Bright Travellers, Fiona Benson, Cape Poetry, £10.00
Fiona Benson’s Forward Prize-nominated debut, Bright Travellers, has all the elements of good writing: unusual and powerful diction, precise and momentous line breaks, clarity in the speaking voice and careful formatting to control the release of information. Her contemplative tone and rich, image-driven language skilfully render nature, art and the human psyche in moments of intense violence, sorrow, madness and love. A brave and honest first collection for this St Andrews graduate.
Bright Travellers is divided into three clear sections. The poems in the first are united over time and place by a shared geographical area, Dumnonia, the late 4th-8th century Brythonic kingdom, which is the modern day area of Devon and Cornwall. Dumnonia opens with a sketch of a submerged Paleolithic forest, and ends with a lyrically moving yet critical examination of war, situated in the context of HMNB Devonport — the largest naval base in Western Europe, and the sole nuclear refuelling centre for the Royal Navy.
Drawing on the life of Temperance Lloyd, hanged for witchcraft in 1682, Rougement employs a longer line and a first-person speaker. What makes this poem stand out is the detailed historical veracity of Lloyd’s confession, and the speaker’s musing on Lloyd’s final moments of life: “pleased overall / to be looked at.” This poem renders the travesty of the Bideford witch trials, and the societal treatment of individuals with mental illness, visible by using language that torques convention and is both surprising and inevitable: “My heart is a sad swinging in its cage.”
Arguably, the strongest poem in this opening section is Cave Bear, which is set up as an address to the remains of a bear locked in the prehistoric caves of Kent’s Cavern. The themes of motherhood, loss and grief, explored later in the book, ripple outward from this poem through the depiction of a mother bear’s loss for her cub:
you are a vault
for the one clear thought
of your life:
the cub is dead.
You show your teeth
as the massive slab
of your heart
The second section of the book, Love-Letter to Vincent, is the most compelling. Benson’s verse blooms as the line lengthens and two distinct narrative voices are explored. This section deals directly with not only the flawed nature of human relationships (specifically the relationship between Van Gogh and a woman he purportedly had history with), but also explores the creator’s relationship with creation as both a process and a goal. Benson allows the speaker the freedom to examine his or her subject: “You wanted / to be the Messiah […] You wanted to […] make the heart stand still until it apprehended / trembling, grace” (‘Irises’). In doing so, Benson reveals not only Van Gogh’s anxieties around mortality, impermanence, and the momentary (“If I could only keep some sweetness / from the woods”), but also something of the nature of all artists, “drawn […] to the flood / a vertiginous dark which is never / done with you […]” (‘Starry Night’).
Elsewhere, the poet reigns in the emotional quality of the language, producing terse and sometimes elliptical imagery. Where this technique fails, the poet stands too closely to the poem, at times talking over it. This occurs most notably in Emmaus, where Benson finds it necessary to include an endnote, explaining that the poem is about the elemental world’s indifference to the brevity of the human existence. While the imagery is striking (“pylons loom… like an avenue of silver birch”) and the concept profound, the banal final image leaches tension and power from the poem:
beneath this infinite sky
in a wind that knows we
are mortal, porous,
a beautiful trick of the light.
This causes the language to flatten out in the final stanza, allowing abstractions like “beautiful,” “mortal” and “infinite,” and stock phrases like “trick of the light” and “infinite sky” to muffle the verse. This little poem is terse and pretty, but demonstrates that Benson’s fine ability to tighten the language sometimes blurs the sense.
In other poems, Benson becomes enchanted with the description of a thing, and fails to ascend from the realm of the particular to that of the universal. This heavy reliance on lyricism is particularly evident in Salvage, which compares “A feral rose” lit by the morning sun to “Christ’s sacred heart […] already beginning to break apart / with a love of the world / beyond limit, or bearing.” Here the language fails to hoist the full weight of its meaning onto the page, and sinks into the realm of cliché.
The final section of the book invites the reader to share in intimate, and at times emotionally raw, subject matter. With a steady hand and a level eye, Benson replays the horror of two miscarriages in Prayer, Sheep and River, Second Miscarriage, as well as the pain of losing a child to stillbirth in Council Offices:
I go home alone
but carry you,
little slipped thing,
to the ends of the earth.
She navigates this terrain in Sheep by delaying the entrance of the “I”; the sense of the line “I can’t not watch” balances between the cool depiction of a dead sheep’s baby lambs “knotted in a plastic bag,” and the stoic rendition of the speaker’s miscarriage: “Yet once it was done I got up, / gathered my bedding / and walked.” Benson does not rely too heavily on either conceit to tether the poem, but rather lets them speak to one another by placing them side by side.
Breastfeeding resonates with the reader because it connects the mother- child relationship to the universal experience of “a long line of women / sitting and kneeling / out of their skins / with love and exhaustion.” This poem succeeds in casting the speaker’s particular experience of nursing her child — hearkening back to the confessional poetry of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds — yet still touches on the more general, ineffable bond between a mother and her child, something which, as human beings, we can all relate to.
Overall, Benson excels at careful and exact study. Her control over language and its emotive qualities enables her to master dramatic monologues and to take the reader into some of the speaker’s most painful, life changing events. In the last stanza of Sunflowers Benson states that “Most of us are not this brave / our whole damn lives.” Most of us, at some point in our lives, have chosen not to be brave. In this book, Benson has chosen otherwise.