Fiona Benson – Vertigo & Ghost

Some disclosures: Haven’t met the poet; saw her read at StAnza Poetry Festival a few years ago, she is an incredible performer. A general heads-up that the book depicts and strongly critiques abuses of power, particularly sexual violence, in very direct ways. I wouldn’t recommend reading it all in one sitting, at least not without planning some downtime afterwards. I’m grateful, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this piece.

Review: Vertigo & Ghost (2014) is Fiona Benson’s second collection, after the highly acclaimed Bright Travellers in 2014. Vertigo & Ghost builds on a lot from that first collection, particularly its explorations of the physical and emotional tolls exacted by motherhood, and speakers in both books are saturated by a pervasive feeling of embattled psychological isolation, a lyric self pitted against the world. What was ever-present but manageable in Bright Travellers has intensified here, becoming something remorseless, all-devouring, a corrupted force of nature.

What the few reviews of Vertigo & Ghost to date have focused on and most enthusiastically praised, with good reason, is the book’s opening sequence, ‘Zeus’, with a strong focus on the title character’s charisma, self-involvement and infantile, murderous sociopathy. Positioning Zeus as main character and focal point, however, might run counter to the sequence’s intentions. The sequence feels like a struggle for expression between the halting, affectively flat, painstaking speech of the unnamed narrator (and often what feels like a distinct omniscient narrator who shares similar intonations) and the blithe, trumpeting self-congratulation of the title character; it feels like a true depiction of the unfair power structures within the narrative that Zeus’ name overwrites everything.

It’s worth looking closely at the poem that precedes all of this, ‘Ace of Bass’ (the poem is spelled differently to the 90s pop group), which stands alone both formally and tonally. The poem inhabits in earthy detail a summer in the speaker’s adolescence at boarding school, the retrospective cheesiness and gaudiness that characterised the cultural moment, perhaps epitomised by Ace of Base’s Swede-reggae single ‘The Sign’, which spent the entire summer of 1994 on UK radio. The speaker’s self-image uses the same palette, her ‘teenage heart / [like] a glossy, maraschino cherry’, as ‘hormones poured into me / like an incredible chemical cocktail / into a tall iced glass’. The poem itself is a single, unstoppable sentence, its grammatical and substantial meanings meeting at its conclusion:

‘and we talked about who’d done what with whom
and how it felt, all of us quickening,
and sex wasn’t here yet, but it was coming,
and we were running towards it,
its gorgeous euphoric mist;
pushing into our own starved bodies at night
for relief, like the after-calm might last,
like there was a deep well of love on the other side.’

This friction between past naivety and present wisdom make a heartbreaking conditional in the final line, the tension between the imagined continuity of love, pop music and playground solidarity and reality. The double meaning of ‘deep well’, as a plentiful resource when full and a dangerous hazard when empty, encapsulates this turn with terrible precision.

After the fireworks of ‘Ace of Bass’, the first poem in ‘Zeus’ is painfully stark. Its speaker is vulnerable, chastened, and smaller, and the two narrators could be considered as the same character in different moments. Where in ‘Ace of Bass’ there was ‘colour streaming from my iridescent body’, ‘Zeus’ begins:

‘days I talked with Zeus
I ate only ice
felt the blood trouble and burn
under my skin […]

bullet-proof glass
and a speaker-phone between us
and still I wasn’t safe’

The sequence begins with Zeus in custody, and apparently convicted. The poem seems to question how, even from this statistically unlikely starting point, Zeus might be held accountable, or what would constitute justice or even closure under the circumstances. The sequence plays as a gruelling, episodic series of witness statements and evidence records. With their incorporation of supernatural elements, however, the poems are far more unconventional and generically fraught than their popular forerunners. There is no struggle between equally brilliant representatives of good and evil: the sequence’s foundation is the understanding not only the vast differences in power between perpetrator and survivor, but the narrative frames naturally predisposed to his version of events. Among the evidence presented are versions of the Metamorphoses, which locate their depictions of trauma within broader contexts of the women’s families. ‘[transformation: Io]’ and ‘[transformation: Callisto]’ both include the attempts of Io and Callisto’s parents to heal their children, and, as poems, feel like pointed rebuttals to the tradition of Ovidian versions that treat violence and suffering primarily as spectacle, and have no interest in real-world implications for protagonist or reader. ‘[transformation: Callisto]’ concludes, ‘Go ahead, Zeus. Constellate this’, perhaps implicating the tellers of Ovidian stories into the systems of violence as Zeus himself.

As the sequence progresses, the narrative fact of Zeus’ omnipotence becomes an irreconcilable obstacle: he is imprisoned, drugged, thrown in an oubliette (the bleak inverse of the ‘deep well’ in ‘Ace of Bass’), and electrocuted, to no avail. The final poem is removed from the narrative proper, as signalled by its title: ‘[translation from the annals: Ganymede]’, a category which has not appeared to this point, and is the weirdest poem in the book. The sequence has previously depicted the casual presence of the mythical in the mundane; this poem is from another world entirely, in which the speaker (implicitly not the one we have travelled with thus far) is on an interstellar spacecraft with quasi-angelic beings known as the Powers:

‘I had not been in proximity with the Powers before,
and was afraid of their full-skin tattoos and body-jewels
and their ease with weapons. I did not fully understand
their dialect, and between themselves they talked
in an ancient language of the seraphim. […]

Sometimes I’d wake
soaked in sweat and hear the Powers singing
on a scale other than our own, high and screeching,
vibrating in a way that made me heave up yellow bile.’

