This poem was included in Alexander’s second collection, Body of Life. It was published in 1996. It is representative of much of her writing, particularly her skill with simple language. This poem is at once specific and broad as it applies to one person’s family and to all people at the same time.
‘Equinox’ by Elizabeth Alexander is a short, meaningful poem about the inevitability of death.
The poet begins by describing how bees act on and around the equinox. They can sense that their food sources are about to decline and that death is, therefore, right around the corner. They act erratically in the same way that the speaker’s grandmother acted when she woke up post-stroke. The family didn’t think she was going to survive, but she’s two years past the incident and is still “breathing” (although the poet implies she’s not doing much else).
You can read the full poem here.
What is an Equinox?
It’s important to note that the word “equinox” refers to the time, twice a year, the sun is directly above the equator. On this day, both hemispheres have around the same amount of sunlight. There is a spring and fall equinox, which is regarded as the beginning of each season. (An equinox is the opposite of a solstice.)
Structure and Form
‘Equinox’ by Elizabeth Alexander is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of five lines, known as quintains. The poem is written in free verse, meaning that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The stanzas use very different end words and transitions. The poem is written from the first-person point of view, as well.
The poet uses a few different literary devices in this poem, they include:
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that does not use either of the words “like” or “as.” Throughout the text, the poet alludes to a comparison between the speaker’s grandmother and bees.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words, usually found very close to one another in a line or lines. For example, “fly fast” in line two of stanza one and “clusters” and “conversants” one line later.
- Personification: this can be seen with the poet imbuing something nonhuman with human characteristics. In this case, the poet personifies the bees, comparing them to “dervishes.”
Now is the time of year when bees are wild
and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped
loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants
in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.
I have found their dried husks in my clothes.
In the first stanza of this interesting contemporary poem, the poet begins by describing the equinox, a time of year in which bees are known to act erratically. They are two equinoxes every year, one in spring and one in fall. She uses personification to describe the bees as “eccentric,” a term usually reserved to describe human beings. They act in ways one wouldn’t expect, including flying in loops and dive-bombing. This occurs in “the bright, late-September out-of-doors.”
Their flight patterns are used to represent the trouble the bees have during this time of year. They are frustrated and confused and end up dying. The speaker notes that she has found dried bees in her clothes. The bees sense that the season is changing and that soon they’re going to run out of food and die. They react to their impending death in the only way they know how.
They are dervishes because they are dying,
my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped
The poet uses a metaphor, comparing the bees to “dervishes.” This refers to a type of spinning dancer (a meditation practice), also known as Sufi whirling, that originated in Turkey. The term “‘dervish” has also been used to describe anything that spins, like a children’s toy, and is, in this case, used to highlight the purposeless spinning and flight patterns that the bees engage in.
They act the way they do, the poet reveals, because they know they are dying and they are seeking out, whether they realize it or not, one last thing, somewhere to squeeze a drop of venom or honey. While the speaker has so far focused on the dying bees, it is also very easy to imagine an extended metaphor in which these bees represent human beings.
The bee’s impending death is related to the speaker’s grandmother in the next two lines. There is a surprising transition into a discussion of the speaker’s grandmother and a stroke she suffered from (and which the family believed would kill her). They thought it would be “her last,” but she came back and “slapped / a nurse across the face.”
There is a great example of enjambment here that’s also entertaining and surprising. As readers move from the end of stanza two to the beginning of stanza three, they learn about the grandmother’s unique attitude after her stroke.
a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,
as an empty hive, and she is breathing.
The third stanza describes what the grandmother did after waking up post-stroke. She showed her frustrations (like the bees have) by slapping the nurse and then acting even more erratically by walking outside and lying down in the snow. There is an implicit comparison between the bees and the speaker’s grandmother in these lines.
After two years, the family is still “waiting” for something else to go wrong and for the grandmother to pass away. The poet suggests that the grandmother is not able to speak. She’s “silent.” (This is likely the result of her stroke.) She’s breathing, but the speaker implies she isn’t doing much else. She’s in a type of purgatory between life and death, not dissimilar to that which the bees experience. They know death is coming and that there’s nothing they can do about it.
‘Equinox’ is a free verse poem that uses an extended metaphor to speak about death. The poem is divided into three stanzas of five lines each, creating a concise and memorable image of what it’s like to feel one’s death around the corner.
The message is that no matter who you are (or what species you are), every living thing is mortal. There is no way to escape death, and when a living being, like the bees or the speaker’s grandmother, feels it coming, erratic behavior can result.
There is an extended metaphor in this poem that compares the speaker’s grandmother to how bees act during the equinox. They are chaotic and erratic, much like the grandmother was after she had her last stroke.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Elizabeth Alexander poems. For example:
- ‘Affirmative Action Blues’ – speaks about an instance of police brutality in 1991.
- ‘Praise Song for the Day’ – this poem was written for and read at the inauguration of President Obama in 2009.