December 2021: Nick Flynn’s “Inside Nothing” & Sleater-Kinney’s “Down the Line”

This month I’m going to discuss a poem from Nick Flynn’s second book of poems Blind Huber (2002). The book is about an eighteenth-century French beekeeper named François Huber who was blind and who, through his research, recovered a wealth of knowledge that had been lost pertaining to bees. Flynn reimagines Huber and his experiences as a beekeeper and also explores the perspective of bees in ways that are very poetic and enlightening. To me, this book is just as important as Flynn’s debut collection Some Ether (2000). In fact, both books solidify him as a significant contemporary American poet.

Nick Flynn was my thesis director when I was an MFA student at the University of Houston, but I discovered his work much earlier than that, when I was an undergrad there. In the spring of 2006, I took an advanced poetry workshop; the instructor assigned us an anthology called Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (2006). I still own this anthology; this is the book that introduced me to modern poetry. I was in my early twenties and was in dire need of examples of what poetry looked like in the current moment. I read through the entire book—and this is where I discovered Flynn’s poetry for the first time. There were poems from his first two books in the anthology and I remember being particularly struck by the bee poems because they were unlike anything I’d ever read. Aside from the fact that I continue to be influenced by his poetry, I was very lucky to get to work with him as a grad student; he helped me to open up my poetic imagination, which caused my poems to get stronger and to become more like the kinds of poems I wanted to write. I consider him to be a close friend and mentor and the single most important poetry teacher I’ve ever had.

The poem I want to discuss is called “Inside Nothing” and it’s from the perspective of bees. I love this poem in particular because it’s more imaginative than logical in the sense that what is being described is an experience rather than a specific moment. Here is the first part of the poem:

A sun-fed engine, the inside

constant, a flower taken
whole. In winter our wings

move faster, to keep the sun
inside, inside nothing

& we fill the nothing with suns,

line them up,
swallow sap,

The poem is describing, from the perspective of multiple bees, how they keep the hive warm during winter: “In winter our wings / move faster, to keep the sun / inside, inside nothing / & we fill the nothing with suns.” Here, “inside nothing” is an interesting image because it seems as if the bees don’t have a word for their home, which is the hive. The hive, to them, is one giant space that they fill with “suns” which translates to heat. However, there is also a brilliant shift that happens: “swallow sap, swallow / field, drop by drop, each stem / a pump. Rose to rose to rose to / rose to rose to rose to rose, calyx & / anther, all summer / gone.” In this part, the hive becomes a field that the bees consume in order to keep it warm. The repetition of “rose to rose” is especially beautiful here because it tracks the movement of the bees very gracefully. The poem continues:

We move
still faster, fields grow

constant, inside
the color of heat. Clinging we
pull our bodies

across a chain of bodies, become

the chain, climb nothing,
up, toward suns, line them up

inside us, a flower taken whole,

a field built inside. It rises.
Each blade, each sun.

There are two fascinating things that happen at the end of the poem that are image-based. The first is how the bees create a chain: “Clinging we / pull our bodies / across a chain of bodies, become / the chain,” but the image doesn’t stop there. The chain of bees “climb nothing / always / up, toward suns.” So here we see the chain of bees constantly in motion toward the heat they create, but essentially, they are climbing “nothing”—the chain is what it is: a chain of bee bodies. Then we get another image: “a field built inside,” but again, it gets more complex because “It rises. / Each blade, each sun.” Because the bees have to survive in the hive all winter, they essentially create their own ecosystem inside of it, and generate heat with their bodies and wings. It is also worth noting that the phrase “a flower taken whole,” is repeated, which seems to suggest that there might be an actual flower in the hive that the bees may be feeding off of, or it might just be present. The beauty of this poem comes from not just the images that enact motion; it comes from the idea that the bees, as a whole, inhabit a singular consciousness that instructs them on the art of survival. Flynn captures this bee consciousness extremely well in the poem, providing readers with an artfully imaginative understanding of how bees function.

The song I want to discuss is “Down the Line” by Sleater-Kinney and it’s from the group’s tenth album Path of Wellness (2021). Sleater-Kinney has been one of my favorite rock bands since I first started listening to them in my early twenties. I remember buying Dig Me Out and All Hands on the Bad One and listening to them repeatedly. I’ve always been impressed by how the group fuses punk and feminist sensibilities into its songs while also maintaining a sense of musicality that is both rhythmic and melodic. Sleater-Kinney deserves much more credit than it has received as an innovative contemporary rock band. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker should be recognized as one of the most important songwriting duos in the history of rock music not simply because they are female, but because they are brilliant songwriters.

