Global Oracle by Alec Finlay, morning star 2014. £7.50 Sterling.
Bees: they pollinate our food and most of the flowers in the world, provide us with honey, inhabit our mythology and in many cultures are associated with poetic inspiration. They are also central to Global Oracle and to the artwork it was written to accompany, an installation by Finlay commissioned by the University of Warwick Art Collection that comprises five straw bees’ nests in the form of NAVSTAR-style satellites. This conflating of bee and satellite is central to the work; if bees were global oracles, they have been supplanted by modern communications systems.
This weaving of the bee into human culture is the starting point of the poem, with Finlay working fragments of early myth and apian science into his verses. As the poem says:
Superstitions & observations
form our store
of founding facts
There is an arc of development, almost a narrative, which unfolds across the six books that make up the poem. Book I, Star-Fallen Honey, is a catalogue of such small facts, adumbrated in a set of stanzas, most of which begin ‘bees are/will’. The book closes with a meditation of the relationship between bees and humans, as seen from a cosmic perspective in which both they and we have no purpose other than ‘amusing the darkness’.
The second book, The Bee, focuses on the insects themselves, both as workers and as navigators and communicators. Their use of the sun to fix their position is given a kind of Neoplatonic significance:
All life orients
to the light
to the sun
In Book III, Finlay returns to the role of bee as oracle, specifically the Oracle at Delphi. Again there is a sequence of stanzas beginning with the same clause, this time ‘Prophecy is’. The stanzas are carefully ambiguous and can be read either as referring to Delphic utterances or the outputs from a fixed-orbit satellite; ‘Prophecy is code’.
The book ends, however, with an unashamedly lyric section on Delphi and its honey-driven priestesses who:
hummed & swarmed
in huddled confusion
The fourth and fifth sections returns to bee communication and social organisation and the parallels with modern information technology are made ever more explicit, as is our dependency on bee activity:
We share the bees’
The text’s focus moves to the ubiquity of microwave-borne data and the concomitant threats to privacy; if GPS means that ‘I know where I am’, it also means that ‘We know where you are’, that those who control the systems effectively control their users. Although the parallel is not made explicit in the poem, the reality is, of course, that those who controlled Delphi were in a similar situation. Information is power; power is the problem.
Book VI is a short lyric coda, an apparent bucolic turning away from technology and return to the world of the bee. And yet when the gaze is turned skyward:
A bead of light
sails on spacing
our celestial rhythm
in an enclosing ring
Fascinating as this all is, and it is, even the most interesting of content can’t make a poem by itself, and the real interest of Global Oracle as a poem lies in the ways in which Finlay organises his materials. Much of the book consists of mosaic-like collages of quotes and references to writers as diverse as Pliny the Elder and Karl Von Frisch. The pages so constructed bear the names of the writers referenced at the bottom, and in Finlay’s reading of the book these names become part of the text itself.
Inevitably this mode of composition means that the text is rich with a range of technical vocabularies and stylistic tics, and it is tribute to his skill as a poet that Finlay manages to absorb them into a unified, meditative tone.
Of course, that doesn’t happen by accident; the poem is a carefully crafted piece of work. I’ve already mentioned the use of anaphora as one element of this crafting. Finlay also uses typographical devices throughout, with small blocks of both upper-case and italicised font being deployed to change rhythm and done at crucial points in the poem.
The metric structure is narrow, but with just enough variety to sustain the music of the verse. The lines are short, with one to three stresses, but unlike most short lines, these are intended to be read slowly and deliberately. Within this framework, assonance and alliteration form patterns of sound that make information quietly sing:
We observe the hive
which seems in turn
to survey us
from another world
The other aspect of this book that should be mentioned are the illustrations, by Finlay and Hanna Tuulikki. In these bees and satellites morph into each other, satellites become beehives, as does the stone omphalos at Delphi. The drawings are not mere illustration, but integrate themselves into the text and become part of its rhythm.
Global Oracle is a cleanly designed but handsome perfect-bound paperback. Printed on high-quality paper it’s a book to hold in your hands and savour. It will also make you think about what it is to live in the world as we have made it.