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Mythology and Matriarchy in “Vertigo & Ghost”

Mythology and Matriarchy in “Vertigo & Ghost”

The U.S. release of Vertigo & Ghost—already the winner of the 2019 Forward and Roehampton Prizes in the United Kingdom—should gain Fiona Benson a much-deserved wider audience. Her poetry is in turn thrilling, dizzying, devastating, lyrical, distinctive, and this is a bombshell of a collection.

The first section uses classical mythology as a structural allegory, challenging common perspectives of the ur-god Zeus, including how he and his characteristics are represented in modern times. When I was a teenager and read my used copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Zeus was the all-knowing god of the sky and thunder, the undisputed chief of Olympus, arrogant—though we foolishly thought deservedly so—and I’ll admit it, tempting. Who wouldn’t want a god—or titan of industry or senator or award-winning actor or sports superstar—interested in us? How that male gaze offered approval; and how its disappearance felt like a personal shortcoming.

Yet through adult eyes, our modern lens, the acts that Zeus engaged in—rape, murder, treachery, lying and theft—question who we mistakenly admire, surrender our agency to, and allow to have unadulterated, unquestionable power.

Here, Benson braids the sharp fence wire of the mythological Zeus with all the modern Teflon men committing harm because they can, whom the zeitgeist at best slaps on the wrist. This is the Zeus who is “given / light sentence, / temporary gaol.” because:

“…he is an exemplary member 
of the swimming squad; 
look at his muscular shoulders, 
the way he forges through water;”

In the first half of the collection, the titles are fragments and words in brackets—such as archives], [surveillance:], , [personal:], and quite often, [Zeus]—which makes them less titular and more categorization. This has the effect of creating a case against all the Zeuses—and in several cases not-Zeuses such as Poseidon—and the culture that allows, encourages and yes, exalts them.

These fragments of Zeus become shards of a collage that depicts the varieties of damages done to the vulnerable. There’s a terrific syntactical decision to have Zeus speak in capital letters, both replicating the booming voice of a god, and a social bully.

Benson also turns her eye to those in power—not only men—who allow such atrocities. In “[not-Zeus: Medusa 1],” the narrator describes the inexplicable aftermath of Poseidon’s rape of Medusa in the temple of Athena. Despite the harm done to her supplicant, Athena curses her with the distinctive snakes as punishment, a sign that “rape is cultural, / pervasive; / that in this world // the woman is blamed.” 

The facing page, “[not-Zeus: Medusa 2],” transfers the myth to the girls of the Magdalene laundries where “The priest will tell them / they’re the devil’s own whores,” and:

“Meanwhile the nuns 
will take their soft little babes 
and bury them — the soft of them, 
the down of them—in unmarked graves.”

How complicit we are, if not in committing the abuses, then standing silently by as female spirits are silenced and buried.

In the last poem in Part One, “[translation from the annals: Ganymede],” Zeus lays “…dismembered and set in separate cages / out beyond the perimeter” yet the final words of the narrator are “…and still I am afraid.” 

Even if you dismantle the structure, the remainders—and reminders—are capable of reforming: consider all the manners of entities Zeus transformed into in order to manipulate mortals. There is no way of knowing where the dangers lie, or how to protect yourself. With the echo of this warning still ringing on the page and in the reader’s mind, the second section wallops back.

The chilling and revelatory poems in Part One are only preparation and conditioning for Part Two which is more personal, and more shattering. As affecting as the allegories were in the first half of the collection, the second peels into Benson’s experiences and anxieties as a woman, and as a mother of daughters. The two parts are connected, deeply, because in our mythology, in our history, in our present, our daughters aren’t safe: they are always subject to capricious gods, or selfish men, or despots, or nature itself.

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In many of these poems, Benson captures the all-encompassing nature of love, and how it owns you. In “Cells,” she explores the idea of chimera, fetal cells that cross the placenta and embed in the mother:

“As for my daughters’ cells 
left stashed in my body 
like stowaways or spies, 
I think they pilot me 
into agonies of protection —

it’s not my own mortality 
I flail at now, but theirs.
Look how fitfully I steer, 
how obsolete I am in person; 
I am wheeled and governed.”

In “Hide and Seek” she teases us into the poem with her daughter’s joy of this ubiquitous game of youth and innocence. She inexorably takes us into the darkening corners of such In “Hide and Seek” she leads us into the poem through her daughter’s joy of this ubiquitous game of youth and innocence. She inexorably takes us into the darkening corners of such games, noting historical events in which children and childhoods have been stolen. How “the mothers, their hearts jumping out of their mouths / trying to shush their children…” She contemplates the horror of the Sho’ah then the migrant children ripped from their mothers’ arms and placed in cages. Protecting one’s child from the gods, or our realistic world, is an impossibility. The bitter conclusion is that the narrator must teach her daughters to be careful, to fear:

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

Vertigo & Ghost is in every way—sound, syntax, and linguistic impact—indelible poetry that is used in service of expression, revelation and instigation. Benson effortlessly wields striking language and oft-times shocking imagery in a way that leaves readers thrilled by the experience of the poem while devastated by its content. We tremble on that sharp high wire, miles up from the ground, buffeted by her themes and language, stabilized by her assured hand.

Benson upends classical—and modern—mythology and in so doing demands that we face the myths and lies we allow in our own times. These women are no less buffeted by human fears than the vicissitudes of the gods, still supplicants and hopeful, weighed down by the exhaustion of ceaseless vigilance, expressed in the last lines of the collection:

“and it’s all right now I tell her again and again, 
but it’s never all right now — Christ have  mercy —
my daughter in my arms can’t steady me —
always some woman is running to catch up her children, 
we dig them out of the rubble in parts like plaster dolls —
Mary Mother of God have mercy, mercy on us all.”

We are living in anxious times—we have always lived in anxious times, from empires long demolished to the ones we inhabit now—and in order to combat the paralysis engendered by our instinctive fears we often ignore the realities around us. Benson leans into the dreads of our world, a poet of Cassandran ferocity, and delivers a collection that is epic in scope, intimate, linguistically striking, and utterly wondrous.

Vertigo & Ghost
By Fiona Benson
W. W. Norton & Company
Published June 15, 2021

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