My reading in all these years has always veered towards prose – be it novels, short stories, or memoirs. Poetry, somehow, has always seemed daunting. But in recent times, I have been taking a greater interest in poetry although I must admit, I am still testing waters here, and there is much to explore.
Fiona Benson’s newly released collection ‘Vertigo & Ghost’ caught my attention for a couple of reasons – it was receiving strong reviews, and well, I loved the cover (the image is of Aphrodite crying).
And I thought the collection lived up to all the hype; it was brutal and bracing all at once. I loved it.
Vertigo & Ghost begins with the first poem ‘Ace of Bass’ and it is one of the most beautiful evocations of sexual awakening that I have read…
That was the summer
hormones poured into me
like an incredible chemical cocktail
into a tall iced glass, my teenage heart
a glossy, maraschino cherry
bobbing on top as that rainbow
shimmered through me, lighting me up
like a fish, and I was drunk,
obsessed, desperate to be touched,
colour streaming from my iridescent body
But little does it prepare you for what is about to come next. From a summer where teenage girls are hopeful for love, we are suddenly transported to a prison cell, where a woman is separated from her abuser by a glass partition.
days I talked with Zeus
I ate only ice
felt the blood trouble and burn
under my skin
on the soft parts
of my body
and a speaker-phone between us
and still I wasn’t safe
The abuser is none other than the god of gods in Greek mythology – Zeus.
This is Part One of the poetry collection, and Benson’s writing is furious, raw, visceral and unlike anything I have ever read. The poems surge along at a frenetic pace, terrifying but gorgeously expressed.
Zeus here is a serial rapist, unable to control his urges, wanting to exert his power over women and little girls.
The women that Zeus terrorizes take on many forms – they are either nymphs or goddesses or mortals.
Out beyond the pale there’s no straight course,
just waterlogged fields and Daphne’s hectic
blurts of speed. She’s at the edge of her wits,
retching with fear, and he is everywhere,
stumbling her up
Not all the poems are from the point of view of the women. Sometimes, Zeus also does the talking, about his conquests and his incarceration. Benson displays this in CAPS, possibly because of how Zeus perceives himself – the ruler of gods and men, egoistic and important.
I BRUSH THE BOUNDS
AND YET IT IS
SHALL WE SAY
ITS SUDDEN CURSE
Ultimately, the poems in this section convey the fear as well as the anger and rage of women – of being objects for men, who think they can control and abuse them.
I came to understand
rape is cultural,
that in this world
the woman is blamed
These are themes that are very prevalent in today’s times and Benson’s form of expression in this regard is unique.
If Part One of this poetry collection was literally ‘fast and furious’, in Part Two, the pace considerably slows down and is more reflective and meditative. But without losing any power.
This second section deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.
There is a flow to how the poems are presented. The first few poems are about nature, birds and insects, the elements of the earth. And then, they ease into the phenomenon of giving birth, into motherhood.
The poem ‘Ruins’ is about the physical changes that a women’s body goes through post childbirth.
Here’s my body
in the bath, all the skin’s
and lost dominions,
‘Daughter Drowning’ explores the fear that grips a mother when she has a newborn baby to look after, how the elder child longs for her mother’s attention, which of late has been diverted increasingly towards the newly born child.
I plunged through the shallows and caught her up;
she was spouting like a gargoyle,
spluttering and weeping, clinging to my neck.
Now she’s trying to get me to look,
and I almost can’t do it, some weird switch flipped
that means I watch the new-born like a hawk
afraid she’ll forget to breathe…
There is a considerable difference in the tone and pacing of the poems in both the sections…In Part One, the poems are shorter, like staccato beats, the urgency leaping off the pages. In Part Two, the poems are longer, the lines are flowing, and the nature of these pieces is more inward-looking and contemplative.
But ultimately, there is a common thread that runs through both these sets of poems – the fears and anxieties that most women have to grapple with in today’s modern world.
Fiona Benson is definitely a poet to watch out for.