(United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1978)
BiographyThe uncompromising beauty of Fiona Benson’s poetry has won her many awards and the admiration of readers. Just as her work appears on p!, her second book Vertigo & Ghost (Cape) has been awarded the £10,000 Forward Prize. It had previously garnered the Poetry Book Society’s 2019 Spring Wild Card, and the 2019 Roehampton Prize. Bright Travellers, published by Jonathan Cape in 2014, won the Seamus Heaney Prize for first collection, and jointly won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; it was also shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
Michael Longley writes that Benson has “created her own soul-space with moving and unsettling poems about life’s precarious beginnings and inevitable endings. She explores central themes – sex and love, birth and motherhood, art’s riskiness, landscape, plants and animals – with tenderness, courage, formal inventiveness and a natural musicality.”
I could dedicate myself to this:
the pursuit of cadences in salt and warmth
and the sinuous will of this many-ribboned shoal
as it streams into rods of turquoise and gold…
Here bodily enjoyment is not apart from the spiritual, but gives access to it: “as if I had somehow found a back door / and, uninvited, entered grace.” In this way, Benson sends us back to think about what ‘Corpo Santo’ means: sacred body. It’s a good introduction to her fascination with both bodies and spiritual enquiry – the latter always coloured and questioned by that “as if” – as well as Benson’s interest in the multivalent potentials of words themselves. In the final poem, ‘Salvage’ we find “A feral rose” “its scarlet bell streaming, / as if it were Christ’s sacred heart”:
already beginning to break apart
with a love of the world
beyond limit, or bearing.
Bright Travellers opens with ‘Caveat’ – which like several of the poems in the collection also appeared in her pamphlet. We’re asked to “consider the cactus”:
[…] once a lifetime,
when the slant rains fall
there is this halo of flowers.
The cactus seems to embody what Michael Symmons Roberts says of Benson’s poetry, that "These are poems of great tenderness, but an undertow of violence and loss gives them a hard-won, miraculous quality.” That loss, along with a love of landscape, flora and fauna, is present in ‘Submerged Forest’:
[…] these dank eroded beds
of peat-stained oak, pocked
with vanished colonies of whelk
and halfway troughed in sand.
The central sequence, ‘Love-letter to Vincent’, explores depression and desire, the solace and risks of art, addressing Van Gogh in words which burn with vivid colours while fearing their absence:
But that’s not it. I wanted to tell you
that it’s so much worse, that the times
of clarity and grace are more and more
remote, that I’m losing ground to the dark
(‘Yellow Room at Arles’)
But there’s heroism in the continued effort in seeking out “the blazing candour of the light”, of continuing to look at the world, which means these poems act as a bridge to the latter part of the collection. Here the majority of the poems deal with motherhood which for Benson is “a terrible site of anxiety and contradiction” (Granta interview). In ‘Soundings’ the anxiety of motherhood reaches across the divide of species:
There’s a leveret in the field.
I know by its mother’s haunt at dusk,
Can sense the space of its watch
Over near the gorse.
Benson often reaches for the animal. ‘Prayer’ addresses a foetus: “Tadpole, // stripling, elver, don’t let the dragtides / pull you under, but root in, bed down”. A miscarriage is discussed in ‘Sheep’. Other poems describe in detail the messier realities of having children: stitches, breastfeeding, cradle cap. ‘Childbed’ relates birth itself from the mother’s perspective (literally):
I looked and saw,
collared in my own dark fur,
your face […]
There are intensely painful poems here, but there is also great tenderness, as in ‘Rosebay Willowherb’:
My fledgling daughter is hanging round my knees,
her hair is the same white gold
as the white gold seeds
and here is the quick of the thing –
all my heart’s stitches
for this new, bright being.
Motherhood, and womanhood more generally, are also central themes in Vertigo & Ghost (2019). It opens with ‘Ace of Bass’, about burgeoning teen female sexuality:
desire between us like a shared addiction
in its crooked spoon, desire and the holding back […]
This is followed by the harrowing Zeus sequence, with Benson saying that she “wanted that optimism and celebration first before I ruined it” (London Review Bookshop talk). Zeus is refigured as a serial abuser and rapist, the contemporary and myth echoing each other:
The judge delivers
that he is an exemplary member
of the swimming squad;
look at his muscular shoulders,
the way he forges through water;
as for the girl
It’s a sequence which, like Zeus and many of his victims, shifts shape, moving between voices and forms. We find Danaë fleeing across the page repeatedly (and unsuccessfully). ‘[transformation: Cyane]’ is typographically set out as a vortex. Zeus himself speaks in capitals, with a bombast, ego and misogyny that is all too familiar: “I LOVE THIS PRESIDENT. / HIS SHINY GOLD TOWER." The charge against him is not given the decorative covering of myth, he named as: “you filthy pimp, you animal, you rapist” (‘[transformation: Nemesis]’). It’s a brave, horrifying and artful sequence, which makes clear accusations against rape culture: “[…] in this world // the woman is blamed” (‘[not-Zeus: Medusa I]’).
The second section of Vertigo & Ghost contains lyrical poems which have more in common with Benson’s previous work. Here is death, grief, depression, anxiety, fear and violence, but also hope and relief, often located in nature. In ‘Beatitude (Ah Bright Wings!)’ a swim offers momentary relief: “I’m carried by the river, numb with cold, / a compass to the currents, briefly healed.” But the healing is “brief”, and we are in the past tense, not to mention potentially at risk from the cold and currents. Motherhood dominates and again Benson invokes the animal:
I stagger back
to my bed –
smell of blood
all over the ward
There is animal joy too, as in ‘Portrait of our Daughters’: “Their happiness too is elephantine – they sing /silly songs, snorkel and spout fountains”. But even play is troubling; a game of ‘Hide and Seek’ recalls real dangers which force mothers to hide their children. Despire the English landscape setting, the horrors of our geopolitical situation cannot be ignored. In ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’ a military jet brings distant wars into the British backyard. In ‘Heavenly Bodies’ we are presented with Syria’s “bomb-shocked children shivering in the clinic, / legs dangling from the gurney, screaming”. These poems enact desperation, crying out to “Jesus Christ” and “Mary, Mother of God” just as Zeus’s victims appealed to Hera.
Benson has spoken of the development in her writing, saying that many of the Zeus poems came in “what felt like an involuntary rush” and of the freedom and “running line” she has taken from American influences such as Ginsberg and Whitman. Talking to Emily Berry on The Poetry Review podcast she spoke of her belief that “shame is very unhelpful, that taboos can be very unhelpful – maybe we should try and be as brave as our poems”, and Vertigo & Ghost has great courage and candour. ‘Shame’ is also a feature of her work in development and she is currently working on a commissioned series of ‘Insect Love Songs’ with the radio producer and sound artist Mair Bosworth. Benson has never been hemmed by themes or ideas of what she ‘should’ write and she continues to explore new terrain with increasing powers of drama and lyricism.
Read poems from Fiona Benson’s Zeus sequence on Granta’s website
Fiona Benson on The Poetry Review Podcast
Listen to Fiona Benson in conversation with Daisy Johnson at the London Review Bookshop
© Emily HaslerBright Travellers (Jonathan Cape, 2014)
Vertigo & Ghost (Jonathan Cape, 2019)
Greek myth/Me-too poems win Forward Prize
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère