Patricia Spears Jones reviews A Swarm of Bees in High Court

  Tonya M. Foster’s well-built house of words, A Swarm of Bees In High Court is a rather grand one with many rooms. Belladonna has placed these poems in a handsome volume with cover art by Wangechi Mutu. Max Ernst’s painting, A Swarm of Bees in the Palace of Justice at The Menil Foundation in Houston provided a jumping off point for her consideration of shape and color, colored by myriad experiences from an erotic encounter in which the speaker reflects while her lover sleeps his satisfied sleep to bullets and basketball. Bees argue in the rooms of this artful house. They question power. They find sweetness. Change direction. Upend expectation. Find the Queen imperious to pleading or lack of sweetness. Foster’s poems be like that.

In/Somnia is for this reviewer, the most emotionally compelling section of this book. The post coital lovers make for an easy apprehension, but then Foster is not interested in easy apprehension. “Again to t/his sweat. Now sleep./But not for her—sleep.” Words are cut up, punctuation is almost too precise. The speaker’s insomnia reveals or conceals depending on where one is in the poem, anxiety, anger, vulnerability, pleasure, like picking the cuticle—gross, but it’s your own finger.

Can running her

finger, like a hiss along

t/his clavicle trip up


affection? Full of sleep


This is a poet for whom sound is an important ingredient in the poem’s architecture. Finger . . . hiss—those short vowels and intense consonants. The sleepless lover is either remaking herself in her “dramas, get chased round the block/by rabid white dogs or “She’s come to take this/as survival gospel/for sub’urban souls”. In/Somnia is a great introduction to Foster’s formal structure—like many contemporary poets she uses tercets and word play is very important. The sounds, puns, how the stanzas are arranged on the page contribute to a holistic sensibility—one self-referential, but also abstract, a kind of first person/third person face off in which the reader is kept a discrete distance. We can see the figures, make out gestures, have an understanding the tableaux, but there is much I do see, hear, can’t make out. That wakefulness after love making is the blues in its greatest mystery—what did the lovers get, and what is always missing?

Color becomes a motif throughout the book, particularly red. Red for blood, for flower, for rage, for love. And with red, she explores couplets and quatrains (lyricism’s favored stanzas):

red culled from rubia or madder root lends the hermit majesty, (the woman infamy),

red culled from sawdust of the brazilwood tree primped a pope’s robes, pimped pus(sy),

red culled from clay, from crushed cochineal, kermes, from worms dried and ground,

red culled from cinnabar mined by the enslaved, the imprisoned, not-I’s,


The color Black allows for an interesting contrast: “Blackity-black girl” who hears “Voice of a woman on tv offers her sick roommate medicine.” And another “Voice of a woman on a corner: “Stick your thumb up your ass. Smell it.” Black women as healers, soothers, aspirational shills (oh Oprah) in contrast with that “Blackity—black girl” who is simply tired of the shit, oh which will be that Queen? Who hears “the hive of sound/”As if beats blind us.”

Foster narrates the external anxieties meted out in communal theater—the streets, the basketball courts of Harlem, and other urban enclaves where Blacks mingle for good and ill. The “Bullet/In” section focuses on the missiles that meet too many bodies in urban spaces such as Harlem. Again, the poet effectively uses tercets. Her diction is high court street—one thing you learn living in this city is how well versed many young people are with the courts, with police procedure because all too often they have found themselves in court. As the poet notes, “bullets can/Blot a page, train an eye to/follow and often followed are “Bodies of young men—site specific installations—streets, stoops, corners, cells.” Black bodies male and female too often are found violated in this society. The ordinariness of this violence is enraging and Foster has found a way to explore that rage, “beats blind us.”

The Belladonna Collaborative is bringing out important work by African American women poets from highly diverse backgrounds including Latasha Diggs, TWERK and R. Erica Doyle’s proxy showing poets whose use of language is breathtakingly daring. Now, Tonya M. Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court is added to this vital list.

Foster’s imaginative work glories in language’s ambiguities, discords, emotions and logic—she allows that imaginative thrall to explore race and gender and political dysfunction. Foster has taken from one work of art and found correspondences in a Harlem apartment, a New Orleans childhood, early morning television commercials, a lover’s sated face, the sounds of bullets and basket balls, bees, and the colors, red, brown and black to make a powerful debut collection that will be read and re-read for years to come.