The title of Ann Vickery’s latest book of poems, Bees Do Bother: An Antagonist’s Care Pack, is longer, more complex, and more avowedly academic than is conventional. A number of questions might be asked of it: are the bees metaphorical, being the most basic. In other words, are the bees human? That what ‘bees do [is] bother’ does not clarify, but rather thickens, the meaning of the first part of the title. Bothering seems like a human activity, and suggests, both semantically and sonically, the notion of a ‘bee in a bonnet’ (‘Bad Hat’): but while having a bee in your bonnet is not a passive image exactly, it does suggest being subject to the bee, of the bothering being done to the one with the bonnet, as opposed to being the bee that is doing the bothering.

The sound of the word supports an active interpretation as it is quasi-onomatopoeiac: bothering being akin to buzzing as the sound bees make. Is the title pro or anti bee? The second half of the title, An Antagonist’s Care Pack, suggests agency in antagonism, but it is not obvious whether the antagonist is a bee, or an antagoniser of bees, or, possibly, an antagonist of bee-botherers (bee killers even), and, therefore, nor whether the antagonist is human or not. Its very beginning suggests it is neither, but rather, ‘an ant’. The agony of an ant suggests that bee behaviour bothers ants (or American Aunts), that human bees bother ants, or, that ants care for bees, or those that bees bother. Yet – finally – the author’s first name, ‘Ann’ can also be heard in this second beginning, whether in the form of ‘an Ann’, or ‘Ann Ann’, raising further questions regarding the author’s own identification with, or position-in-relation-to, bothering, antagonising, caring, and doing (an unalphabetical ABCD). Such wordplay is in (bee)keeping with the book’s poetic tendencies: not just punning (‘National Spelling Bee’; ‘Bee-Cause’), but near anagrams (Ann-agrams), like ‘WTF to WFH’ and ‘Sartre’ to ‘state’, ‘Buzz Words’). ‘Bother’ is not necessarily a negative term either: it can be said that those who bother to do things, are those who care (enough). And perhaps we need rousing, as ‘Bad Hat’ suggests: ‘Bee in my bonnet, not just to needle but as a need’. Whether human botherers mimic more closely the doings, or the caring, of bees, or ants, is up for consideration, but not by this reviewer. That the ‘care pack’ refers, on one level, to the book of poems by Vickery, then, suffice it to say that Vickery cares enough about her (yet to be revealed) concerns, to write and publish poems of, or for, bees, ants, botherers, and antagonists.  

While the opening, long (eight pages, in verse and prose) title poem, ‘Bees Do Bother’ provides both bee facts, mainly cultural and historical fact, and anecdotes about both native and ‘English’ bees in Australia, for example, in 1955, 26971 bee colonies in W.A. produced 6,366,000 lb. (pounds) of honey, Vickery’s greater project is not the easily imaginable one of putting natural science into poetic form (Stein’s remark, ‘if it can be done, why do it?’ comes to mind), but rather one of staying mindful to bees (mindful in an inevitably piecemeal fashion, as the term refers to over 16,000 species globally, of which Australian native bees make up approximately 10 per cent), in an ongoing relation: to thinking and writing poems. This makes for packed poems, in the sense of, move over, human, there are bees trying to make a living here, too. This could seem contrived, or tiring, if at all tending towards the absolutist, but once a bee-bothered framework is established, not all poems have explicit bee references.  

In his book-length discussion, A Critical Condition: Reading Australian Literature (1984) – which is further dubbed, on the front cover, ‘Struggles for control of Australian literature – then and now!’ – John Docker devotes a chapter to discussing the Oxford History of Australian Literature (1981), citing what he calls Vivian Smith’s ‘prescriptive’ comments on Australian poetry. Docker notes that Smith follows a much earlier Vincent Buckley essay, ‘The Image of Man in Australian Poetry’ (1957), in wanting ‘a “middle ground” between “mature use of the vernacular” and “highbrow” verse’. The terms vernacular and highbrow suggest the problematics of class relations: arguably highly generative for Australian poetry from Francis McNamara, right through to Oodgeroo (whose image of ‘the bee’s violin’ is quoted by Vickery) and Kevin Gilbert, Les Murray, Dorothy Hewett, TTO, and Laurie Duggan, and up to poets starting to publish in the 2020s – such as Sian Vate, Gareth Morgan, and Harry Reid.

