A Tiny, Gold Alarm: An Appreciation of Paul Valery
Walking on the Sun, by Loneearthling
Nakitsura ni hachi (a bee for a crying face) – Japanese proverb
My first memory of bees and their stings is indeed of a crying face: my younger sister’s. She was walking barefoot on our lawn in Saratoga, Wyoming’s brief summer. We were both still too young for school. One moment she was rambling along at a good clip on her babyish legs. The next, her face screwed up tight and a wail escaped her that I can still hear to this day. My mother rushed and swept her up into a tight hug and bundled her into the house.
I stood there, clueless. I couldn’t even begin to figure out what had happened just then.
I followed the commotion into the house and asked our mother what had happened. I believe I probably asked “what in the world” had happened, as that is the way my mother would have phrased it were our positions reversed; I always enjoyed the way she put things into words and sought to imitate it.
“She stepped on a bee, and it stung her,” she told me, distracted. My sister was still crying and, as my memory paints it, kicking away my mother’s attempts to put something on the wound – or scrape off the stinger.
I caught just the briefest glimpse of the sting site. It reminded me strongly of a bullseye on the little instep, concentric circles of angry red and bloodless white. When I call it up in my mind’s eye now it is perfectly so. The arrow goes there: shoot straight.
I didn’t know, back then, that the cost to the bee of this encounter was so much greater, that she had most likely died. I just saw my sister’s crying face.
Quelle, et si fine, et si mortelle,
Que soit ta pointe, blonde abeille,
Je n’ai, sur ma tendre corbeille,
Jeté qu’un songe de dentelle.
Pique du sein la gourde belle,
Sur qui l’Amour meurt ou sommeille,
Qu’un peu de moi-même vermeille,
Vienne à la chair ronde et rebelle !
J’ai grand besoin d’un prompt tourment :
Un mal vif et bien terminé
Vaut mieux qu’un supplice dormant !
Soit donc mon sens illuminé
Par cette infime alerte d’or
Sans qui l’Amour meurt ou s’endort !
Paul Valery’s L’abeille (The Bee) was years away from becoming my favorite poem at this point. Even today, my French is “just enough” to parse and enjoy the music of its poetry. Translations are still a welcome aid in this. Of all of these, sentimentally and still my favorite is that of Lionel Abel:
So deadly delicate your sting!
Yet, O golden bee, I place
Over this soft curve, saddening,
Nothing but a dream of lace.
Prick the breast’s fine gourd and press
Home where love dies, where sleeps his spell!
Thus may some of my rosiness
Rise to the round and stubborn flesh!
I need a hurt that’s keen and swift.
A torment prompt and soon done with
Is better than one that sleeping lies.
O may my body be made warm
By this tiny gold alarm
Without which love sleeps or dies!
A protégé of Stephane Mallarme, Paul Valery is generally regarded as one of the last of the Symbolist poets. The work this loose agglomeration produced is often read as a series of ciphers, code book in hand. The poet says this concrete thing but means that abstract concept. It is a junior high approach to poetry appreciation that usually makes me cringe, but here, here I have to admit there is something to it, to wit:
This poem is all about the insect as the bringer of awareness.
Let me say that again, because it is just that cool and important. The insect is a bringer of awareness.
Why do most people fear insects in general, bees in particular? While there are a few who can do us actual individual harm, most have no intention toward us, malign or otherwise. They inhabit a completely different world from ours, a world in which a drop of water can be lifted into the air between two forelimbs and carried, in which a bread crumb is a day’s or even a week’s rations, in which a flower is a biologically compelling, irresistible lure.
What have we to fear?
Yet fear we usually do.
Partly it is the suddenness of them, the movement where we expect to see none, perceived just at the edge of our vision. It triggers that fight-or-flight reaction before we even know what is happening, this surprise. And once we finally become conscious of what has diverted our attention — a minute monster, utterly alien — we are riveted by its strangeness even as our hearts continue to pound. Whether it is their weird progress on alternating tripods of feet or their haphazard flight with no plan that we can determine, they hold us fascinated – or fixated on destroying them as quickly as possible. Either way, they have our whole attention for the duration of the encounter. Even after the animal is gone or dead, still it lingers a while in our consciousness: Are there more? How did that one get here? My god was it ugly, or beautiful…
And so this encounter with a bee.
As is often the case in Valery, our speaker in L’abeille is generally thought to be a young woman, one whom I have always imagined as languishing outdoors in fashionable French ennui. The bee which lands or creeps onto her provokes, not fear, but the thought of diverting the insect’s power to her own uses.
Bees historically are symbols of energy and industrious, selfless, tireless workers foraging for nectar, braving the world and its dangers not for the individual good but for that of the hive. This endless activity is what makes much of agriculture possible, pollinating crops – and there is their delicious honey, their useful wax.
“J’ai grand besoin d’un prompt tourment …” Valery’s speaker needs a goad to stir her into action or awareness, to focus her attention or distract it from its pointless, circular course. A sharp pain to a particular locale — la gourde belle –makes literal the ache of her longing, her confusion or disappointment, commonly also imagined as residing in the breast. Perhaps she imagines that once this pain has passed, the wound healed, her other pain will go with it, forgotten as my sister’s was forgotten?
Or does the sting represent the finality of a declaration – of disinterest, of negation? Of resolve? – that puts a decisive end to anticipation or dread? Time to end this paralysis, this indecision, and re-engage the world! Here is the bee as infime alerte d’or — a tiny gold alarm. Whether it stings her or not, it has altered her perception of her state, brought her out of herself.
I always love to imagine the aftermath of this encounter. She decides to give up mooning over an unrequited love, a missed opportunity, a denied request, and get on with her life. Or she resolves to take real action to get what she wants: to speak aloud what the bee made her realize and assert her claim to be heard and recognized. Or at least, having achieved some new understanding of her situation, she achieves also peace enough to relax and allow herself to enjoy a beautiful afternoon for what it is instead of spoiling it with pointless angst and ennui.
My sister’s encounter with such an alarm bears no direct comparison to the scenario of L’abeille – she didn’t even see the animal before it turned its defense upon her – except in that how the story works in my own memory. It is my first recollection of empathy, of realizing that other people hurt, too, just like I did when I fell down or cut my finger or bumped into the furniture. In an important way, the incident awoke me to my sister’s existence as a real, whole, other person and not just a strange intruder or impediment to getting my way. Her sting, my alarm.
Neither she nor my mother has any recollection of this incident at all, but for me it is a vivid and shining moment when a bee gave me a sister. Wake up, it told me, and see what you’ve been given. Do not take it lightly.
And I don’t.
Kate Sherrod is a recovering politician, essayist, poet, amateur entomologist, and budding graphic novel author currently residing in Cheyenne, WY. She is the author of Suppertime Sonnets, a blog on which she composes and publishes at least one pseudo-Shakespearean sonnet a day.