Polite to Bees, A Bestiary
Coach House Press, 1992
Softcover, 75 pages
First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
I would like to say that if you are an animal lover, pure and simple, you will love this book, but that is, perhaps, not quite true, for the creatures that spring to life in Diana Hartog’s poetry are neither pure nor simple. Her verse licks and curls around the bees, bats, dogs, herons, starlings, moths, worms, wart hogs, and others, which inhabit her work, illuminating and exposing, with the indirect yet inexorable logic of dreams, some aspect of their true and full role in our lives. It’s as if she has baited her hook with an animal representation and then dragged her line through the subterranean channels of the id, trolled the reptilian twinings of the brainstem, reeling up through murky depths of collective subconscious and ancestral memory, before landing it on the page, trailing primitive, libidinal associations, mythic connotations, and archetypal meaning like tendrils of sea weed. The serpent, as one might expect, is well represented, but other less likely candidates such as the mosquito and sardine, as well.
The mosquito and its attendant whine, Hartog informs us, traces its origin to the pineal and under her gaze becomes an ego-irritating reminder of our most primitive hardwiring, the hiss and hum of internal machinery, over which we can exert no conscious control. (The pineal gland, for those who are wondering, is a possibly vestigial remnant of our reptilian pasts which, in mammals, influences some of our most fundamental responses to light.)
Her entertaining meditation on sardines and starlings examines individual participation in something larger than oneself — a condition which we humans apparently seek but which sardines and starlings experience daily. “To speak of a sardine, in the singular, is inaccurate, even cruel,” she says. “When ten or less in number, sardines can no longer entertain higher equations,” she observes, referring, I suspect, to the fractal-like evolutions in the size and shapes of their schools, often tens-of-thousands in number, which react, as a single entity, to changing environmental stimuli, but also, to the power of connectedness and our intuitive understanding of strength in numbers.
True to her title, Hartog does not confine herself to the creatures currently condoned by science but explores, as the medieval bestiaries also did, the fauna of myth and imagination. The human animal is also considered, just one of the crowd. Thus griffins and dragons exist, cheek by jowl, with men, women, butterflies, snakes and spiders.
Animal lovers whose attraction is predicated on the idea of “cuteness” best beware, but those whose appreciation of a creature, the beast within and without, in all its implication deepens with understanding will come away enriched and enlivened.