The middle ground is historicised by Les Murray as ‘newspaper verse’, written in  ‘middle voice’. Middle voice can be defined, grammatically, as an oscillation of agency between subject and object (Manning). Yet to read poetry in terms of grammar elides its relation with language itself: as Ludwig Wittgenstein noted: ‘Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information’ (Perloff). For example, ‘The dog, an O.G. from way back, a god even, was being (was a being, was a-being) walked.’ The use of enjambment can also affect oscillation, the level of middle-ness, if we can say that, or its level of intransitivity. Poems (or lines), while having semantic (or semantic and narrative) content, can (appear to) become distracted from this content, or to comment on this content, at the level of meaning or grammar; they may appear to joke at the same time as communicate, or depict, etcetera.

Vickery’s poems in this book are, predominantly, composed of long-lined bulky stanzas, and prose paragraphs, as well as lyric fragments resembling lines of poetry quoted in an essay. In an era when, apart from those poets who have or have had academic employment (no new thing), many others have studied at graduate level, language derived from theory and philosophy is now a common part of the diction continuum – to an extent beyond the old notion of the highbrow – and such usage is arguably no longer indecorous.

If we consider poetry as being merely contemporary, then maybe we can drop the notion of highbrow altogether, and think about relative (in)formalities – of diction and poetic structure. This might leave us with a differently (conceptualised and) configured middle ground of, say, Gig Ryan, John Kinsella, John Hawke, Liam Ferney, Alison Whittaker, and, yes, Vickery: who writes, that ‘The Duke of York’ ‘chucks a sickie’ (‘Gippsland Pursuit’), while another poem is titled ‘Manky Bandaid Sandwich’: more suggestive of being a parent than anything job-related.

I suggest that – for the purposes of this essay at least – the notion of the highbrow be replaced by the use of relatively formal structures without the formal, necessarily, having anything to do with metre, nor with particular stanza forms, but, rather, referring to the formal / informal relation as set up within a text (or book) by a particular poet: Vickery in this case. Meaning that, what passed for the informal last century, free verse, open field, and, perhaps, concrete, or other forms of visually emphatic, poetry, may actually seem relatively formal, after decades of these poetic practices. I think that the division between metrical and free verse is due a critical overhaul – beyond the clichéd qualifications that cite TS Eliot (‘No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job’), vs the cliché of opposition by Robert Frost (‘Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down’ (Swainson)). Eliot’s The Waste Land, and his editor, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, both set up a formal / informal dialectic (yet a more pronounced example can be seen in the earlier Un Coup de Dés of Mallarmé, or, in the contemporaneous, William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All) which can, I speculate, be seen as going back to William Shakespeare’s plays, both in terms of the plays as printed on the page, and as varieties of speech: from that of royalty and nobility, to those of knights, porters, gravediggers etcetera. Even earlier, this conceptual, or macro-prosody, of the movement between types of text, shoring up the informal or formal as types of speech, is present in the framing of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It is also inherited by the novel (blocks of narration or description alternating with dialogue being an obvious example, though the dialogue itself may vary in its diction) – and provides a poetics platform beyond that of grammar, theme, narration / voice, teleology, or fictionality for poetry and prose comparison.