Brownstein described “Down the Line” as being a tribute to those who have suffered during the COVID pandemic; it is also influenced by the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sound. This is apparent in the soft melodic and rhythmic components that make the song feel earthy and humble, but it varies from it through guitar tone. One of the most significant aspects of the song is the unique wailing guitar riff that is both bittersweet and emotional. The song begins with a mellow bouncing groove before the riff plays as a way to establish the mood of the song, which is somber in nature. The riff itself complicates the smooth rhythm of the song and sets the listener up for the lyrics. The song is sung primarily by Brownstein and it includes two verses, a repeating chorus, and a bridge. Here are the first two verses:

I’m singing along
To everyone who’s gone
Barely gone, soon to be gone
Words we love live on
Ghosts of old and young
Faded or flash undone

All the songs unsung
The pages unwritten
Moons that never meet the sun
I can’t weep alone
Let’s ache and howl and moan
Loss is buried in our bones

Between these two verses is the chorus which is the line “I know it’s alright” repeated, along with the bittersweet riff that gets more developed and drawn out. These two verses speak to each other in the way that the first verse memorializes those who have died or will die and the second verse laments all the creative expression that will never come to be. Brownstein’s vocal style echoes the groove of the music as it bounces naturally. The words “gone” (in the second line) and “young” in the first verse and the word “moan” in the second verse mirror each other in the way Brownstein enhances them syllabically. The most poignant aspect of the verses describe the speaker’s personal anguish and her desire to include the listener in collective mourning: “I can’t weep alone / Let’s ache and howl and moan.” The chorus line is repeated, threaded with the subdued guitar riff, followed by the bridge. Musically and lyrically, this is where the song becomes more somber and more beautiful:

It’s not the summer we were promised
It’s the summer that we deserve
It’s not the body that we wanted
It’s the body made to weather this world
Spent the season sad and haunted
Seeking wisdom in the stars too dim to shine
If it’s coming for us, darlin’
Take my hand and dance me down the line

To me, this is where the heart of the song lies, where it becomes incredibly poetic and emotionally complex. First off, the phrases “we deserve” and “weather this world” are drawn out by Brownstein to emphasize the importance of what is wanted versus what is needed. Here, the song shifts from “I” to “we” which suggests a move to a collective perspective. The lines “the summer we deserve” and “the body made to weather this world” speak to a higher consciousness that knows what’s best for the collective—which is not just to survive, but to endure. The second part of the bridge turns into a personal meditation on loss: “Spent the season sad and haunted / Seeking wisdom in the stars too dim to shine,” but then it shifts once more into a love song: “If it’s coming for us, darlin’ / Take my hand and dance me down the line.” Here, the speaker may be referring to death, which is inevitable, but the speaker has accepted it and seeks out the love of a partner to dance with. I can definitely feel echoes of Tom Petty in these last two lines in particular, but what is truly brilliant about those lines is that they cause the song to shift its meaning from loss to love.

The chorus and bridge are repeated once more, but halfway through the bridge the wailing guitar enters again, simplified, but ringing at a higher pitch, creating a sense of urgency which disrupts the groove of the song. After the bridge, the line “No getting it wrong this time” is sung and the guitar sound helps slow the song to a stop as it becomes less stable and melts into feedback. In this song, a variety of emotions are felt: loss, acceptance of death, love, and desire. This creates a rich listening experience and it shows the full range of what Sleater-Kinney is well known for accomplishing as a rock band: songs that flow and shift naturally and contain emotional depth.

I think what Nick Flynn and Sleater-Kinney share is an ability to poetically explore collective consciousness, whether it is nature-based or through human emotion. Both the poet and the music group put their own modern twists on Romanticism—Flynn through the perspective of bees; Sleater-Kinney through the lyrical expression of loss, death, and love. I also think there is an implied theme relating to survival and how it is connected to the influence of a higher consciousness, which adds complexity to the poem and the song. Additionally, I think neither have received the proper credit they deserve for their brilliance: Flynn is a brilliant poet because of the way in which he opens up the poetic landscape to include a higher understanding of nature; Sleater-Kinney are brilliant for the way in which the group reimagine the rock song format as a space for poetic exploration. Both the poet and the group have been a tremendous influence on me; Flynn’s poetry contains so much depth, but also so much space; the same is true for Sleater-Kinney’s music—reading and listening to them both show me ways in which I can create more space within my own creative work so that the reader can breathe and experience new ways of seeing nature and feeling emotion.

December 6, 2021