London Grip Poetry Review – Suzanne Mercury



Poetry review – HIVE: Charles Rammelkamp is captivated by Suzanne Mercury’s poem which draws on numerology and apiculture

Suzanne Mercury 
Lily Poetry Review Books, 2023
ISBN: 978-1957755328
62 pages        $18.00

Suzanne Mercury’s ingenious poem, which focuses on honeybees, is constructed as a Magic Square, an ancient symbol that is found all around the world and throughout time. But her immediate inspiration is the Magic Square for Venus, developed by the 15th/16th Century scholar, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, author of De occulta philosophia, a three-volume study of magic. The numerical values of the numbers contained in each square all add up to the same total, in the rows, columns and diagonals.

As Mercury tells us in her Introduction, Cornelius Agrippa constructed his 7 X 7 squares based on the alignment of ‘the seven planets – Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon.’ This is the arrangement on which Mercury bases Hive. Thus, her poem consists of 49 parts, and each has a number of syllables corresponding to the value contained in the corresponding cell. In Hive, each row, column and diagonal adds up to 175. For the record, Hive consists of 1,225 syllables. Mercury provides the schematic for Agrippa’s Magic Square for Venus at the start, for reference, after the Introduction and before the actual verses.

And of course, the thematic inspiration of the poem is the honeybee. As most everyone knows, the honeybee population has shrunk dramatically, dwindling by as much as 40% from 2018 to 2019 and again from 2019 to 2020. Climate change and deforestation are among the principal causes. Yet honeybees are indispensable to a healthy ecosystem. They are the number one pollinator of non-crop plants. Without honeybees, the vegetation that supports all animal life would disappear. A beekeeper herself in Massachusetts, Suzanne Mercury is well aware of the crisis. As she laments in one verse, ‘Maybe the earth is done with us: / The anthropocene / is a pile of dead moths on the floor of the hive.’ And elsewhere she reminds us, ‘Honey is eternal : / found in graves in clay jars.’

Several parts of the poem focus, indeed, on disastrous fires in Napa Valley, California, where ‘beekeepers said goodbye to their hives / and then fled the fires.’ One of the beekeepers found her hive ‘bearding beneath a tree root,’ still alive, when she was able to return to her property. Honeybees are resilient, but the threats are enormous.

Invoking the Sumerian goddess Inanna (known as Ishtar to the Assyrians) as she does several times throughout Hive, Mercury writes ‘Inanna weeps,’ observing the destruction. Inanna may also represent the queen bee of the hive. ‘Inanna returned to you in a swarm,’ Mercury writes, the first time Inanna is mentioned, and later, ‘Inanna takes flight,’ seemingly laden with pollen. She is invoked a fourth time, and the image is clearly the queen bee:

     Hold me        (for me)             for one moment 

                       while Inanna 

                                                unfurls herself

                                                                         from her cell—

Based on breath, the poem’s sections are spaced across the page like magic incantations themselves. While in the final verse Mercury confesses ‘The hive is my soul school,’ in an earlier verse she writes:

     The hive is Arkhe —
                                  from the Greek : an archive
     a place from which everything 
     converges          cells
                                                  and larvae

Many of the verses include brackets – [ ] – which themselves seem to suggest a pause for breath. One example is the 8-syllable verse that reads:

                     cheek is covered 


                                     [                ]

                                        [                 ]


One of the earlier verses (the sixth), actually seems to be shaped like a bee. It reads:


     Cave                                                   (and)                                               queenlight

       rustle wings                                                                                       far-shining

             almond-eye                                                                         thistle

                            you instruct me                        glisten this silver
                                                           (O rain!)

                                        our wings       our wildflowers

Many of the verses show the bees at work, swarming over a dead mouse, being shaken from their box into a new hive; the seven-syllable verse about midway through the poem reads: ‘I’ve been stung seven time today—’ In several of the verses Mercury details the plants the honeybees routinely visit: Opium poppy, Horse Chestnut, Cockspur Thorn, Mountain Ash, Meadow Sweet, Deadly Nightshade, Woodland Bluebell, pitch pine and spruce; and she identifies the scents: bergamot, cyperum, buds of myrrh. In one humorous verse, she writes (and notice those long breath pauses!):

            Why is this honey bright red?

            The bees gathered its nectar from the maraschino cherry factory

            in Redhook—

            [               ]

            [               ]

            [               ]

            [               ]

                              Maybe you should not ask

Suzanne Mercury’s Hive is a lovely artifact in the sense that it is constructed in so many intricate ways, from its syllabification and breath shapes to its roots in mathematics and magic, a tradition that spans ancient China and Japan, North Africa, Muslim Iberia and Medieval Europe. It’s also vividly imagistic, poetic wordsmithing, playful and harmonious. Her 12-syllable verse reads:

            A bee cycle—

            a bicycle—       a bike

            of bees

The whole effect of Hive is to make the reader consider the honeybee and beekeeping as a necessary, vital natural phenomenon, and toward the end of the poem, one of the verses, as if dimming the lights, starts to bring the meditation to a close:

            Enough for one day      these bees      tangled in my hair!