A highly original collection of poems that explore our daily lives as we struggle to get by; the emotional experiences encountered through work; and the place of humankind on our planet.
The cover photograph, by the professional American photographer, Terry Ownby, shows a colourful line of beehives in an open, rolling landscape: a sign of human activity – ancient, organised, determined – against a timeless and boundless background of grasslands, hills and sky.
This image captures the essence of The Human Hive, a highly original collection of poems that explore our daily lives as we struggle to get by; the emotional experiences encountered through work; and the place of humankind on our planet.
Celebrating archetypal forms of human work
In this short series, we’ll showcase three of the poems, starting with the opening poem in ‘Part One, Spinning the World’, Raiding the Deep. It opens with these lines:
Let’s spin the globe, spin it towards the sun –
slowly now – we’re looking for a likely place,
a place where the sea or the ocean touch the land
and men have always put to sea in boats,
have moored their boats or dragged them on the shore
with heavy limbs after the homeward run.
Raiding the Deep is one of a group of poems in the collection that celebrate archetypal forms of work through millennia and across the globe.
Says John: “Poets have sometimes given us portraits of people at work, for example, Robert Frost’s representation of farming life and Seamus Heaney’s portrayal of his father as a farmer, but The Human Hive is wholly dedicated to exploring our lives through the numerous trades and professions and paid and unpaid activities that distinguish us from other animals.”
A sense of wonder
Thus, in this opening section, we find poems about hunting, growing crops and plants, making a home, raising children, waiting at table, making tools and trading.
These poems express a sense of wonder at all that humankind has achieved. They are in free verse, but with the hint of a metre plus a light rhyming scheme. The opening poem, Raiding the Deep, continues:
Here will do,
here where the wild Atlantic batters the coast
and the heaving tide has carried a fragile fleet
up on to Portugal’s sand. The boats are beached
and the sardine catch laid out in boxes for the buyers,
and men with wide-brimmed metal hats
will carry the fish on their heads, salt water dripping,
up to the trucks and out of view.
Soon the men will hear how much they’ve earned.
A decent trip? Not bad.
The catch? So so.
Not as much as in the glory days
but the weather held, the fish were there, the gear behaved
and (although this isn’t said) they all returned.
Says John: “This captures for me the memory of a scene years ago when my wife and I spent three weeks exploring the coast of Portugal. But it also draws on other memories: of standing on the headland of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia watching whales where the waters of the mighty River Lawrence mix with those of the Atlantic, of the busy fish market in Tokyo, and of seeing small boats fishing the southern Pacific waters off New Zealand.”
Elemental human activities
The poem concludes:
Spin the world,
and find the trawlers active in early morning
off Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New England.
Spin it and in the darkness look for vessels
ranged around the Pacific ring of fish,
tuned to their weather warnings, studying sonar,
watching the stars in shoals expiring slowly
and the depths putting on new colour,
as the day – a day of promise –
“Fishing must be one of the most elemental of human activities,” says John. “Whether at sea or on the great rivers, there’s danger and uncertainty. It’s driven by necessity, isn’t it? But there’s also ambition and rivalry, and pride in a hard-won skill. And there’s always hope. No matter how bad the catch last time, or whatever fears have to be faced, the new day is always a day of promise. And perhaps that’s how anyone, anywhere, would like to face each day.”
And it is in this spirit that the reader is drawn into the collection to begin an enthralling journey.
In part two of this short series, we’ll talk to John about his brilliant poem, Master Baker, one of a group of poems in the collection that contemplate emotional aspects of the world of work.