Event: "The Life of the Bee," North Carolina Lit Fest, 2002Poet: Jeffery Beam; Music Composer: Lee Hoiby
Performers: Jeffery Beam, poet; Shauna Holiman, soprano;
Wendy Law, cellist; Brent McMunn and Arlene Shrut, pianistsReviewer: Mark A. Roberts [Virginia Intermont College]HIGH ART IN CHAPEL HILLIn early October, I visited New York City for the first time since September 11th. My first jaunt into the city streets lead me to St. Patrick's cathedral in mid-town. The old world religious structure compelled me to enter, and I entered almost in a trance. Heavenly ceilings, open, reverberating space, the flicker of candles in the dark: a sanctuary. How could I not feel a sense of awe? As I moved toward the pews, the massive air of the pipe organ began to swell and fill the church with inspired song: "Hallelujah, Hallelujah" the choir chanted. My soul floated, transcending the grief that had found a place to hide.I emerged back into the crowed streets and reverted back to my old self, no longer transported by the sanctuary of the holy. As I ambled down 47th street, I pondered the last time I had temporarily visited with that divine feeling. Was it in April? Indeed. The experience, though, was not in a church or in nature, but at a poetry reading. Stranger miracles have happenedÉLet's not be untruthful about poetry readings. Experience tells us that most of them are dreadfully boring— hardly distinguished from droning church services. But every so often, there's one that's more than a reading; it's a true performance— emotion put into communicable form. Jeffery Beam's performance of "The Life of the Bee," along with the talented musicians who interpreted his words into music, was one of those rare poetry events.Over the past six years, I've read and listened to Jeffery Beam's poetry. Why I continue to revisit Mr. Beam and his art is to regain a sense of the sacred, to again experience the sacred song, to know that beauty can still revive and bring the dead spirit back to life.These tantalizing aspects of Beam's poetry presented themselves in full splendor at the North Carolina Literary Festival, held at UNC, Chapel Hill this April 2002. Beam's reading and the musical performance of "The Life of the Bee" captured my attention from the moment I entered Person Recital Hall. The small chapel with streams of light filtering through stained-glass windows served as the perfect setting for "The Life of the Bee," a cycle of poems written from the perspectives of the bees themselves. Because "Life of the Bee" is mainly dramatic monologues, it forces us to move out of our human-centered perspective to consider for a while the life of the drone, the life of the queen bee. In this way, the Beam's poem-cycle imitates the function of hymns and chants composed by religious orders. Hymns and chants, among other things, intend to move the listener from the human-centered perspective to the spiritual realm where the divine creator exists. The difference, though, is that for Beam, the sacred— the divine—is found not by looking out of this world but by peering intently into it. God hides in the fineness of nature, even in flying, stinging insects.Fitting, indeed, for Beam to perform "The Life of the Bee" in a chapel-like venue. The sacredness of the space complimented the sacredness of the poems.No other poetry reading at the festival could quite rival Beam's. Who else could combine fine poetry with the fine art of music? Piano, cello, soprano. Wendy Law voiced through her cello both the pleasure and pain associated with Beam's poetry, and the breath-taking voice of Shauna Holiman astounded. Lee Hoiby, the composer who put Beam's poetry to music, should be commended for such an affecting interpretation of "The Life of the Bee."When the performance ended, my friend and editor of Nantahala, Rob Merritt, remarked that Ezra Pound would have approved of "Life of the Bee": The performance was a triumph over the mediocrity that popular culture ceaselessly dishes out. Jeffery Beam's high art served as a tonic for the plague of the mean!I've known religious experiences; I count "The Life of the Bee" one of them.Note: Jeffery Beam is the featured artist for Nantahala issue 3, online April 2003.