Bright Travellers: Fiona Benson

The debut collection from the award-winning poet was a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Deeply personal, it covers motherhood, landscape and includes a beautiful sequence of poems for Vincent Van Gogh.

The opening poem ‘Caveat’ forms an epigraph for the collection with its message that  it is possible to find the good in anything, like cacti that “harbour a moist heart”. From the outset, Benson’s style of using natural imagery to examine the human condition in fresh and unexpected ways is evident. In the first section of the collection, the poems are deeply pastoral, delving deep into the detail of the landscape and exploring the relationship between human and nature, one which can be tense and unsettled :”how will I find my way back/to the woods” in ‘Submerged Forest’, a poem which is sinister in tone, “dank, eroded beds”.

Motherhood features from the third poem ‘Cave Bear’, a beautifully lyrical piece that uses the central image of a bear corpse to explore the relationship between a mother bear and her cub.  Death – or the threat of it – features heavily in the early part of the collection in poems such as ‘Urn-burial’ and ‘Cave Bear’, culminating in the somewhat sinister ‘Devonport’, a stunning poem that examines the relationship between man and nature with its sublime lexicon of military language suffusing the description “Holstered in the Tamar/ the low-slung bolts/ of submarines come home.” Finishing with “The sea is still a torpedo-path,/ an Armageddon road”, the last poem in this section, we step out of this section uneasy.

 

The next sequence ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ contains some fascinating poems. Benson uses ekphrastic in an interesting way, with poems such as ‘Spring of Almond Blossom in a Glass’ written from the point of view of the subject. In these poems, Benson uses the art to explore the thoughts and emotions of the poet, imagining what prompted the art to be created in such a way. The two poems entitled ‘Sunflowers’ include some of the most stunning imagery: describing the petals as “a blaze” and the description of the flowers as “a long singing summer in a vase”, urging the artist to “teach me to admit/ a touch more light”. By using the second person throughout, these are deeply personal and affecting – we feel included in the conversation. There’s a melancholy here as she examines the emotional arc of the artist as she examines his body of work, with the poems becoming more depressing in tone.

Some poems stand on their own throughout the collection, such as ‘Salvage’ which forms a sort of coda between the groupings. The third ‘grouping’ of poems is very difficult with its examination of miscarriage. Again Benson weaves the natural world with personal experience to devastating effects such as in ‘Sheep’ where she describes a mother sheep standing over “her three dead lambs” as a jumping point to an exploration of her own miscarriage. The immediacy of the language here is brutally moving, devoid of imagery.

“I was afraid to look down 

For what I might see – 

A human face, a fist”

The rest of these poems in this section examine the grief “ I’ve left the shell of myself / curled up on the quilt in her own penumbra of dark” and others examine miscarriage with beautiful imagery such as in ‘Prayer’ “ Tadpole,

Stripling, elver, don’t let the dragtides

Pull you under, but root in, bed down,

Tucked behind my pelvic bone,

Rocked in the emptying stoup of my womb.”

The final sections are more joyful as Benson explores her personal experience of motherhood, describing her daughter in ‘Brew’ as a “hunched genie in the lamp of my womb”, melding the awe of birth with the visceral “out you came, cabled and wet” in ‘Childbed’. As in earlier poems, she puts the detail to the forefront, delighting the reader by hanging the detail from more unconventional images such as in ‘Cradle Cap’ where she describes her newborn to a fledgling robin “my own, small robin-in-the-moult / with your dishevelled features, ‘stuck quills”. With motherhood also comes fear and although it is not as ominous as in earlier poems, there is still an undercurrent through these later poems, such as the fear of losing a child in ‘Demeter’ “my own voice/ snags at her name like barbed wire on skin”. 

The last poem in the collection ties the themes of motherhood and landscape together, leaving the reader hanging as it finishes without punctuation: “you are the ground it falls upon” .

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