Yellow Jackets by Patti White


Patti White's new book, Yellow Jackets, is wildly ventriloquistic. Where else would you find sumo wrestlers, Izzy the cat, King Louis the Child, Jimmy Hoffa, the residents of Thicketty, South Carolina, couples at their burnt-out ends, and yellow jackets in one collection? All empathetically expressed, and without a single repeat. If you're bored with books about what the poet ate for breakfast, this one, with its refreshing lack of ego and its generously associated images is surely worth a look. -- Lola Haskins

Praise for Tackle Box, also by Patti White: Patti White's voice is authoritative, witty, and persuasive. She can take the most trivial subject and give it substance through her imaginative vision... To read these poems is to be invigorated, to feel the possibility of moving outside the confines of one's own narrow personal life. But dynamic vision is not all White offers. Her language is radiant, intensely lyrical at times, in spite of its driving narrative force. Perhaps that is why they seem to be the poems of some Wonder Woman or High Priestess, or the kind of woman we would all be honored to know. -- Diane Wakoski (Judge, 2001 Anhinga Prize for Poetry)


Yellow Jackets

The social wasps swarm in September
searching out sugar, discarded sodas,
following a woman's fruity perfume;

they are careless in their hunger,
falling into paint cans, entering cars,

driven to consume, to sip and sample,
and often, hungry, angry, to sting.

The queens have already flown and mated
and abandoned the colonies that raised them.

The queens have found shelter
and will survive the winter,

the long nights without food,
the freeze that kills

every worker, every wasp, every yellow jacket
in every nest. Only the queens survive.

The social wasps are very much like bees,
colonial, matriarchal, single-minded, venomous,

       like irritable makeshift wild bees, forced out
       to build honeycombs out of scrap wax and sawdust

       or the victims of the robber bees, come home 
       to find the hive overturned, drones slaughtered,

       and the scent of the queen just fading
       as if traced in paraffin and burning away.

Sweet bees trade honey for safety, 
live domesticated in boxy pastures.

But wasps make no concessions.

Hornets, ferocious, hostile, bear no insults
but return each provocation with brutal assault;
mud-daubers are solitary but fierce, deceptively 
slender, precise and cool inside adobe walls.

The yellow jackets seem benign in comparison,
awkwardly climbing inside grapefruit rinds, watching
beside hummingbird feeders for the last drop of syrup,
or trailing wistfully behind a child carrying candy. 
Only two or three will appear on the screendoor

       never the great swarms that smother their victims, 
       stinging behind the eye, inside the throat, settling 
       like a blanket on unfortunate postmen, pursuing 
       the ambulance as it speeds away, a patient swelling 
       with serum, breathing on a ventilator, in shock 
       or cardiac arrest, already dead, still screaming.

Their territory is the trailer, the trashcan, the drive-thru window,
they hunt in small groups, buzzing like flies, in complete disorder.
You can laugh at a yellow jacket and brush it off your sleeve.

But think how implacable a destiny. Each autumn, apocalypse.
The entire colony, save one, annihilated.

What dreams that queen must have, all winter,
bloated on the sweet lives of a thousand thousand sisters.

She sleeps curled in her refuge, fertile, well fed
resting from the arduous mating flight, groomed by
the workers whose bodies now drift like dried leaves
from the place where the cold night took them.

How can she bear the months of isolation?
Her dreams recount a population sacrificed
for the continuity of her kind. The wings beating
inside her head must drive her mad.

When she wakes, alone, near starved,
the world of yellow jackets will start over.
The new colony will be ruled by her scent,
her dispensation, her sharp covenant;

young queens, all but one, will be 
stung to death before they can hatch.

The new queen will be tended by her infertile sisters;
she will be fed with the history of her waspish race
and grow large on tales of disaster, of plague and fire,
a generation dropping suddenly from the sky, frozen

and lost forever. She will understand her mission
to be the preservation of a culture already frantic
with the nearness of the last days, gorging

on the last sugar they will ever taste, such sweetness
in the face of catastrophe that any yellow jacket
will fling itself into certain death for just a mouthful,

a grain of sugar to take back to the nest,
sugar for the queen, for all her sisters,
a morsel of sweet life, of a future, anything at all.

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