After decades of theory (Derrida’s for one), we know there can be no purely formal verse – it would tend to the unreadable/ unwritable – the same for the notion of a purely informal verse – any more than there can be a purely fascist or anarchic text (as metaphorical form or in content or spirit). Locally, we can read movement – change – in the particular arrangements of this dialectic – with the increasingly formal poetry of Ania Walwicz, and the informal tendency of recent poetry by Justin Clemens (both Melbourne references, I know, but this is Vickery’s milieu, notwithstanding her citation of Americans). Historically, it is in the work of Christopher Brennan’s Musicopoematographoscope,and the poems of Mary Gilmore; Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’; Ern Malley; David Campbell; Gwen Harwood; up to the more recent poetry of John Anderson, and in Kathleen Mary Fallon’s novel, Working Hot. It is a feature of contemporary American poetry by such as Teresa Cha and Don Mee Choi. This taxonomy is one of particular texts: but a more distanced ‘reading’ might be made of a poet’s oeuvre: again Slessor comes to mind, as well as Henry Lawson, and Eve Langley, or, say, Laurie Duggan, or Ouyang Yu.

The formal / informal dialectic (if we might call it that, and accept that it is to some extent more figural, or gestural, than the dialectic of argument in philosophy), continues through the above American moderns, as well as Marianne Moore and Mina Loy, via, say, Auden’s The Orators, arriving at the hugely influential poetries of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. This is, I admit, a speculative trajectory. In metaphorical bodily terms, we might think of it as a culture contracting and relaxing a muscle. As a poetic mode it survives the later formal approaches of Langpo, the informality of Flarf, and of the perfunctory / abstract formalism of conceptual poetry: avant-gardes, or revolutions in an American teapot.

In ‘An Object Exists Only As It Might Exist To Another’ (a title that might be physics theory, or might be philosophy, all we know is that it’s Vickery theory), she writes of

The melancholia of the human

as a class of actors, reciting Moby Dick

to the signature tunes of Prince.

While we might envisage this as an actual figurative scene, it is also an image-complex, in Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s terms, collapsing the appreciators of Melville and Prince together, not in itself anything remarkable, but if we buy the image in the first instance, there are a couple of  ‘hang ons’ here: who actually recites Moby Dick as if from memory – and what are the signature tunes of Prince? In that, beyond the subjective choice of signature, the point is that Prince has so many great tunes, that ‘signature’ cannot itself be signed off on? It could be seen as an averaging form of the ‘middle way’, in that it brings together (in that tired categorisation) high and low culture, braiding the canonical voice with the marginal, or trivial, or pop, mounting a rescue operation for cultural reference where the operation itself becomes the mainstream lyric. Such a categorisation is by now, arguably, a fugitive one. The lines do not oppose the two cultural references, but brings them together in a fantastic (or idealised) scenario, that could be read as an enabling Hegelian contradiction, signposting the possibilities of dialectic movement – as well as a form of hypercitational fan fiction, where O’Hara, representing the New York School, can be seen in Marxist (Eagletonian) terms as an alternative model of collaboration, and one that therefore counters the familiar target of the Romantic author.

The notion of a ‘dialectical poetics’ has precedents in its application, by poetry critics, to a range of texts including those of Neruda, Pound, Eliot, H.D., Rimbaud, Whitman – and Shakespeare. A poem may be composed in negation, in contradictory relation, to ‘poetry in general’ or to a precursor (Bloom), or to a political theory, such as Marxism (Blanton; Bouscheljong). Paul Kane discusses ‘the dialectic of Romanticism’ in Australian poetry in terms of its ‘origins and absences’. Closer to the formal/informal opposition, or relation, Stuart Cooke refers to the dialectic ‘of the oral and the written’.

In his critique of the Romantic / individual poet, Terry Eagleton appears to be excited about collaborative authorship as an alternative. Yet there is no need for the lyric ‘I’ to pose as the inventor and constructor of its own reality. A networked practice, of contemporary citation, of fan poetics – reaching, as O’Hara does (towards Rachmaninoff, Hollywood, or Billie Holiday), indicates the role of individual reading, and of the influence or pressure of cultural milieu in producing a poem. 