Nothing in the book prepared me for this blend of biblical, science-fictional and Lovecraftian notes. Perhaps this poem is a grim reflection of the book’s first, the rhetorical energy of ‘Ace of Bass’ converted into this poem’s startling imagination; both feel breathless, high-speed and doomed. The Powers have been tending to Zeus’ dismembered corpse, scattered across the cosmos – a gruesome mirror of Zeus’ own murder of the eponymous prince – its various organs still alive and ‘whistl[ing] to each other’. The mission to extract information from Zeus about the location of Ganymede’s body is a failure, and worse:

‘The pieces would not yield
the boy’s location, though the synapses of the brain
lit up like a firework display when questioned.
The parts whistled to one another
like abusive masters to their kicked-in, wary dogs,
some ‘come-to-heel’, some barely stifled threat
and the cages themselves began to agitate and sing
and I became something beyond afraid.’

Benson’s carefully crafted Zeus is obsessed by the minutiae of his own interests – see his childishly repeated list of things he ‘likes’, their cruel tedium – and interested in nothing but his ability to exercise power. No punishment will change the fact of his godhood, which has corrupted him absolutely: the events of ‘[Ganymede]’, for all their hopelessness, seem to represent a best-case scenario. The haunting closing lines, ‘And still the cables rattled and shook, and still I am afraid’, are a reminder that this poem is not a conclusion to the narrative proper, which ended with ‘[votive]’, a forlorn prayer to Hera to ‘Keep him in the prison of your vigilance’; the sequence’s action comes after ‘[Ganymede]’, the terrible implication that not even this prison will hold forever. ‘Zeus’ is a remarkable work, walking a difficult line between its harsh critique of aestheticized violence and reproducing its effects, a fully realised portrait of abuse and manipulation.

 

*             *             *

 

Vertigo & Ghost’s second half is a very different proposition, more in keeping with the short lyrics that constitute Bright Travellers. A comparative study could be made between the long sequence in Benson’s debut, ‘Love Letter to Vincent’ and ‘Zeus’ here, in particular the depiction of Van Gogh as self-interested, petty and careless, and the intensification embodied by Zeus. In ‘Sunflowers’, the speaker describes how: ‘I listen to you move in the other room / and I burn’; this is echoed in how the speaker feels her blood ‘trouble and burn’ in the opening poem of ‘Zeus’. If there are shared roots between the two sequences, a major point of divergence is in the narrator’s affective response, the turn from desire to fury. Though the poems in the second half of Vertigo & Ghost are drawn together thematically rather than dramatically, questions of isolation, escape, familial care and physical autonomy still feel prime in Benson’s thinking. The most obvious connective tissue between the book’s two parts is in the repeated presence of stars and the night sky, everything that seems to represent an otherworld to the poems’ immediate settings. ‘Two Sparrows’, the second poem in the book’s second half, talks about its subjects in spiritual terms – ‘already elect, condemned’, ‘a spirit at play’, ‘his heart’s […] true empyrean’ – and ‘Marcela Sonnets 3 & 4’ set more soul-swallows ‘moving their tents between the constellations’; in ‘Fly’, the speaker draws these ideas into a more human meditation on spiritual escape and self-destruction:

‘I wanted to take myself off like a misshapen jumper,
a badly fitting frock. I wanted
to peel it off and burn it in the garden
with the rubbish […] And what sliver
of my stripped and pelted soul there still remained,
I’d have it gone, smoked out, shunned,
fled not into the Milky Way,
that shining path of souls, but the in-between,
the nothing.’

Though the following lines self-deprecate this passage as ‘so Wagnerian’, it’s hard to miss its dramatic flourishes moving from the everyday of jumpers and frocks into an ecstatic void: the poem feels sad, worn down, but unafraid. This draw toward oblivion, or something like it, animates two more poems in this section:

‘And here is that storm again,

wrenching at your roots,
insisting that you fly now
little horse, little flower,

into the dark,
its million
whistling stars’ (‘Ectopic / Yellow Seahorse’)

‘should the blue heron lift
from the tightening shallows
there will be love, release;
look now at the white stars falling,
the night-sky-blue of heron, rising.’ (‘Blue Heron’)

However compromised a resolution the final poem in ‘Zeus’ offered, it feels significant that it happened among the stars, and that the Powers are one among many flighted creatures in the book, from termites to bats to swans: the book’s thoughts about stargazing and flight, both avian and metaphysical, seem bound up with its meditations on freedom and death. It feels like the poems cannot quite put their faith a place of peace and safety (or freedom from earthly commitments) without rendering it as a no-place where life is untenable, nor do they shy from imagining the voyage there in consistently gentle and wistful terms. Perhaps the Powers are the amalgamation of all these imaginative processes: they viscerally terrify the speaker, their bodies ‘infected / and larval’, but, as wardens of Zeus, they are clearly a force of justice, speakers of angelic tongues, though the book has little time for religious convention, and little surety of ‘benevolence, or God’.

