Among the many pleasures of listening to Robert Lowell read, hearing him pronounce ‘My mind’s not right’ in the southern drawl he caught early, and somehow retained, has to rank near the top. That voice, its specific inflection, echoes through Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost, in my head at least, and not only when she nods explicitly towards him, as in her most outright allusion to ‘Skunk Hour’: ‘my mind has been wrong/for a long long time’ (‘Haruspex’). Writing on Lowell, Ian Hamilton noted that, in Life Studies, ‘His inheritance has dwindled to the involuntary habit of expecting from the world what he knows it cannot afford, or searching for heaven when he knows full well that he is confined to hell.’
Benson appears to be in a similar bind, although for much of the book, especially its second section, she is talking not so much from hell as from a void – ‘Perhaps this is only/purgatory, sister,/and beyond it, bliss’ (‘Toad’). Above all, this is a book about power and its misuses, the possible response to being prey, or vehicle and that unlikely, hopeful, ‘perhaps’. It’s a book that crackles with manic energy, with institutional power and the absence of free will; a hyperrealist screenplay, superheroic in its visual energies. In the first part of the book, Benson’s achievement is to subtly prepare the ground for personal poems which are no less full of injustice, horror or dread than the Wagnerian, mythical opening half. She has, by their arrival, tuned our ear to the ledge of terror on which the speakers perch, ensuring that the seemingly domestic, village settings of the second half are, throughout, sites of fear and danger. The speaker feels imperilled at home and in the surrounding land, edgy and alert.
In ‘Zeus’ the god of gods is first met on a prison visit and his impact is, from the off, physically disastrous to those he encounters: ‘days I talked with Zeus/I ate only ice/felt the blood trouble and burn/under my skin’; we are transported from Olympus to a scene of ‘bullet-proof glass/and a speaker-phone between us’. Benson’s method of modernising Zeus and his crimes is done by fragmentation, from multiple angles – think Anne Carson collaborating on Christopher Logue’s War Music – her jump-cuts and anachronisms infused with the language of film or, more often, our age of ubiquitous news, its familiar misogynies and outrages. Here they are co-opted to help flesh out the character of this ‘filthy pimp’ and the scale and range of his violence. ‘The judge delivers/that he is an exemplary member/of the swimming squad’, we are told, remembering similar excuses made for men inoculated from consequence because of athletic talent, while Io is reimagined as a victim of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, with Benson’s talent for writing creatures in full force: ‘head swinging like a lantern/unsteady legs like a sick calf in mud’.
Zeus, when he speaks, speaks in capital letters, which reads like shouting to our SMS literate eyes. He is several shades below unrepentant; electric and inexhaustible, sexually unappeasable and snarling at the humans who are toys to him, whether being stalked and attacked or trying to replicate holy thunder with ‘THEIR GORGEOUS GOD MACHINE’, the defibrillator. Everything about Zeus is capitalised, his priapic vulgarity, his macabre arousals – he is a cartoonish bad guy shouting ‘SWEETHEART,/I’M HOME’, a knowing, archly inherited trope here performed in full awareness, and deepened by another image which sits in our collective unconscious, ‘two thrown from high windows;/impossible to save’. This suite of poems is the sort of fever dream theology of a person whose only contact with the world is 24-hour streaming news, and is all the more oppressive for it.
Zeus is, as well as an animal and a rapist, attractive and charming; he can put on ‘courtly manners’. Benson’s Zeus is allegorical, her necessary embodiment for capturing a way of life – for the trapped women who are victims of honour killings (another familiar story repurposed, here, to show Medusa’s fate), or abusive, restricting relationships. For all the blood and viscera, the atmosphere of terror is at its most enervating during a scene of apparent calm, Zeus cocky in a Speedo, the ‘electricity/crackling across his skin’ a clever mimetic device for his hairtrigger temper and abusive coercion. A simple phrase, ‘I lapse my guard’, leaves us breathless, knowing the consequences of doing so with this sort of man. To be in Zeus’ company is to be permanently vigilant, never free or settled or calm, and to always ‘long to escape/in that conspiracy/of women’. It is to be blamed for his crimes.
