insects and gain an unexpected and strange look back at human existence.​

This collection was refreshing, intellectually invigorating and a rich, imaginative experience. The lyrical density of some of the poems, their thick sound patterning and onomatopoeia, together with profuse, layered imagery, made this book a rich visual and sonic experience (rather than a drone! Sorry) and I was lucky enough to hear Rae perform some of these poems at Cover to Cover bookshop, Mumbles, in May.

​In ‘The Language of Bees’, the reader is treated to transformative, inventive poems. This is a highly recommended collection and a Book of the Month for August 2022. Surely a contender for Wales Book of the Year?

​Matthew M. C. Smith Writer-editor