Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson review – songs of shock and survival

Vertigo & Ghost is one of the darkest, bravest and most unsettling collections I have read in a while. Its first half turns to Greek mythology to explore violent crimes against women and casts Zeus as he-man, ace swimmer and serial rapist. Yet the opening poem, on the dawning of female sexuality, gives no clue of what is to follow. It describes girls gathering on a tennis court:

and sex wasn’t here yet, but it was coming,
and we were running towards it,
its gorgeous euphoric mist;

From ordinary virginal appetite, there is a fall, as through a trap door, into a poem resembling a crime scene: “bullet-proof glass/and a speaker-phone between us/and still I wasn’t safe”. Zeus, however divine, seems dim but is no less frightening for that. He communicates in bullying capital letters and gets his kicks, with a horrible jauntiness, out of “the moment before death”. Whenever he waxes lyrical, he becomes frightening in a new way (we do not want this barbarian to sound like a poet):

ITS VIOLET GRAINS
DIMINISHING TO NOTHING
LITTLE BIRD CUPPED
IN THE HOLLOW OF MY PALM
ITS TINY QUENCH –
PHUT !
UNDER THE HOOD .

The form itself seems breathlessly predatory – there is no time to stop-and-search. This is universal drama and Benson does not neglect the bitter truth:

I came to understand

rape is cultural,

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the woman is blamed.

The writing rages but is more about protest than protection. It leaves one asking: what defence is there against the dark? I have chosen Almond Blossom to accompany this review for its rare respite, even if the “green havoc” of spring – a marvellously accurate phrase, as any gardener will confirm – is not unreservedly hopeful. It is taken from the second half, which is more personal than the first, shocking in a different way – it is first-hand exposure, an owning to depression, with no leaning on any Greek god.

In her much-feted debut, Bright Travellers , Benson showed a talent for exploring domestic subjects and for properly recognising their importance. Here, a handful of wonderful poems about her daughters and husband spend her small ration of sunlight. Throughout, her gift is never to try and be bigger than her subjects. She knows, in particular, not to overdress depression. In Haruspex, she writes: “my mind has been wrong/ for a long long time”.

In her poems about the body (Afterbirth, Placenta, Ruins), she writes with a middle-aged truthfulness to rival Sharon Olds, although differently earthed, less outlandishly metaphorical . Beatitude (Ah! Bright Wings!) is a beautiful keepsake, an agnostic’s exchange with Gerard Manley Hopkins . Her description of swimming while watching the “whiplash, loopback flight” of martins, seems, in its compacted intensity, to curtsy in Hopkins’s direction. The poem is a curative swim, an ecstatic gift, its birds a blessing: “and I’m carried by the river, numb with cold,/ a compass to the currents, briefly healed.” That “briefly” serves as a warning.

Like Hopkins, Benson appears porous, her inability to keep out what Hopkins called in one of his bleakest sonnets “world-sorrow” makes it hard even to play hide-and-seek with her daughter. In Wood Song – the poem runs like water – she imagines herself as a refugee taking flight with a child. It is her empathetic semi-permeability that illuminates and makes her the extraordinarily moving poet she is:

and there will be no catching us,
and no harm will come,
so keep close daughters
in the woods where we run

for we are tracks in the dew
vanishing at dawn,
we are mist, we are rain,
we are gone.

• Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson is published by Cape (£10). To order a copy for £8.80 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99 Almond Blossom

This morning, love, I’m tired and grave;
I can barely hear the wintered bird’s small song
over the hum of the central heating.
We must trust, I suppose, to the song’s bare minim:

that spring will be a green havoc
as the trees burst their slums
and the dirt breaks open to admit
crocus-spear and cyclamen;

and though we can’t yet feel it
earth’s already begun
her slow incline, inch by ruined inch,
easing you back from the brink.

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