Atypical poem in Fiona Benson’s first collection, Bright Travellers (2014), begins with a description of a hare:
There’s a leveret in the field.
I know it by its mother’s haunt at dusk,
can sense the cupped space of its watch
over near the gorse.
The young hare is just a space of attention – evoked by that wonderful phrase ‘the cupped space of its watch’ – which captures both the attentiveness of a nervous creature and its wish to be invisible; there’s also the observer’s desire to establish that the animal is actually present. The poem, ‘Soundings’, goes on to address the ‘small one in my womb’ – to whom a midwife is listening as she tries to hear ‘the wild, sweet beating/of your heart’. Benson, a great describer of the natural world, habitually connects the vulnerability of wild things to that of human beings. She often takes you at once to the porous divide between the human and the animal and to the equally permeable boundary between life and death.
The leveret and the foetus are almost imperceptible, inviting nervous attention even as they can’t be clearly observed. It’s this kind of life that Benson excels at describing – one surrounded by hazard and in danger of vanishing altogether. ‘Soundings’ ends with the fear that life might depart, that the hare might disappear or the mother miscarry: ‘There are still so many ways/you could startle, abort.’
Other poems in Bright Travellers dwell on similar moments where life might simultaneously proliferate and end. ‘Pine Cone’ begins with an observation of its ‘long/ wooden petals’, then considers the seeds spreading, germinating into a sapling life that might bring instant destruction:
I can see the acid green
of their needles
soft as hair,
vulnerable to clearances
and the long blunt teeth
of the deer
And then, haiku-like, the poem comes to rest in the fear that ‘One day/my daughter also/will travel far from here.’ Fragile things are treasured without flinching from the realities that may destroy them, as ‘the long blunt teeth/of the deer’ grind up the hairlike seedlings that grow from the pine cone.
Benson’s most recent collection, Vertigo & Ghost, which won the 2019 Forward Prize and is republished this month (Norton, £19), develops many of the concerns of Bright Travellers. It evokes the fear and pain of having and losing children, of giving birth and seeing one’s body change, and it does so with all the descriptive attentiveness of the earlier volume. But there are strong new elements too. The book begins with a series of poems about rape and sexual violence, focused on the figure of Zeus. He is a sadist, rapist, murderer and paedophile, and is (eventually) dismembered into a ‘dark heart creeping across the floor of its cage’. Here the transition between life and death is not a matter of a hare vanishing or a pine sapling being devoured by a deer. It’s snuff stuff. Zeus’ speech is rendered in italicised caps – I’m not sure when the gods began to speak this way, but I suspect they didn’t do so before Ezra Pound – and he just loves killing:
WHAT I LOVE:
THAT MOMENT BEFORE DEATH
THAT CANDLE-SNUFF LOOK
AS THE FLAME BLACKS OUT
UNDER THE HOOD
He becomes the universal rapist who pursues his prey even as she frantically metamorphoses into different animal forms. In classical mythology Nemesis was pursued by Zeus and became a goose; he then became a swan and raped her. In Benson’s ‘[transformation: Nemesis]’ Nemesis
fletched black and tan
and flew against the wind
before I reached the stars
he was swan, I was pinned –
That’s a brilliant use of the rare verb ‘fletched’ – set with feathers like an arrow – to capture the moment of metamorphosis into a bird.
