Muriel Leung, Imagine Us, The Swarm (Nightboat Books, 2021).
When bees swarm, it is as a function of reproduction. The hive has become too crowded, so the workers raise a new queen, and just before the usurper hatches, the old queen leaves with her retinue of workers and drones—enough to start a new life elsewhere. Or perhaps it is a year especially abundant with resources, and the hive decides that it would be a good time to divide and strike out, chasing the prosperity of honey.
The process is the same—the new queen born and the old leaving. Despite the chaotic human connotations of the word, swarming is an orderly process in the apian world. Bees are least likely to sting when they are in a swarm because they have no hive to protect. Instead, the swarm finds a tree branch or some other high spot near the hive and clusters there, surrounding the queen, while scout bees fly off to look for an appealing spot—a hollow tree or sheltered under-porch or crawlspace—where they might build their new home.
It is this liminal, transitory nature of a swarm that is perhaps most germane to Muriel Leung’s exploration of heritage, migration, elegy, and selfhood in her most recent book, Imagine Us, The Swarm, winner of the Nightboat Poetry Prize. In poems that move from fragment to lyrical narrative to ekphrastic verse essay, Leung moves between her parents’ journey from China to the US, her childhood as a first-generation immigrant, and her father’s death from and her mother’s survival of cancer, tracing a “pedagogy of grief,” which is both personal and wrung from “the violence of men / and the colonial rituals of their pasts.”