Contributor’s Marginalia: Alexandra van de Kamp on “The Tin Man Full of Bees” by Sarah Crossland
“―Helping the little lady along are you, my fine gentlemen? Well stay away from her, or I’ll stuff a mattress with you! And you, I’ll make you into a beehive.” –The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz
There are few Americans who haven’t seen the Wizard of Oz and been entranced by its caravansary of memorable characters. Although the Scarecrow was Dorothy’s presumable favorite of the group of friends she finds on her way to Oz, the Tin Man holds a special place in the film’s dream-laden plot because of his missing heart and endearing, stilted dance.
The movie is also famous for having been plagued with setbacks during production. Buddy Ebsen, not Jack Haley, was the original Tin Man, but the tin-colored make up used on him contained aluminum dust that ended up coating his lungs. One day, finding himself unable to breathe, he was rushed to the hospital. He was immediately replaced by Haley, with no excuse ever publicly given for why the role had been re-cast (and the aluminum dust replaced with a less lethal aluminum paste). It seems being a tin man has its hazards. Sarah Crossland’s poem takes as its premise the idea that the potential threat issued above by the Wicked Witch of the West (“I’ll make you into a beehive”) comes to pass for the Tin Man. Thus, this poem begins with a spell realized, an alternative plot followed through, and Crossland evokes this spell viscerally on the page in clipped, whirring stanzas packed with music.
The opening stanza of “The Tin Man Full of Bees” immediately snagged me with its texture and density of sound: “The spell erupts in wings—/glass-backed, a crownish/vellum, veins that tickle/ as they climb their way.” I like the idea of a spell “erupting,” as if the poem were a volcanic force, and there is a compressed tension within each of the poem’s stanzas to back up this first impression. The poets I am often drawn to are the ones that trust music, allow the sounds of words to guide them, even to think for them, and Crossland is just such a poet—unafraid to be entranced by the music in her own poems, so we get densely-packed examples of assonance and consonance. The wings are “glass-backed” and the “vellum” of these wings trigger “veins that tickle.” And what does “glass-backed” mean exactly? The assonance of the “a” here lulls the reader into believing the logical pairing of these two words is matter-of-fact, inevitable, yet it remains slightly elusive. The image suggests the thin, easily shattered texture of glass, or the transparency of windows, but it is a textured glass as in “a crownish vellum”—a thin parchment with a raised surface to it (“vellum” comes from the Old French vellin (from veel or veal) since the thin paper was originally made from calf skin). With that use of “crownish,” one also is led to think of the spiked form of a king or queen’s crown, or its ornate, jeweled surface. In just a few words, Crossland has created a multi-faceted, intriguing image. And the transition from “vellum” to “veins” renders the spell intimately physical; the reader is left to think of the inner-itch of those glass-backed wings “as they climb their way.”
Vigorous word choice abounds in this poem and fuels its motion, pushing its mini-plot forward. The bees are “chevrons” that “charge…motor-fuzzed, from the heart” and the internal rhyme meshes ideas intimately together when the Tin Man laments his condition and wishes he “were made/of meat instead of metal.” Crossland chooses apt imagery to make her point, such as the idea of bees as “chevrons.” The military insignia or “v-shape” this word implies mimics well the stripes of bees and how they, themselves, are members of an intricate hierarchy, assigned their roles and tasks. Moreover, with word choice such as “motor-fuzzed,” the textured presence of these bees inside the Tin Man is clearly articulated. As I read, I can sense the motion of these bees, their staggered dispersal throughout the Tin Man’s body. Is he being internally re-written as they move within him, a palimpsest the bees’ wings print their moving weight upon? While moving through the poem, I find myself wanting to dream along with these clipped, fast-paced stanzas and add my own musings to them.
And these stanzas seem hive-like—their shape one of a pruned, disciplined spinning. Crossland relishes her line breaks and treats many of them as little cliff-hangers, building mystery, speed and suspense into her poem. I often find that poets with an ear for music rarely neglect the opportunity a line break offers them. Crossland writes with a nervy sense for how to use the white space of the page. In the third stanza, we have the line: “I once loved a forest girl/who kissed me with a twister,” and the reader is left, momentarily, to ponder the twister as background to this girl and her kiss. (The gray, spiraling funnel of the tornado as background in The Wizard of Oz is well-stamped on my childhood imagination.) But with the next line, we read “in her lips,” and the twister morphs into an internal one—what the girl carries inside her and bestows upon those she encounters. Here, the Tin Man confesses that the kiss felt “Counter-/clockwise, the opposite/of time. I am a hive.” The repetition of the long “i” sound in “wise,” “time” and “hive” stitches these words tightly together and begins to suggest that a kiss could be “the opposite of time,” its own spell of sorts. Such tense music and suspense at the ends of lines energizes the poem and helps create a spinning, even careening sensation as the reader finds his or her assumptions periodically upended. Another “cliffhanger” occurs later in the fourth stanza: “Their stripes/the color of a morning/fruit that sings as its citrus/bites.” Thus, the bees’ stripes are not just the color of “a morning” as the reader might be led to first believe, but the color of “a morning/fruit” that sings and bites. Almost like mini-page turners, these line breaks ask the reader to read on—to “turn the page” in poetic terms by finding the resolution of the image on the next line. This clever, thoughtful use of line breaks builds a nervous energy into the poem and propels the reader forward, as if Crossland wanted to re-enact on the page a hive of image and sound.
Crossland’s rich and textured use of sounds continues throughout the poem, and you wonder, as the reader, if the ‘s” in “sings” helped her finds the “s” sound and image in “citrus” and if the “i” in “bites” led her to “strikes,” and then to “out my pipe.” The poem is dreaming its own dream now—thinking in sounds, as all my favorite poems do. The closing line of the poem, “in the hum I come alive,” offers an ambiguous sense of closure, since the reader sees that this spell offers the Tin Man not only suffering, bees that “gnaw and strike,” but also a vivacity, an astringent vibrant taste of life. The physical “hum” of the hive awakens him to both pain and to a renewed alertness. In the film, the Tin Man is given a ticking clock for a heart, but here, in this plot, an internal, “motor-fuzzed” eruption is bestowed upon him, a “tickle” in his veins and a citrus that bites and sings. The reader is left to ponder which was the better, more potent result in the end—perhaps this more uneasy version of the heart, this uncontrollable, hypnotic hum Crossland invokes on the page.
—Alexandra van de Kamp
Alexandra van de Kamp lives in Stony Brook, NY, with her husband and is a lecturer at Stony Brook University. She has been previously published in journals such as: Court Green, Salt Hill, Crab Orchard Review, Washington Square, River Styx, Meridian, The Denver Quarterly, The Prose-Poem Project and Connecticut Review. New work is forthcoming in Thrush Poetry Journal and The Cincinnati Review. A full-length collection of poems, The Park of Upside-Down Chairs, was published by CW Books (WordTech Press, 2010), and her most recent chapbook, Dear Jean Seberg (2011), won the 2010 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest. Recent poems have been featured on VerseDaily, and she is currently at work on a second book entitled “Kiss/Hierarchy.” For six years she lived in Madrid, Spain, where she co-founded and edited the bilingual journal, Terra Incognita. You may see more of her poetry and prose at her website: www.alexandravandekamp.com.