These are deliberately discomfiting poems. By suggesting that Zeus is everywhere and that ‘rape is cultural,/pervasive;/ that in this world/the woman is blamed,’ they risk submitting to and universalising the violence they condemn. But they transcend that risk because of Benson’s skill in describing the terror and misery of Zeus’ victims as they flicker between human and animal form. Her ‘[transformation: Io]’ is perhaps the most upsetting of the lot. In most versions of the myth, Zeus lusts after Io and she is turned into a cow – either by Zeus’ wife, Hera, or by Zeus himself to protect her from his wife’s jealous rage. After that Hera pursues her with gadflies. In Benson’s version, Io is described in a way that shuttles between representing her as a profoundly damaged woman watched over by her parents and a cow suffering from CJD – ‘Hera’s gift’. The boundaries of misery won’t stretch much further than this:
spongiform she is goaded
she is goaded and stung
god manifests in thickening air
like a plague like a locust swarm
he has his dick out
Benson performs a similar transformation of the story of Callisto, who is raped by Zeus and then transformed by Hera into a bear. In ‘[transformation: Callisto]’, Callisto is a child fed comfort food by her mother; then, all at once, she becomes a bear, a bereaved human mother, and a lost and wrecked child: ‘her hunch and look-away demeanour delivering her over/onto all fours, patchy fur, hardened claws’. She mourns for her lost cub:
Her voice, when she calls for him,
is the voice of her own mother, weeping.
Go ahead Zeus. Constellate this.
These poems are powerful feminist alternatives to Ted Hughes’s transformations of Ovid.
The volume also contains several versions of what might be called the apotropaic poem – a poem which seeks to avert suffering, or which aspires to become a charm to ward off evil. The first such poem, ‘[votive]’, makes a strong feminist statement simply by appealing to Hera for deliverance:
Vouchsafe our children in the world.
Keep him in the prison of your vigilance.
Make sure. Hold.
Hera, traditionally represented as Zeus’ vengeful wife, becomes the only person who might hold him in check. And the prayer to Hera begins a series of poems which try to change the past or forestall impending danger. ‘Dear Comrade of the Boarding House’ starts as self-description: ‘This is the poem in which your jeep does not crash,’ or ‘this poem is the hospital in which you are healed,’ or this is the poem in which the dead friend does ‘not crawl back to me night after night for fifteen years/returned but changed, disfigured or shaven-haired,/held hostage or raped, a little simple now’.
The desire to empower the imagination to change the world runs through the volume: ‘I want more than anything/to trust that a child’s soul flies up/on a swan’s white back,’ she says in ‘Heavenly Bodies’. But – and there is often a ‘but’ (it was the first word in Benson’s first collection) – this is followed by the admission: ‘I think this life is all there is.’ We’re left with the stark fact that in death there is no more than ‘the white rush of a white breath leaving/and the strange ascension of dying’. Transformation into a swan is the kind of thing Zeus can do. Mortals just die.
Of the many excellent poems in Vertigo & Ghost, ‘Fly’ is perhaps the best. It begins with sleeplessness and depression: ‘Spring broke out but my soul did not./It kept to sleet and inwards fog.’ There’s the faintest echo of George Herbert’s ‘Love (III)’ – in which ‘Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back,/Guilty of dust and sin’ – to bring metaphysical gravity to the seasonal gloom. The unhappy soul won’t accept salvation, and the sleepless person won’t yield to the sleep she needs:
My husband lay beside me in the dark.
I listened till he slept. I picked out
all the bad parts of my day like sore jewels
and polished them till they hurt.
It’s hard to think of a better description of the self-hatred that insomnia brings, where the absence of the cure – simple sleep – exacerbates the symptoms. At the end of the poem the speaker feels
like a bound and stifled fly, half-paralysed,
drugged dumb, its soft and intermittent buzz,
its torpid struggle in the spider’s sick cocoon.
What now if I call on the sublime?
What bright angels of the pharmakon
will come now if I call, and rip
this sticky gauze and tear me out?
That moment pulls together a lot of the delicate threads which run through Benson’s writing and make it so good: the delicacy of a spider’s web, at once a form of protection and a snare, the desire to break free, the hope that ‘the sublime’ (or poetry) can offer a release. It also has an unsettling edge of violence (‘rip … tear me out’). The whole collection longs for poems to be stronger than poems can be: a poem can’t change the violent truths beneath classical myths, or rewrite the past, or protect one’s daughters from the Eurofighter Typhoon jets that rip like chainsaws through the skies above their heads, or make a dead soul become a swan. But it can try.