Vickery’s ‘An Object Exists …’ is framed in terms of repeated images of melancholia, indexing not so much culture itself, but cultural studies – as practised by poetry. In which case, is it fiction or nonfiction? The title phrase comes to seem like a critique of the image, not necessarily of the existential image, but of the existence of one image in relation to another. The melancholia of attempt; of citing essayistic possibility: ‘laissez-faire capitalism’; ‘fashion blog’; of ‘window dressing’ and (in the final lines of the poem) ‘the incision between [allusively speaking, Blake’s] innocence and experience’. We might paraphrase this last image as the melancholy sublimation of pretending to sadness, rather than acute pain, or as the sadness of liminality and / or separation. We might say that bees are an emblematic image of community (‘nomad’ bees drown, according to Vickery’s epigraph for ‘Helen Frankenthaler’s Venice’, from Barbara Guest, correcting any notion that the NY School was an all-male thing) – but also of vulnerability: a postscript to ‘Propagation’ gives statistics on bee death in Italy. Bees build, too, yet Gilbert Simondon, following Aristotle, likens this ‘instinctual’ building to the growth of a plant. Relatively uninstinctual humans build as an act of reason: yet it’s hard to see relation between the house-building of animals and humans as being only metaphorical.

Poems can appear as structures for dwelling (Heidegger), or as textual communities, especially if they’re as heavily networked and allusive as one like Vickery’s ‘Destination True Detective’. Bryan (Brown) and Byron together at last, joined by characters from the murder mystery board game (now also a play) Cluedo, with a brief nod to 80s pop band The Dream Academy’s ‘Life in a Northern Town’ (town now ‘cowhouse’). I don’t want to present reading or poetry criticism as a board game called ‘Spot the Allusion’, however, nor represent lyric poetry in the form of the sonnetesque as pileup, as mini-internet, or as palm-reading of the contemporary (memory). Vickery’s notes save us the trouble of googling quotes, but there are always, I think, going to be (unnoted) cultural references a random reader won’t get. In Leonard Diepeveen’s terms, quoting is all about creating texture. And not that all roads lead to and from O’Hara, but many Australian roads do, from John Forbes’ example on (Beaver’s example being a more mixed enterprise), yet this is, to whatever extent, Vickery’s own version of O’Hara, rather than a spin on Forbes – but, like Forbes, it has that hyper-quality, that even-later-than-1966 (the year O’Hara died) capitalist anxiety. 

The middle way, as I’m thinking about it here, can be understood in the way that poems end: not with either ‘a bang or a whimper’ – epiphany or bathos – but a level, democratic, mid-pitched stop. The image itself, despite being a complex, might rather be plastered together with elements that may not even exist to each other, like walled-off neighbours in an apartment block (not, strictly speaking, like hives, at all). Vickery asks, empathetically, can we have empathy for our own images? Implying, perhaps, the further question, can we learn anything about empathy from our own images?

Form and formality, structure and (use of) space: all betray a poet’s ethos and ideals. In saying this I don’t mean to render that which is stated by the poet abstract. There’s a kind of conceptual (or folk?) punning which runs through this book, an allusiveness which is broader than that of language, but feels, rather, like that of world. Here the conceptual is not that which is practiced by Kenneth Goldsmith et al (though it may borrow approaches and attitudes), but rather, a familiar fusion of preceding North American avant-gardes: Ashbery, and Langpo, at least. ‘In Confederates We Couple’, the title prepares us for a level of structural irony, we don’t expect it to be literal – especially with its moderating epigraph ‘Cue E.D.’, alerting us that we are in Emily Dickinson territory, but not in pastiche, at least not in any obvious way, if only because we can tell at a glance that the poem does not resemble Dickinson’s form: but is, rather, a prose poem, composed of sentences which are not especially short – and nary a dash in sight. It seems to me to be something like a sociological report on Dickinson, for a meeting of the poetic contemporary.

