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Poetry Shelf review: Anne Noble’s Conversātiō – in the company of bees

Conversātiō – in the company of bees, Anne Noble with Zara Stanhope and Anna Brown, Massey University Press, 2021

each morning in the bright window she’s there

on the tip of your tongue her bees working

the red flowers that take you from vine to fire

as she contemplates another shift in the pronouns

Michele Leggott

from ‘Blue Irises’, from DIA, Auckland University Press, 1994

Anne Noble’s Conversātiō – in the company of bees is a precious object with its luxurious velveteen cover, generous serving of images, handbound look, luxuriant paper stock. The book as art work. An artwork as book. There are conversations, essays and a smattering of bee-related writings from Xenophon of Athens (c. 430 – 350 BCE) through to Emily Dickinson (1830 -1886), Carl Jung (1875 – 1961), Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963), and many more.

I was drawn to this book because for over 35 years I have lived with an artist known for his beehive paintings, who views the hive on the landscape as a found object, as a site of transformation, as a sublime interplay of light and dark. As a family we have travelled the South Island roads taking photographs. We have smelt linseed oil and paint for decades, even watched a honeybee land on a painted hive. We have a beehive work hanging on the lounge wall that is my point of uplift, my transcendental device, my place to restore balance. Outside, honeybees dart in the manukā, land on flowers in the vegetable patches. The bees, and the beehive paintings, are a source of interior glow as I sit still and watch and reboot. The bees are doing what bees do, and it feels good. It is of the greatest comfort.

Anne’s bee-thicket book (it is of course a collective project) will offer the reader many sidetrack diversions, parallel lines of thought and feeling. I am catapaulted back into the honey-rich poetry of Michele Leggott, the dulcet threads and motifs. Find me a collection of hers where the honeybee does not make an appearance, and I will be surprised. Across centuries the bee has pollinated the poetic line with sweetness, fostering a delight in connectivity, awe, the miraculous. As a motif it fertilises a poem with the visual, the sensual, the unsayable, with patterns, transformations. This is what Michele’s poetry does for me.

Looking at one of Michael’s paintings, reading Michele’s poems or glimpsing the bee in our vegetable gardens, I am filled with life-sustaining joy. And how that matters. This is what the bee does for me.

Pick up Conversātiō, this sumptuous book, with its title demanding attentiveness, and you will fall into Anne’s close-up photographs of bees at work, how the collective labour is paramount. You will read of the mystery of the bee’s flight patterns and interpretations of their dances. You will read of the miracle of survival, the need for bee survival, the tending of hives, the harvesting of honey.

How you travel through this book is open. It is over to you. It feels like a thicket with interlocking paths, rich in images and ideas, possibilities. It is a beauty of a book. It is a book of beauty.

Massey University Press page

‘A journey of discovery into the life of bees’ — John Daly-Peoples, New Zealand Arts Review
‘A remarkable and beautifully produced book’ — Peter Simpson, Kete
‘Another sumptuous book from Massey University Press’ — David Hill, RNZ
‘A fascinating hybrid work, formed by the streams of art, science, poetry and philosophical thinking that flow into it’ — Landfall Review Online
Anne Noble talks to Lynn Freeman on RNZ
Anne Noble is interviewed by Woman magazine
Anne Noble talks to Stuff

‘Crown Range’, Michael Hight, 2017