Though not explicitly a sequence, the poems in the second section feel very much in conversation, a long subtextual narrative in which preoccupations flow into and through one another. In ‘Wildebeest’, the metaphysical takes a back seat to the immediately embodied, and the proceeding poems on motherhood are intensely graphic achievements. ‘Wildebeest’ is set during childbirth, and Benson again uses a single, long, syntactically complex sentence to propel a poem in which the body becomes part-object, part-instinctual creature. ‘Wildebeest’ feels eager to immerse itself in its linguistic work:

‘and I was both the flood
and the furious corral
from which you were expelled –
trampled and pressed
and hammered like metal, […]

as if I were giving birth
to some fierce, Taurean star
spoked at the rim,
thorned like the sun’

The poem confronts and foregrounds the physical toll of childbirth and ends with the briefest moment of calm, as the baby is ‘brought from water / now ruddled with blood […] dark-haired like your sister, / incarnate, loved.’, as the astrological once again sneaks into the poem’s thinking. A page later, however, ‘Afterbirth’ takes pains to complicate the relationship between speaker and newborn, again using the blunt reality of the speaker’s body as a focal point, again in a single, multifaceted sentence. The pyrotechnics of ‘Wildebeest’, however, are curtailed and leaden:

‘sweet stink
of torn labia
under warm water […]

its acid sting.
Ragged animal
I stagger back

to my bed –
smell of blood
all over the ward’

Benson’s skill with conveying sense with sound alone is a true wonder. The poems in this section are compelling in how they dramatize the nervous, frantic energy they describe – a fall into a swimming pool, the threat of illness, the joy and exhaustion of chasing after ‘our glorious, stampeding daughters’ –  alongside a deep cognizance of pervasive gendered violence so vividly rendered in ‘Zeus’, which hovers around the margins of these poems every bit as much as the stars and their deathly quietude. A few poems in this passage, as Alexa Winik noted in the most recent Poetry Review, fall short in leaving too little room to explore the details of violence worldwide: the image of ‘the tribesman carrying your husband’s genitals / and a bloody machete’ in ‘Hide and Seek’ may be a stylised nightmare, but it appears beside more plainspoken references to the Holocaust and contemporary human trafficking, and its colonialist overtones are uncomfortable. As Winik argues, ‘That Benson attempts a self-critique here only seems to strengthen the impression of a missed opportunity, namely for a robust acknowledgement of the speaker’s own positionality […] in relation to the pain of others’. Vertigo & Ghost is immensely rich in its capacity to convey difficult interpersonal relationships without judgement, particularly between the speaker and her family, and the relative paucity of nuance in a few poems set far from home is all the more noticeable for it.

Vertigo & Ghost ends strongly with ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’, named after a military jet designed for air-to-ground strikes, of which the Royal Air Force owns 160. The poem does excellent work in figuring many of the book’s recurring thoughts in a deceptively straightforward scene, told with Benson’s characteristic flair for rendering raw, nervous energy through sound and syntax alone. Thinking back to the ‘Zeus’ sequence, the Eurofighter is presented as an unholy, apocalyptic beast, as one of the speaker’s children runs for safety, leaving the baby outside:

‘all this in the odd, dead pause of the lag –
then sound catches up with the plane
and now its grey belly’s right over our house
with a metallic, grinding scream
like the sky’s being chainsawed open
and the baby’s face drops to a square of pure fear’

The poem’s conclusion, in which the poet imaginatively connects the jet overhead to the people killed by it, is more affecting than the example above for remaining grounded in its emotional moment:

‘and it’s all right now I tell her again and again,
but it’s never all right now […]
my daughter in my arms can’t steady me –
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.’

The poem seems to have ‘Zeus’ in mind: the invocation of Mary recalling of Hera in ‘[votive]’, Ganymede’s mother’s search for her son, the image of women running from danger. ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’ might be a coda to the sequence, a reminder that the god’s violence is not merely interpersonal, but part of a system of national and international power whose origins lie uncomfortably close to home. Vertigo & Ghost is a powerfully discomforting book, its poems knotted and uncompromising, all harsh self-critique and virtuosic fury. This review could’ve been twice as long to give space for exceptional poems like ‘Haruspex’ (‘It is true, / I hear voices / and talk to myself. / I am done with shame.’) and ‘Village’ (‘And I felt love for my small and human life down there, / its tenderness’), every bit as impressive as the work of the spectacular first half.

Further Reading: Alexa Winik’s review in Poetry Review 109:1 (Spring 2019, contents page here)

Benson in conversation with Daisy Johnson on the London Review Bookshop podcast

Benson in conversation with Emily Berry on the Poetry Review podcast

Declan Ryan’s review in The White Review

Tristram Fane Saunders’ review in The Telegraph

Kate Kellaway’s review in The Observer

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