Full Disclosure: Haven’t read Benson before, though a well-read pal had bigged her up on Twitter, so expecting something good.
Review: It took a long time to come round to Bright Travellers, but it was worth it. It is by some distance the angriest and saddest collection of poems I’ve read in a long time, maybe since Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, and its display of a sharp intelligence pushing itself to some uncomfortable and upsetting emotional places is like no other book on the shortlist.
The fact that the poet’s inner life is so openly dissected in all its messiness, so recklessly explored without (apparent) embellishment, means it isn’t uncomplicatedly recommendable, i.e. the natural first response is to be a little taken aback. To return to Stag’s Leap, where Olds’ anger is calm, directed and wryly at ease with itself, the most common mood of Bright Travellers seems to be a tension between its justified fear of the world it depicts and its anger that the world it depicts should provoke such justified fear. To this end, it’s almost disappointing that the collection should kick off with an apologia, ‘Caveat’, a perfectly fine lyric in its own right but one that begs forgiveness where none is due:
But consider the cactus:
its thick hide
and parched aspect
still harbour a moist heart […]
And, once a lifetime,
when the slant rains fall
there is this halo of flowers.
By the poem’s conceit, ‘this halo’ may be the book in hand. The immediate response is that a prickly and uncompromising cactus isn’t necessarily less interesting than a bed of daffodils. The collection proper kicks off with ‘Dumnonia’, a series of poems commissioned by two Devon-based arts groups. It’s an odd way to kick off a first collection, and while the poems are strong and do a decent job of establishing the collection’s direction, they have the feeling of being tacked on at the front. With each of Bright Traveller’s sections prefaced by a single poem, this group of occasional-feeling pieces feel a little extraneous and perhaps better deployed elsewhere. That said, ‘Rougemont for Temperance Lloyd’ is a powerful piece of historical recovery; Temperance Lloyd was one of the last three people executed for witchcraft in England, a witty and apparently fearless woman of around eighty, who the poem renders:
You are a thin thought turning over the walls
in a grey wind, transparent, spider-weight.
I’d have you angry and impenitent and brave.
I’d have you fly from the drop in the shape of a rook,
its rag-and-bone, its bloodshot eye.
before concluding that Lloyd is ‘pleased overall / to be looked at, riding in this cart, when all / your life you’ve been invisible and walked.’ Benson’s ability – with as little manipulation of the facts as necessary – to turn a moment of injustice on its head is breathtaking, performed as well as anything in Heaney. It’s a poem to savour.
Immediately afterwards is ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’, a series she describes in an insightful interview with Granta as coming from a period of writer’s block. The sequence’s narrative (though narrative is not at all its main concern) is of the speaker’s uneven and often emotionally abusive relationship with Van Gogh, here depicted – as realistically as can be discerned by historical documents such as his own letters to his brother, one of which is quoted in the epigraph – as a sort of unstable genius. On first reading I was hugely put off by the sequence’s power dynamics: in the opening poem, the speaker describes herself as ‘your wounded girl, your damned and lovely prostitute’; in ‘Pear Tree in Blossom’ are the lines ‘your mouth sweet to kiss, / your sticky beard … Christ. I never thought I’d beg’; ‘Sunflowers’: ‘I listen to you move in the other room / and I burn; your meanest tread outside my door / and I almost come, but you never enter in.’ Ostensibly the sort of writing that I tend to chew out men poets for. And while it might be true that the early poems in the sequence partly perpetuate the powerful artist/silent, suffering muse dynamic, their aim (I think) is in foregrounding the woman’s perspective, and so undermining a very familiar setup. Benson presents this relationship entirely without frills or excuses, in all its taboo-exploring, self-destructive, Stockholm syndromey recklessness. We might hope that the poems’ speaker fare better in future, but ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ is an important account in its own right, depicting in no uncertain terms the damage done to both parties by the relationship’s uneven distribution of power.
The turning point seems to come in ‘Portrait with a Bandaged Ear’, in which the painter repeatedly shows up at the speaker’s door, ‘and I let you in and I let you in and I let you in – / remember the long afternoons of our youth / spent wrapped in the covers as if night would never come, / how fierce you were and clear, back then. […] we’re running / out of grace. Men will come and ask me to confirm / your name. I want you strong and well. Please stay.’ The speaker’s acquiescence is reframed as an active defence of the better part of a disintegrating mind, and the sequence’s focus changes accordingly. Van Gogh slips into the background, and the next piece, ‘Irises’ seems increasingly to speak to the poet over the painter: ‘Art’s not all you’d hoped […] There’s remedy yet. / Today you may not make a master-mistress piece: / so what? […] Get back to work.’ Intriguingly, the sequence’s conceit fades as the poet regains her own power of composition, as ‘Place du Forum’ puts it, gets ‘in it for the long haul’. It’s this capacity for layered reading that makes Bright Travellers such a fascinating, compulsive re-read, and makes its exuberant presentation of its own instability lodge in the imagination. As Benson notes in the Granta interview, Olds and Matthew Dickman are presiding influences, and while Dickman’s poems might err on the preening or the self-conscious pose, Benson is able to pack more of a punch without even a whiff of emotional grandstanding. This sequence is an exciting one, and it’s a real treat to be trusted enough as a reader to make mistakes on the first read.
The book’s final section features poems on pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, some of which are marvellously powerful and written in a kind of weary-but-undefeated tone established elsewhere in the collection. ‘Sheep’ in particular is noteworthy in its stoical assertiveness, conflating a horrific scene of a dead ewe being picked apart by crows and chickens with the poet’s own miscarriage, but ending with ‘Yet once it was done I got up, / gathered my bedding / and walked.’ Similar is the exceptionally dark-humoured ‘Repairs’, which sees the midwife ‘holding pins / between her tightened lips // as she works / with both hands / round the wound / to stitch me back in.’ These last poems are again impressive in their willingness, if not eagerness, to self-portray as frightened or discontent or simply absurd, and all in a form that never loses sight of its purpose, giving the poem the formal control that permits/compliments its imaginative unmannerliness. The lines toward the end of ‘Small Mercies’ are beautifully weighted and perfectly unresolved: ‘partly longing to be free / and partly unable to wish myself / anywhere but here’.
At the end of the second or third readings, the only sincere criticism I could think of is the book’s slightly incongruous title. The unit ‘bright travellers’ comes in a poem called ‘Visitations’, and refers not to the foetal outline on the book’s cover but the invisible beings the poet’s child stares at in ‘blank corners’ of the room. It’s a wispy phrase that does little to highlight the best parts of the collection, its controlled rage, its emotional frankness. I suspect shenanigans.
Tl;dr: It’s a great book, and if it took me a few reads to really get what it was trying to achieve then more fool me. Despite the very weird and not necessarily beneficial editorial decisions I’d happily recommend it to anyone, and I suspect it’ll be deep in the running when the prize winners are announced.