Vertigo and Ghost is Fiona Benson’s second collection and the winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2019.. I was bowled over by Bright Traveller, falling in love with the way she weaves the natural world with human experience in a way that feels both warming yet sinister. I love the immediacy of her writing – the way she perfects the balance between the personal but without feeling confessional – although these are personal snapshots, they almost feel ‘everyman’ – in the way she uses the detail of the surroundings to pull us into the worlds the poems inhabit.
Although there is a lot of emotional power in Bright Traveller, I was surprised by the levels of anger and pain in the first section. The rage is potent, the structure intriguing, formatted as a form of interrogation – with victim accounts of their mistreatment at the hands of Zeus. We hear from Zeus, from the archives, from personal accounts and the stories of those ‘transformations ‘ – the stories of the women Zeus shapeshifted to attack.
It’s a heady rush of emotion and we’re bombarded by sensory detail, rage and anguish. It’s difficult to keep afloat in this chorus of violence. The accounts roll like overlapping waves, peppered with Zeus’ fiery rage. He speaks only in capitals – and the juxtaposition of his roaring memories with the accounts of those he raped is shocking.
“ITS TINY TRAIL OF STARS
THIS IS THE LIQUOR
GODS LIVE FOR,
THIS TWENTY-ONE GRAMMES”
But it’s not just about classical rape – there are modern stories as well, of the criticism levelled at rape victims “in this world / the woman is blamed,” victims of honour killings, the victims of the Magdelene laundries – Benson’s anger transcends all boundaries. It’s the focus on the ravages their bodies take that makes it such difficult reading – especially when seen through a poet’s unflinching focus: “Split urethra, fistula, stitched rectum.” “He will tear her with his slimy mouth” Even when he’s in chains, held in a hospital, we get a sense of Zeus’ power and perversion. This could be any man, any monster who utters the horribly sinister “WOULDN’T YOU LIKE /TO GO FOR A WALK? / THERE’S SOMEWHERE PRIVATE / I KNOW PRETTY GIRL.”
Part Two is back on more familiar ground, meshing natural imagery with personal experience. Death is a common motif in both human and natural worlds. Early in the section, two sparrows questions the role of a deity:
“The nameless dead of the human world
Float endlessly down the corpse-choked river,
And I’m not sure of anything anymore,
Least of all benevolence, or God.”
But there’s still hope – like in ‘Almond Blossom’, ‘Toad’. As in Bright Traveller, there are a number of poems about childbirth which are very animalistic, such as when a placenta is described as a “meaty battery-pack”
The poems in the second half are deeply personal, narratives of a person wrestling with depression, of someone trying to understand miscarriage by looking to the natural world for solace and finding only their own despair reflected. ‘Love poem, Lucca’ and ‘Portrait of our Daughters’ are very personal, drawing inference from the poet’s own life. Many of the poems are pathetic fallacy on steroids. “Spring broke out but my soul did not.” in ‘Fly’ “mucky skies/ the sulks, the year’s downturn as winter shuts/ like a trap.” in ‘Marcela Sonnets.’
Some of the most affecting poems in this section are those that examine the fear in the domestic as in the chilling ‘Hide and Seek’ where she imagines mothers hiding their babies from soldiers and the ‘Sho’ah”. This is swiftly followed by ‘Wood Song’ a poem about a woman’s need to hide from the evils of men :
“We are tracks in the dew
Vanishing at dawn,
We are mist, we are rain,
We are gone.”
The threat of male violence and its effects on women is woven through the collection and Benson takes great pains to highlight the fragility of content domesticity – best highlighted in unsettling phrases like the phrase “the sky’s being chainsawed open” in the final poem ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’.
The last lines of the collection bring us full circle, reminding us that women are still victims at the hands of men playing God in an image that could be overlaid on any contemporary rolling news channel.
“Always some woman is running to catch up her children,
We dig them out of the rubble in parts like plaster dolls –
Mary Mother of God have mercy, mercy on us all.”