Day 320 5/11/14: The Marvels of BeeKeeping 101

a“Any volunteers? It’s full of protein,” said the beekeeper, holding up two small globs of larvae on something that looked like an exotic fork or comb.


“I’ll try it.” A woman raised her gloved hand and unzipped her bee hood.


A murmur rippled through the similarly suited crowd at the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association Beekeeping 101 class.


We fell silent as she chewed.


“It’s…not very good…it tastes like leaves,” she said.

The larvae looked alien and white and we looked alien and white. It’s impossible not to channel a lonely B-movie robot when stepping inside the bee suit, with its strange square veil stretched over a “Dr. Livingston I presume” style hat and Jackie-O inaugural-length gloves that are heavy leather, not satin.

My dear friend Lisa is starting her very own hive and needs a friend to help her, so I travel to a beautiful rambling spread beneath the Wildlife Way Station once a month and learn about smokers and drones and excluders.

There’s no more useless feeling sometimes than being a poet. I space out while the master beekeeper explains how to clean the smoker without lighting oneself on fire, but will take up these weird fragments of trivia to my grave:

“Do NOT use powdered sugar and water in your feeder. The bees will become constipated. Use C&H cane sugar.”

That a bee might become constipated is almost as wild as a bee having mites. Today the beekeeper pulled the frames out of the bee box and held them up to the light to check the swarming brown bodies for parasites the size of half a rice grain. Passing a couple frames to a pair of eager students he exclaimed, “Get some sun in those cells!”

The students held the frames toward the sky, like weird amber mirrors. I imagined that his command involved some impossible scientific feat, that we had to allow the sun into the most forgotten, hidden and most obscure parts of ourselves.

I hoped he might say it again.

It’s easy to lose someone in a crowd of net-headed beekeepers, but I found Lisa and we crowded close to watch a drone birth: a single antennae waving from a plugged up cell.

I learned that the living bees eat the dead—another marvelous protein source.

A few weeks ago, I’d been deathly afraid of being stung when I finally donned the bee suit. Although every “I’m afraid” experience is preparation for the shark cage, I still remember getting stung when I was 12 years old, reading “A Catcher in the Rye” on our screened in front porch in Massachusetts. I remember the pain and then the cold. The ache in the arms and back. But today the bees swarmed around me. The sound is really sort of mesmerizing and wearing the bee suit  gave me some odd power of invisibility, as if I lived in a cone of silent strength.  And besides, I’d been told that these were polite bees with good, gentle, decent bee genes. And they were slightly loopy still from being “smoked out” of their hive, which dulls their aggressive hormones. The hormones smell like bananas.

The beekeeper who wore a hood but no gloves, opened the pollen drawer at the bottom of the hive, a tray overflowing with gold nuggets of dust and a few marauding ants. (Ant invasion can be stopped with repellent called Tanglefoot–a word I liked).

The pollen drawer!  Nature doesn’t have to try. It’s gorgeous and practical, functional and mysterious.

I felt sad when I had to leave early, change out of the bee suit Lisa had loaned me and drive all the way across the city to a workshop on “Ulysses” and the stream of consciousness technique. As I drove through the green, pollen-rich canyon, on my way to experience another kind of richness, I felt that being a poet was a pretty good thing, a way to inhabit a lot of worlds. As the great poet Frank O’Hara once said:

“Grace to be born and live

as variously as possible.”


Day 296 4/18/14: Courage, Diction, Breath

medea3On the threshold of a new obsession, I ask: how much do I want to know of Maria Callas?

Did she really throw a shoe at someone?

Was she better fat or thin?

What was the texture of her exile?

How much of the transcendence I feel  is because I do not understand the words she sings and how much is just the sheer miracle of her voice?

My brother Sean reminds me of the poet Frank O’Hara who, as Allen Ginsberg once said, “loved everything.” O’Hara understood that a poet could not afford to fall out of love with poetry. Frank O’Hara loved movie gossip and he loved painting and he loved the ballet. Sean loves punk rock and film noir he loves baseball and he loves ballet and he loves Maria Callas. Once Sean took me to the Boston Ballet. As beautiful as it was, I felt alienated. It’s a story of gesture, I told myself, of yearning, of emotion. Get out of your head. While Sean swooned and even cheered his favorite dancers, while he transcribed his rapture in a worn pocket notebook, I fell asleep. When I woke up and there was a huge ship onstage. The ship seemed to cleave straight through my gauzy dream shreds, and the elegant, muscular and utterly alien narrative that had unfolded on that stage. Admire ballet? Marvel at it? Yes, but “get” it, even on a visceral level, no.

Around that same time, Sean gave me “Master Class” by Maria Callas. I don’t know Puccini from Verdi. I don’t know Italian. Sure, if the opera is “Macbeth” or “Medea,” I have a bit of a frame for the foreign sounds, but otherwise I have no clue what’s being mourned or exalted. But it doesn’t matter. When Maria Callas sings, I am enthralled. I want to live inside the story of her voice, a place both cavernous and intimate. Maybe it’s the draw of the unfamiliar. Her voice reminds me of unexplored Aegean, all the places I never got to see on my all-too brief tour of Greece. Her face is the drama of landscape, the stark, savage, beautiful and frightening.

Part of my deep attraction to “Master Class” is its documentation of process, of Callas’ comments to her students at Juilliard:

Remember always feel the words you are saying.

 You must do it a little cleaner.

 No. The “R” must not be heard.

 I know it’s difficult on the breath, but it must not be heard, eh?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the poetic process was as collaborative? If there were some rehearsal hall of the mind, where the predominant voice was not the relentless critic, the internalized harpy, but the compassionate master there with us as we construct each line, test it, cross it out try again, the voice that never overwhelmed us with its own skill, but remained a guide there to remind us:

Love the phrase that you are singing

 However difficult Maria Callas might have been in reality doesn’t matter to me. I only want to find within myself that voice that understands the nuance of word and breath, the abiding presence that cares how and where the notes or words are placed and will not be fooled by “fireworks,” but insists on “expression.”

All my main gods are men. John Lennon, James Joyce, Bob Dylan. I have a few goddesses: Virginia Woolf. Marilyn Monroe. What does a goddess give one that a god does not? I don’t know. But when I see scenes from Pasolini’s film adaptation of Medea, I want to scale the stark Anatolian hill and follow Maria Callas inside that severe temple.

My old writing teacher John Rechy used to keep pictures of his goddesses on the wall: Garbo and Marilyn. “She was a creation!” John used to cry when trying to articulate the majesty of Marilyn. I loved that description. A creation! Equal parts self-invention and natural force. John’s students met at a dining room table underneath these glamorous triptychs—two Garbos and a Monroe, if I’m not mistaken.

While we worship  the cheekbones and shadows and fierce eyebrows, we often forget that creation is a process. “Master Class” reminds us of how instructive, how valuable it is to see how a song, a phrase, a voice is made.

Once I stepped out of a New York blizzard into the sanctuary of a quiet library to see the original manuscript of “The Wasteland” and I remember thawing out under the yellow light and looking at the marked up pages, Eliot’s naive and simple stanzas nearly obliterated by Pound’s insights, his demands. I remember the delight of driving from Boston to New York with a fellow Beatles freak who found listening to twelve consecutive versions of “No Reply” to be not only a delight, but a serious education in phrase and harmony and desperate joy.

We each have our own masters inside already– echoes and layers—all that we’ve read and heard and loved and memorized. We don’t need to dissect their legends, but to draw on the deep pool of their mystery, of genius. We need those teachers, those great loves to become strangers to us again and again, their eternity fresh, and powerful and sharp, their names forgotten, unknown.