Bright Travellers (Jonathan Cape, 2014) is the debut collection from Fiona Benson, a widely published and celebrated writer, who was a winner of a Faber New Poets Award in 2009. It was very-well received by critics, met with glowing reviews and also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Poetry 2014. From dark ages Devon to modern day council offices, Benson uses the framework of history, mythology and the natural world to consider everyday aspects of human life. We are invited to hear elegies to the earth, whispers in the ears of lovers, and the hysterical shriek of a goddess. But though she uses grand stages to spotlight her existential dramas, the poetry is approachable. Benson uses her own and imagined experiences to expose the most raw moments of humanity. Her collection is striking in its scale and intimacy.
The first poem ‘Caveat’ opens the volume with a meditation upon the cactus as a symbol for the enduring sensitivity that lasts through hardship; ‘its thick hide/and parched aspect/still harbour a moist heart’. The moment captured is in a desert of the hypothetical: we are asked to imagine the plant (probably most familiar to us in those little pots left to fester on desks) and consider its wider significance. Here, the resilience of nature is parallel to the resilience of the human spirit through trauma.
In ‘Cave Bear’ the speaker uses ‘you’ to pull the ancient bear, ‘Four hundred thousand years/embedded in this cave’, into the present. The past is brought to life also through the violence of the language: ‘You snarl in the lintel,/and hold your ground,/your lower jaw blown out’. The speaker imagines the final thoughts of the fossilised bear: ‘the cub is dead./You show your teeth/as the massive slab/of your heart/gives way.’ We live through the primal feelings of the animal who is without language to order them.
Language is what separates us from the ancient world and creatures. Human experience is tragic because we have language, and with it the capacity to reflect upon our greatest sadnesses, and loss. In the later confessional poems, the act of writing allows the ordering of extreme experience: from trauma to the deepest love. These poems are startling in their frank depiction of loss and motherhood. With lines like the opening of ‘Breastfeeding’ (‘But really it’s like this -‘) Benson’s persona brings us in to her confidence. She exposes so much it would hard to read if it weren’t so well done. She says herself of ‘Childbed’: ‘I can hardly believe I put it out there’. In ‘Sheep’ Benson draws a parallel between a sheep who has just given birth to stillborn lambs and her own miscarriage. For the sheep, the death of her lambs cannot be mused upon, it can only be felt. And, unlike the pseudo-personified Cave Bear, the sheep doesn’t consider her loss. The final stanza of ‘Sheep’ shows a determination to endure and press forward: ‘Yet once it was done I got up,/gathered my bedding/and walked.’ After considering the similarity between herself and the sheep, physically moving forward is an act of resilience.
The limits of language are explored most fully in the ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ sequence, where Benson uses the voice of Van Gogh’s lover to explore his famous artworks and the depression and violence that lies behind them. The sequence, Benson tells Rachael Allen in an interview for Granta, ‘was born out of a time of not writing actually, I was depressed and wordless’. As with William Carlos Williams and his Brueghel poems, Benson found inspiration for her poetry in paintings. (Williams’s influence can be seen elsewhere in the collection, most obviously in ‘Salvage’: the microscope focus, the light weighing as heavily on the ‘feral rose’ as the water on his red wheelbarrow.) But knowledge of Van Gogh is not necessary to enjoy the poems: they’re visceral and vicious, and have as much to say about love affairs as they do about fine art.
The Love-Letter sequence is prefaced by a quote from the painter which also resonates with Williams’s focus on the minutae: ‘We can paint an atom of chaos. A horse, a portrait, your grandmother, apples, a landscape’. The brush can only render the tiniest disturbances of life. Beginning with Van Gogh’s remarks, which seem laden with limitation, there is the sense that Benson is uneasy about producing art from art. However, art and language give the ability to negotiate our experience: to reflect upon and learn from it.
The first poem in the sequence is a sonnet (‘Yellow Room at Arles’) as if, to get started, Benson needs to rely on the traditional form. The sonnet form props up the voice of the speaker when she is in need of control and structure; most of the clauses run over lines which are split in two by periods or commas. The speaker, in her vulnerability, appeals to Vincent in the final broken lines: ‘We’ll talk or fuck,/or sit and flip cards, whatever you want,/just ferry me through unharmed, uncut.’
The act of exploring Van Gogh’s paintings through writing create layers of representation which open up questions about the limitations of language. This is particularly notable in the ‘Sunflowers’ poems. The first ‘Sunflowers’ bursts with sexual energy which is derived from a minute focus on each detail of the painting. The burning passion the speaker detects in the painting is insatiable: ‘as water burns from leaves like shallow pans/and the chaffy head erupts in flames’. In the second stanza the speaker is separated from her lover and tries to reach him through connecting with the art: ‘Let me speak to you in signs: here is a seed for your palm.’ There is a direct connection made between the passion in the art and the passion she feels for her lover. The second ‘Sunflowers’ follows and opposes the first. It opens: ‘All along I’ve missed the point/which is the blazing candour of the light’. The speaker is impressed by the vital and honest representation of life offered by the painting. The light is pure and uninhibited ‘like an open window/on the brightest morning of July’, in contrast to the closed spaces in the previous poem. Van Gogh’s ‘meanest tread outside my door’ stifles, and the door is never opened. In the second ‘Sunflowers’, the enclosed spaces are transcended by the visual representation of the images contained therein:
just look at the joy in this frame –
most of us are not this brave
our whole damn lives;
teach me to admit
a touch more light.
What can be captured clearly in painting is so easily missed in words. It takes Benson two poems to see ‘the point’. It is not the small detail, or the projection of burning eroticism. The lust, and the obsession, isn’t the point. It isn’t enough. To dwell on these feelings is to regress into the dark instead of being brave in the light.
In ‘Irises / (Coda)’ the speaker is scathingly in her assessment of the artist’s ego: ‘You wanted/to be the Messiah. You wanted to open a gap/in the world, to harrow every private hell’. The relationship between ego and ambition is fraught. There is also an implied distaste at exposing personal trauma for the purpose of art. Yet in the coda, the speaker notes Whitman is ‘still composing poems to the breeze/that cools his housebound flesh’. His self-reflection is almost animal and effortless in response to confines of domestic, civilised life. The conclusion of the poem states ‘There’s remedy yet’. Art occupies the space between what is painful about our ability to reflect and what relieves us. But in exploring this dynamic throughout Bright Travellers, Benson never encourages to stay anywhere for too long. What is necessary is to push forward. She commands: ‘Pick up your brush./Get back to work.’
Rachael Allen’s Interview with Fiona Benson featured in Granta 126, 14th February 2014
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