Book Review: Vertigo & Ghost

Vertigo & Ghost, by Fiona Benson, is the second full poetry collection from this multi-award winning poet. It is divided into two parts. The first part is a sequence of poems featuring Zeus as a being who regards sex as his right and women as objects existing to satisfy his often brutal urges. The second part explores motherhood and the challenges of birthing and then keeping daughters safe in a world filled with multiple dangers. The themes explored are visceral, powerful, disturbing in their authenticity.

The collection opens with Ace of Bass which is, perhaps, the best depiction of young females on the cusp of becoming sexually active that I have ever read. It brings to the fore their natural desires inhibited by fear born of societal expectation. There is an innocence to the girls’ chatter about boys and music, their dreams of love as a follow-up to sexual satiation.

“and sex wasn’t there yet, but it was coming,
and we were running towards it,
its gorgeous euphoric mist”

This opener is all the more affecting given what comes next. Zeus the abuser, the rapist, the taker of young girls for his own warped and savage pleasure. He is caught and imprisoned but incarceration is temporary in a hat-tip to real life examples of the treatment of rapists.

“The judge delivers
that he is an exemplary member
of the swimming squad;
look at his muscular shoulders,
the way he forges through water;
as for the girl”

Zeus is the hunter and women the prey, yet the hounds are everywhere. The hares can run until they drop exhausted, tormented, broken. Zeus represents the worst of men who lust after pretty women, young girls, even babies. They feel entitled to sexual gratification, uncaring of damage inflicted on their disposable victims. And they are allowed to get away with it.

“I came to understand
rape is cultural,
pervasive;
that in this world

the woman is blamed.”

One of the most terrifying pieces suggested that, if there is life after death, women would remain powerless and abused, surviving in fear – that death may not bring the relief of an ending.

Part two has a very different feel although continues with dark themes. After a few introspective pieces, Haruspex turns a corner and the focus changes.

“my mind has been wrong
for a long long time.

Here is its fruit.
It is true,
I hear voices
and talk to myself.
I am done with shame.”

The author writes of a failed pregnancy and then a successful one leading to the birth of a second daughter, and the effects of motherhood on body and mind. Daughter Drowning is an excellent depiction of the changes inflicted on a previously born child.

“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, or her heart will stop
or she’ll choke on her own tongue if I look away,
even for a second. Meanwhile here’s the first-born
fighting for attention, as if it were oxygen
and she were drowning”

With Termite Queen the poems revert to wider issues facing women, now from a mother’s perspective.

Illness is explored alongside conflict, where women are powerless to protect their offspring.

In Hide and Seek the author muses on the game her daughters play, on how to keep them safe in a world of war and men.

“I don’t know who
I’m teaching you to hide from, but look
how eagerly you learn.”

The final poem in the collection, Eurofighter Typhoon, has the two daughters happily playing in their garden when a fighter jet flies overhead terrifying them both before they can be reached and hugged close by their mother.

“always some woman is running to catch up her children,
we dig them out of the rubble in parts like plastic dolls”

There is an empathy with those who suffer in war zones – their helplessness in the face of man’s selfish, greedy games.

This is a raging, powerful collection that pierces the armour we build to allow us to ignore what goes on in plain sight around the world. The voices are evocative and often painful. They demand and deserve to be heard.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Jonathan Cape.

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