The following, facing, prose poem, ‘Alouette, Or A Trip Through Ghostland’, is clearly tied to a precursor text: that of the French Canadian nursery rhyme ‘Alouette’. In this poem the sentences are much shorter, and, with a further accentuation of language, through both assonantal and consonantal sound, creates a jauntier rhythm (‘jaunty Alouette’, in a certain kind of reader’s mind, is a pun (or translates in sound, rather than semantic, terms) on the ‘gentille Alouette’ of the original. It appears to extend the limits of the original rhyme as much as critique them. Ghostland, itself, we earn from Vickery’s notes is associated with cartoon character, Casper the Friendly Ghost. The poem’s address, in second person, is ambiguous. It ‘pluck[s] feathers for a lark, from a lark’ (lark being the English of the French alouette), yet the addressee is also a bird, however metaphorical. It is perhaps best explained by a genre term, one arguably a subgenre of the prose poem: the metalyric.

Alternatively, what Vickery is perhaps proposing is that any cultural artefact can be recuperated as a space – it can be reoccupied – yet in a way that, hypothetically, also allows others to follow, like Helen Reddy’s ‘Angie Baby’ (1974) into the radio. ‘Major Tom Visits Dagworth Station’ illustrates this, punning on outer space, perhaps surprisingly not travelling by ‘tin’ or ‘billy’ can, the emphasis being more on ‘Folding sheep into little/ origami tucker bags like leaves of a book’. Gum leaves, probably. ‘“Waltzing Matilda” is on repeat play’, as Queensland’s Dagworth Station is the site where Banjo Paterson composed his quasi-anthem. Perhaps the sheep’s dags, and a tucker bag’s or billy can’s worth of dagginess, are too obvious (and the point of leaving space is not using up everything). Major Tom was introduced to the pop-listening public by David Bowie in 1969, but is revived for ‘Ashes to Ashes’ (the song Vickery cites in the notes) in 1980. Slim Dusty’s version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was broadcast by a space shuttle in 1981, making it, in a sense, the more modern – and more literally space age – song. The poem’s penultimate line alludes to Dusty (cryptic crossword style): ‘Dusty said it was all slim pickings’. We might read this as suggesting that the jumbucks have all by now been stuffed into tuckerbags, or that colonial culture itself was, or has become, a bare thing – but the ongoing generativity of Paterson’s poem belies this. As the poem concludes in full: ‘Dusty said it was all slim pickings but the psychedelic spree/ made me somehow not quite believe him’.

Works Cited

  • John Ashbery. ‘The Impossible: John Ashbery on Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation,first published in Poetry magazine July 1957, pp. 250-54.’ 2015.
  • D. Blanton. Epic Negation: The Dialectic Poetics of Late Mordernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Peter Bouscheljong. A Small Poetics of Insurrection. Prague: Alienist Magazine, 2021.
  • Stuart Cooke. Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean. Postcolonial Poetics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013.
  • Leonard Diepeveen. Changing Voices: The Modern Quoting Poem. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.
  • John Docker. In a Critical Condition: Reading Australian Literature. Ringwood: Penguin, 1984.
  • Terry Eagleton. Marxism and Literary Criticism. London: Methuen, 1976
  • TS. Eliot. ‘The Music of Poetry’ in On Poetry and Poets. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1957.
  • Veronica Forrest-Thomson. Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978.
  • Martin Heidegger. Poetry, Language, Thought. Harper and Row: New York. 1971.
  • Paul Kane. Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Toni Marie Hoven Manning. ‘The Middle Voice: A Doubling of Agency within the Poetics of Larkin and Eliot’. The University of Texas at Arlington. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2002.
  • Les Murray. ‘The Narrow-Columned Middle Ground’ in A Working Forest: Selected Prose. Potts Point: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1997.
  • Marjorie Perloff. Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Gilbert Simondon. Two Lessons on Animal and Man. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2011
  • Bill Swainson, ed. Encarta Book of Quotations. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.