Benson’s focus on damage done, on consequences and ruin in these varied, fragmentary nuggets ends in a more straightforward narrative poem containing some of her best writing, also some of her most gruesome, to do with Zeus’ eventual punishment, his dismemberment and scattering – ‘the dark heart creeping across the floor of its cage/with each systolic thump, smearing blood like a badly beaten rat’. The lines are longer here, as if to echo a release of breath – however momentary – that comes with his having finally faced consequences. The ending is a heartbreaking study of the enduring repercussions of abuse:
The Powers sent the pieces hurtling back,
set at massive intervals, galaxies estranged.
They were swallowed into the leagues as if by ink.
And still the cables rattled and shook, and still I am afraid.
If the imbalance and fear of ‘Zeus’ was to do with helplessness, with fate being in an external figure’s hands, then the second section of the book – for all its seeming smaller scale – is no less a study of coercion and paralysis. There is no let up from permanent vigilance in these poems of family life, no more opportunity to switch off than in the company of the strutting pimp Zeus, but now it isn’t personal safety at risk, but that of the speaker’s children: ‘I watch the new-born like a hawk/afraid she’ll forget to breathe’. The woman trapped in the dark sprawl of Zeus’ attention longs for escape, her freedom is written off, but here her ties are self-generated: ‘Remember that you chose’ from ‘The Marcela Sonnets’ an implicit refrain throughout all the darker moments. This existential tethering is most explicitly pointed to in ‘Cells’, which opens discussing foetal cells – ‘Straight-off I thought of that robot car/driven by a web of neurons/extracted from a rat’ – but turns this piece of research into something grand and incisive, with more Life Studies-era Lowell pathos and self-reflection, the dramatisation of the personal/symbolic becoming resonant and right: ‘Look how fitfully I steer,/how obsolete I am in person;/I am wheeled and governed.’ ‘I am wheeled and governed’, a slant take on Lowell’s ‘Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small’, might stand as a precis of Vertigo & Ghost, had we not had to be set up for its impact by all the diligent noticing which goes before.
In this second section Benson is a biologist writing love songs, and if her allegorical dramatis personae are less grandiose and godly they are no less well chosen. Aside from the apparently personal, she has her non-human familiars, toads, bats and termites among them, but their chorus is one that remembers freedom within restriction. Her poems here are to do with the loss of autonomy and the hope – without expectation – of transcendence or grace. She looks askance, but her ability to summon feeling, whether in the termite mound or the night sky, allows us no uncertainty regarding the emotional weather:
the cooling-tower breathes
blue, unchambered air –
which the Queen flew through
in that first strange dream of thermals
she navigated lightly, easily,
back in the termite storm
when they all had wings,
when they all unlatched them prettily
and burrowed down.
which echoes the book’s opening poem, ‘Ace of Bass’, and is just as affecting a study of adolescent lust and no less evocative of the hope that there might be a ‘deep well of love on the other side’.
This desire for breaking through to some version of heaven, the ‘heart’s own kingdom’ as per ‘Two Sparrows’ is forlorn. In part that’s thanks to the speaker’s being ‘wheeled and governed’, to her locus of feeling and control always being external, and to poems which are as good a portrait of depression as any in recent years (‘like a bound and stifled fly, half paralysed,/drugged dumb, its soft and intermittent buzz,/its torpid struggle in the spider’s sick cocoon’ – ‘Fly’). It’s also partly to do with the atmosphere of danger, or permanent threat, in which these speakers operate. ‘[A]lways some woman is running to catch up her children’, games of hide and seek are training for concealment, and the certain fear voiced in ‘Wood Song’ takes a few readings to announce itself, but is there in its lack of question, the feeling this isn’t conjecture or parable: ‘Daughters, when they come/we will hide…’. There is no ‘if’, here, and one feels the redundancy of explaining the ‘they’, because there is always a ‘they’. The best that can be hoped for, among all the controlling, external forces and mental unease pressing in is that there might be moments, as in ‘Beatitude (Ah Bright Wings)’, where one is ‘a compass to the currents, briefly healed’. Benson here shows us the real, terrifying world in musical, natural scenes which are immediately memorable, whose dark fruit is brewed from sorrow and the condensing pressures of inescapable love. To quote the final line of the book, ‘Mary Mother of God have mercy, mercy on us all’.