We’re in trouble when our enemies have more substance than our loves

Dear President Trump,

OMG has time gotten wonky. I thought I had opened the tab holding W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Stare’s Nest By My Window” days and days ago, but it was just yesterday morning that it was the featured ‘poem-a-day’ poem (an interesting choice for Mother’s Day). It was a very long, very hot day here (it hit 87, another shitty record yesterday) so maybe that’s why this morning it felt like the poem had been hovering in my periphery much longer. Or maybe it’s that the poem is so essential and basic, in an old tattered shirt sort of way, that even though I’d never read it before yesterday morning it felt right away like something I’ve known for a very long time.

The poem is in the public domain so I’m reproducing it here to give it a tiny bit more exposure and so you can see how gorgeous and relevant it is:

VI—The Stare’s Nest By My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening, honey bees
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; oh, honey-bees
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

It first appeared in 1928 as part of Yeats’s Meditations in Time of Civil War (included in The Tower) reflecting on Ireland’s Civil War (1922-1924) and just so you aren’t too confused by the “stare” reference, a stare is a starling.

Yesterday the title of our pastor’s sermon was “Building Me a Home.” She didn’t reference Yeats’s hope that the honey-bees would shift from burrowing into the loose masonry of his home’s exterior walls to instead take up residence in an abandoned swallow’s nest under the eaves, but she could have. I wonder what she would have done with it? I hadn’t paid this aspect of the poem much attention before just now when I juxtaposed it with her sermon, which was largely about how African Americans have long yearned for homes where they feel safe, secure, and fulfilled and so often have needed to rely on their spirituality to provide a semblance of this because it’s so rarely been available in the flesh in our country. I suspect she would have taken issue with Yeats wishing the honey-bees would stop infiltrating his masonry, would stop compromising his home’s integrity, and would instead just use the nice little (separate, wholly unsuitable for them but far more convenient for him) stare’s nest. It seems he really, really wanted them to do that since he repeats the entreaty four times.

I found a few essays that attempted to explain the poem and none of them had this sort of take on the honey-bees and where they were trying to make their home. They actually didn’t comment on this aspect of the poem but instead focused on the overt heaviness of the last stanza, which I confess is what stuck in my head when I initially read it, reread it later, and mulled it over for what felt like days. That last stanza is hard, hard, hard – the idea that we can be so duped by fantasy and lies that our hearts harden to the point that our enemies have more substance, feel more real to us, than our loves is so scary.

But now that I am seeing what I’m seeing (right or wrong as it may be) about the honey-bees and where they were trying to establish themselves, I wonder if Yeats was giving the reader a heads up from the get go that we’re in danger of losing our capacity for love when we get too invested in wanting to control our enemies, or really, those we’ve been led to believe are our enemies. The repetition of that final line at the end of each stanza can’t just be artistic flair – he was saying something important with it and when it meets the final stanza, I think the whole thing sings and demands to be reckoned with as a heavy, hard truth.

May we all be safe, secure, and fulfilled in our homes.
May we reset so that this basic, fundamental human need is met for all of us.
May we make our communities strong through love rather than pumped up by fear mongering lies.
May we all accept that everyone deserves respect, dignity, and compassion.

Tracy Simpson

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