The Human Hive (extracts)


This page shows a sample of poems from my book The Human Hive (Bennison Books 2015).

The Human Hive looks at life through work, down the ages and round the globe. Work helps to define who we are; it can be the trigger for many emotions; it extends far beyond paid employment. The book opens and closes with two poems that I see as bookends. In between, seven Parts explore life from different angles.

Here’s the selection:

Work (A Noun)

Old English: weorc, werc, wurc, wirc, worc, work: that which distinguishes the human from other primates

Let us start at the beginning. Come closer
and we’ll focus on a detail: two hands,
rough with bitten-down nails but agile, strong,
striking one stone against another; knapping.
Step back and see the whole man, in skins, squatting,
a ring of small children, thin dogs and beyond –
on the brow of this hill – earthworks and huts
and barefooted people carrying, sifting.
He stands. He weighs one flint in his hand, frowning,
then swinging his arm high he sends that stone
arching through the air to the trees below.
And it’s spinning still. Changing shape. Becoming
            a knife, a pot, the wheel, the printing press,
            railways, nuclear fission and the rule of law.

Part One: Spinning the World

The first section of the book comprises eight poems which celebrate archetypal forms of work, found in human society at any time and anywhere. This is one:

Raiding the Deep

Let’s spin the globe, spin it towards the sun –
slowly now – we’re looking for a likely place,
a place where the sea or the ocean touch the land
and men have always put to sea in boats,
have moored their boats or dragged them on the shore
with heavy limbs after the homeward run.

Here will do,
here where the wild Atlantic batters the coast
and the heaving tide has carried a fragile fleet
up on to Portugal’s sand. The boats are beached
and the sardine catch laid out in boxes for the buyers,
and men with wide-brimmed metal hats
will carry the fish on their heads, salt water dripping,
up to the trucks and out of view.

Soon the men will hear how much they’ve earned.
A decent trip? Not bad.
The catch? So so.
Not as much as in the glory days
but the weather held, the fish were there, the gear behaved
and (although this isn’t said) they all returned.

Spin the world,
and find the trawlers active in early morning
off Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New England.
Spin it and in the darkness look for vessels
ranged around the Pacific ring of fish,
tuned to their weather warnings, studying sonar,
watching the stars in shoals expiring slowly
and the depths putting on new colour,
as the day – a day of promise –
is unfurled.

Part Two: Martha (Circa 1950)

Part Two remembers the unpaid but indispensable work of someone running a home, drawing on memories of my mother in my early childhood. One of six poems reads:

The Adventurer

Having been outside
all through the long cold night
the cat returns. Let him come in.
Well might you ask, but he’ll tell you nowt.
He’s conquered the Persians perhaps,
or steered his ships
around the Cape; whereas you –
you have the plates, the beds, the bins …

Part Three: The Silk Road

There are ten poems in Part Three, exploring the romance and the stresses of business travel to foreign places. For example, this:

In a Strange Land

Passports :- Baggage :- Arrivals. And it’s bedlam!
A melee like a field of medieval battle,
shoving, shouting, scuffling,
the announcements and all the signs completely baffling,
and only this thought consoles:
that somewhere this pandemonium conceals
a chauffeur trying to be heard
and a well-dressed aide with a clear head.
Where are they though? Ten minutes. Thirty.
Only the hustlers remain, grabbing and hissing out “Taxi?”

… pitched on the bank of a river where the adult males
are fidgeting with spears … guarding a train of mules
through a strange bazaar … bringing the caravel
into a bay to be met by prowling canoes …

and they know (regressing to childhood prayer),
they know that they’re quarry, they’re prey.

Part Four: Tribal Loyalties

‘Tribal Loyalties’ considers the darker side of human nature. Although the following poem describes a historic event, the culmination of religious conflict which in 1618 ignited the Thirty Years War in Europe, it seems painfully relevant to the world today.

The Defenestration of Prague

No blood here now, unless imagination
can paint the grey stone brown along the sill.
No water in the moat below, just grass.
And such a sense of peace.
It takes imagination to conceive
of how rough hands and over-certain minds,
calling on God but vying for civil power,
could hurl those men and all Bohemia with them
into a war of thirty years –
the Holy Roman Empire, dukedoms, fiefs,
cottage and mill – out of this room
of elegant refinement, out of this land 
of settled prosperity, into a world
where would-be theologians write their theses
with the sword, voices loud in martial prayer,
their conscience clear. 


Part Five: States of Mind

The poems in Part Five explore the emotions that we may experience through work. Each exemplifies a state of mind through a particular métier, the first being that of:


She turns and takes a final look at the room:
the mirrors across the wall, the well-sprung floor.
If you ignore the lights, it’s like a womb
where music finds embodiment in dance.
Re-living the last half-hour, she shuts the door. 

What did they think of that?

This was the feared audition, the longed-for chance.
Those weeks, let’s say the years, of preparation
had worked their alchemy: as though entranced
her mind and the music fused, her body became
line and shape, gesture, and lightness of motion. 

Surely they will recognise, at last,
my true potential?           

She feels so alive! She wants, she needs, this same
exhilaration daily in her life,
to burst out from the chrysalis, break the chain
at the prison door, to give her talents space
to dance on a wider stage, with a full spotlight. 

So near,
so very close,
impossible not to dream.

Back in the street she finally slows her pace.
There’s someone to phone … then coffee …
and a walk in the park
perhaps …

Part Six: The Night Shift

This is a single poem, spread across six pages, beginning:


The world is turning
and a longitudinal arc dips slowly
away from the sun towards the darkness.
Somewhere along this littoral lies our city.

The city never wholly closes down.
Although in countless homes they’re mostly sleeping,
elsewhere there’s someone working through til dawn.

Consider the light, or rather
the lights, for sources are many and varied:
from the steady moonlight of shop windows
to the constellations of street lamps strung out
along the tarmac
and traffic lights winking.
And here, look, the headlamps of law enforcement:
a police car on conspicuous patrol, watchful
as the late-night revellers
give way to the Night’s own players.

Uniformed. Ready.
Direct from the preliminary briefing,
the issue of keys, of guns, of radios
appropriate to the duties and powers
with which they have been invested.
These are the regalia of their office.

Like Roman guards or Palace eunuchs they’ll deign
to watch the unlit corners, the darkness stirring.
The city never wholly closes down …


Part Seven: Keeping Busy

Part Seven turns to activities that we undertake for pleasure or personal fulfilment, not for remuneration, for example the creative work of gardening:

A Garden of the Ming Dynasty


We should stop, be still, then allow our eyes to see
how the walls, the willows, then the rising limestone rocks
and the high curve of pavilion roof sinking to the little tea house
encircle this place like a sinuous dragon at ease;

how the stone-paved path before us now arches its back
to step across the pool at the narrowest point;
here on the bridge we may gaze at the slow carp sliding
gold and luminous through the liquid black.

The search for balance, for harmony.
Mountains and lakes, architecture and forests,
seen here in miniature. Lanterns over the water.
Stone lion. Leafy bamboo. Peony.

Go in, under the eaves:
low couch and lacquered table;
window to a distant peak.
Perhaps they will bring us tea.


The Human Hive can be bought through Amazon (the price is as low as they allow) or, in Britain, can be borrowed through libraries: The Poetry Library on the South Bank in London took the book into the national collection and Norfolk Libraries did likewise.

John Looker

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