Online Edition: Spring 2003

Blind Huber by Nick Flynn

Blind Huber

Nick Flynn

Graywolf Press ($14)

by Mike Chasar

A mysterious and entrancing sequence of short lyrics that journeys through the violent, erotic and even gothic world of the honeybee, Nick Flynn's pocket-sized volume Blind Huber feels appropriately like a combination of prayer book and field guide. There is no shortage of book-length sequences in American poetry of late, but Flynn's voyeuristic and disconcerting poems find a suitably tactile vehicle in becoming one of the sweetest and memorable reads this year.

Led through the "labyrinthine comb" by Flynn's version of Vergil--François Huber, an 18th-century blind beekeeper whose observations formed the basis of what is now known about the honeybee--we hear from the drones and workers, their queens, Huber's assistant, and from a hovering narrator who alights on the role of honey and beekeeping in human history. The result is a risky, almost hypnotic polyvocality, what we might call a poetics of the swarm: "we lift, // like the soul as it exits the body," Flynn writes from the point of view of his bees, "except you can see us // & we are not quiet."

Blinded in childhood by scarlet fever, the priestly Huber--whom we hear from in nine poems--explores the hives through the eyes and hands of his acolyte assistant, the sighted but unlearned Burnens. "I no longer know," says Huber of this relationship, "what is outside my mind // & what is in." That partnership has its counterpoint in the hive, a complex society where terrifying military power and precision only thinly veil drunken bursts of violence and chaos. "The virgin / flew this morning / as we dragged the old queen / out," reads one poem:

     A drone

failed to follow, a young one,
gorging himself on honey,

& ten of us surrounded him,
held his mouth shut. We are

infinitely more abundant
& we are all the same.

This is a world of primordial desire, power and fear, an unnerving world where the individual is the group and the group the individual.

Flynn's first book, Some Ether, explored the effects of a mother's suicide and a father's homelessness on the coming of age of their son, and it's tempting to locate the genesis of the second book in a passage from the first: "She tells a story of how I swallowed a wasp, / I don't remember / but I always felt a nest building / inside me." One of the more riveting poems in Blind Huber seems to deliberately invert this image, as the obsessive beekeeper and Burnens cover the interior walls of a house with honeycomb "so we can live inside a hive, // my chair dead-center, beside my / queen." Flynn retains the short, clipped, unflinching lines from his first book, but, as the contrast between these passages might indicate, his perspective seems to have shifted.

A poem near the end of Blind Huber mentions how "Archangels // came down once, ordered bees to build / honeycomb in your mouth." In that image is the combination of sweetness and disquietude that makes up the worthwhile poems in this book.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents