London, England: Cape Poetry, 2019. 112 pages. £10.00.
“Christ. I never thought I’d beg.
—Fiona Benson, “Pear Tree in Blossom”
Vertigo & Ghost, Fiona Benson’s second collection of poetry, is cut through with the vigilant, slanting rhymes, tenacious rhythms, and other slight punctuations that she has taught us to expect of her prosody. Her first book, Bright Travellers, began with an entreating repetition that raised the very question of repeatability: “How will I get beyond / the let down of these shrubs,” she asked, “how will I find my way back / to the woods.” Throughout, Benson wrote into a lost, “sloughed” speaker who had
left the shell of myself
curled up on the quilt in her own penumbra of dark,
too far gone to weep.
As though repurposing this “I,” so engulfed in her “penumbra of dark,” as the various mythic victims of her “Zeus”-figure’s tirades, Vertigo & Ghost arises from the rich, wandering persona of her previous lyrics, who, renewed, locates and re-locates her “shell” in Nemesis, Danaë, Io, Pallas. In ways that it is not, at every turn, a strict retelling of his mythoi, the book is a renaming of Zeus, a grappling for “songs / that find a name for you at last”: “at last,” he is a “filthy pimp,” an “animal,” a “rapist.” She begins this book, however, not by prefacing her “rapist,” but with a portrait of “all us unparented girls,” her multitudinous not-villain:
I was drunk,
obsessed, desperate to be touched,
colour streaming from my iridescent body
as the wide summer night threw open its doors
and called us into the evening to sit in its loveseat
That movement from singular “I” to the collective and collectively-intoning “we” follows the lapsing pace of Benson’s near-meter: as the “me”-speaker(s)—whose “quickening” the poem inaugurates—fall through the hot season, “drunk” and “desperate,” Benson corroborates their falling in accelerating trochees, a rhythmic enactment of that “coming” toward which, “starved[ly],” they “[run].” But their willingness—to run, to “[push]”—beckons a violencing: as though from the bottom of a “well,” a kind of crying-out has begun, already, to pervade Benson’s careful, echoing lines. “And we were running towards it,” she writes, “its gorgeous euphoric mist,” as those long “O” sounds (which I’ve emphasized) roll, deeply, from summer’s “wide” underbelly as the movement quietly prepares us for the “paroled” and violent subject, always looming, about to rise from the bottom of their “deep” and longed-for “well.” That Benson generates this atmosphere (of the near-menacing, the nearly-wrong or -wronged) in a world absent of her “Zeus”-figure before inserting him into it allows for the book to indulge, briefly, in the image of a flourishing girlhood at the brink of things before rendering it hapless, “doubtfully safe”—the narrative’s first witness is that of another kind of reconstruction.
In its semi-dramatic first section, Zeus, the “I”-Benson imagines herself into an ongoing investigation. We become privy to this archive, in graphic detail, over the long course of our collective reckoning with the “Zeus”-figure’s egregious and repeated violences. This is a strength of Benson’s reimagining: she situates the reader not in the subject-position of the villain or the violated, but somewhere in the messy crossfire, the inviolable aftermath. What, she asks, is there to do once the terror is over—has happened—and the old, burdened gods fall and become replaced? In its second act, the book abandons Zeus and his pugnacious game, his raunchy voicing—which, throughout Zeus, echoes from the underworld—left to rot. Instead, she invokes the Abrahamic God, even as she continues to question her faith, “not sure of anything anymore”; after admitting to a desire for the resurrected corpses of dead children to “fly up / on a swan’s white back,” their “heavenly bodies burning,” she admits: “I think this life is all there is.” In this way, Benson recoils from the personified speaker(s) that inhabit Zeus and, instead, opts for another kind of confessional mode, interrogating motherhood and daughterhood, exile and the divine, vernality and infertility, belongingness, porousness, and a variety of unsettling miasmas. This turn is fraught, however: in forswearing her “Zeus”-figure, she also abandons the women he’s wronged, all of whom are forged by, or in, the image of that earlier “I”-Benson, “too far gone to weep,” who reappears in their wake, implying, perhaps, that their lyric individuation was never completely realized.
Zeus’s trespasses and their documentation in the imagined archive are made into a kind of pastiche—notes from his “surveillance[s],” “personal” records and testimonies, “forensics,” and other “translat[ed]” statements are passed to us in fragments. And Benson parades a litany of figures upon which she comments in her retelling, similarly fragmented,, in their ravishment, the “I”-Zeus. Some, he names, directly: “REMEMBER DANAË,” he asks. “DID I MENTION / SEMELE?” In a story so dedicated to rectifying Zeus’s historical misnomer—god, “filthy pimp”—it’s alarming, at first, to find that most mythoi aren’t redelegated to their subjects; instead, many are told in the third person, and the desperate voicing of the “Zeus”-figure is granted more space than that of any other character.
So, still, the Zeus sequence begs the question—whose Danaë? Whose Semele, Nemesis, Cyane, Callisto, Ganymede, Io, Pallas? They are all defiantly Benson’s. Any remnants of Ovid’s Daphne, for instance, are barely detectable, nor is Benson’s “Daphne”-figure traceable to other, more modern renderings of Ovid’s instantiation of the myth. She is not the oracular Daphne of Diodorus or Pausanias, nor is she Pausanias’s other Daphne, to whom, as she is to Philostratus, she is the daughter of a river god—or Parthenius’s Daphne, daughter of a different river god. Instead, Daphne is a “hare,” and Apollo, “like a hound,” is “everywhere, / stumbling her up, ahead of her, above, / his stink, his spit”; “by nightfall,” she is
ragged in her hind-end,
blood-ebbed and frayed and wanting to be gone
into the gentleness, though there’s this bright light,
this dazzle in her eyes, that won’t let her sleep.
[ . . . ]
When a hare dies it screams like a mortal child.
Disconcerted, Apollo looks up from the field.
There’s Zeus in the dark holding the lamp,
keeping it steady for the rape, and the kill.
How to write toward, or for, “the other side,” where, always, Zeus is waiting, “holding a lamp”? How to write violently, and violence? Benson ends that first poem of Vertigo & Ghost, “Ace of Bass,” by questioning the notion of “relief”: the rendered-“we” releases herself, wildly, in the night, as though “the after-calm might last”—as though there were “a deep well of love on the other side.” The other side of what? Maybe, as the second section of the book suggests, yearning—an imagined “side” where desire leads not to threat, but to hope, or the possibility of something like love.