Buzzed Books #97 by Brian Salmans

Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghost

In a bookshop interview a few years ago, Fiona Benson said, “I think I have always been a little bit violent.” The audience laughed, mildly, maybe as thrown off by her soft-spoken and questioning tone as I was. Did she mean that? After all, isn’t it always the quiet ones, as the saying goes? They’re the Jekylls with the Hydian dark sides. Right? 

I don’t know. Benson’s second poetry collection, Vertigo & Ghost (Cape Poetry, 2019)—she has since published a third and fourth book—contains violence of the brutal sort, but also a sort you may not expect.

Vertigo & Ghost starts with a poem that stands apart from the rest, a prólogos. “Ace of Bass”— named after the 90s pop group, but also the sport of tennis—burns with fervent optimism. The speaker and her friends sit on the tennis court, ostensibly to “practice our backhand,” but really to talk about boys. And sex, which “wasn’t here yet, but it was coming, / and we were running towards it, its gorgeous euphoric mist.” Sex was a “deep well of love,” a fix for every desire, an ace with every serve and never over the baseline, a matter of the heart as much as their “own starved bodies.” The only inkling of violence is the asphalt’s “intricate red pattern on our thighs,” from sitting too long.

The naivete of this prologue contrasts Part One. Zeus–king of the Greek pantheon, and also a real person–is the star. He is a megalomaniacal sexual predator. 

Mercifully, the section begins with Zeus behind bars being confronted by the apparent victim of another crime for which he has so far eluded justice. In this first poem, “[Zeus],” despite his containment, the danger he embodies is palpable: “bullet-proof glass / and a speaker-phone between us / and still I wasn’t safe.” In “[screenplay],” the speaker observes Zeus in the prison yard, smiling face up in the rain, and wonders, “why he’s here?” Zeus is a god “who can pass through the vaults / and walls of this prison.” Even a tracheotomy (“[surveillance]”) can’t prevent Zeus from making veiled threats-cum-compliments with his “voice somewhere between motor-rev and burp.” 

Drugs, in another poem named “[surveillance]”, that are delivered to him in a “doll-sized paper cup” by a psychiatric nurse, only lend a surreal edge to his shocking declaration that he will rape a child. In yet another poem named “[surveillance]”, the speaker (walking home with her child) hears thunder, the mythical Zeus’s hallmark weapon, and quickens her step. The only thing worse than Zeus as a free man is Zeus “all around me / in the heavy air / watching.”

The most frightening thing about Zeus’s power is that it doesn’t reside solely within his body: it’s supported by the scaffolding of a society made for his body. In a poem called “archives,” the judge sentencing Zeus for his crime takes the opportunity to mention certain of his admirable qualities:

Zeus given
light sentence, 
temporary gaol. 
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.

These qualities don’t just mitigate Zeus’s crime in the judge’s eyes; the judge consciously connects them to his predatory behavior, as a natural thing. The judge’s reluctant hands were forced to apply the law to this potent and awe-inspiring man, undeserving of punishment.

In “[surveillance: track and field],” Zeus, now as a girls’ track coach with a blond pony-tail, trains (grooms) his “BEAUTIES” to love the chase, to accept it, but only “IF YOU GROOM WELL.” In “[personal],” a woman flees her own personal Zeus, an abusive mate, only to be tracked down to the train station, where he, bouquet in hand, “shouldered my bag / took my bike / and wheeled it, / while everyone around / smiled at his courtly manners.” 

The poem “[transformation: Nemesis]” is basically a series of predator-prey metaphors—she a fish, he a shark; she a snake, he a mongoose; and so on—suggesting the various ways we conceive of sexual pursuit and conquest, for which the mythical Zeus is famed, as natural and even framing it as an epic struggle (“we made a crater where we fell / screaming through the night / a bloody prolapse”). In “[transformation: Daphne],” we are reminded that abusive and predatory behavior can be learned by sons from their fathers, in Benson’s vivid retelling of the myth of Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree before being raped by Zeus’s son, Apollo. Continuing the predator-prey metaphors, Apollo is a dog chasing a rabbit that eventually tires from being chased and gives up:

When a hare dies it screams like a mortal child. 
Disconcerted, Apollo looks up from the field. 
There’s Zeus in the dark holding the lamp,
keeping it steady for the rape, and the kill.

Transformations abound.. Aside from Daphne and Nemesis, there is, for example, “[transformation: Io]” in which she is apparently in the hospital, recovering from an assault, and mooing and ineptly tonguing her food. This heart-breaking poem portrays the emotional and psychological transformation that victims of sexual violations experience. Likewise, “[transformation: Callisto]” illustrates the trauma that follows assault. Callisto is a bear, an animal who “squats to shit does not wipe does not wash,” has an anti-social “look-away demeanor.” She shuns and is shunned by society, “chased out of town / with tranq guns and flares.” But Benson shows us that healing is possible. Within the same poem, she finds “pleasure in the woods — / the sun shining amber on her fur.” She even finds redemption:

…There are moments in her cave
when she feels almost safe, and sleeps to dream
of the cub who mewed at her briefly before he was taken; 
his eyes swollen shut from the pressure of birth,
his small blind face searching for her voice,
his kicking legs and his tiny fists waving.
Bundled out of the room. Perfect human.

This is the point in the book where the woman who has known violence begins to heal and to be reborn by giving life. The process of giving life—making it, bearing it, protecting it—is surprisingly violent. 

Part Two covers a lot of ground, but one of the biggest subjects is the experience of motherhood  

Another subject is grief. In “Almond Blossom,” the speaker is overwhelmed with grief, unable to appreciate the “wintered bird’s small song,” yet aware that she must trust spring will come and pull her back: “earth’s already begun her slow incline, inch by ruined inch, easing you back from the brink.” In “Toad,” she finds kinship with the “grotesque / beaded” creature, a sister, sharing the purgatory of hibernation. “Beatitude,” a tribute to Gerard Manley Hopkins, brings redemption again as her “sad, agnostic soul” finds its way back into nature’s grandeur. To do so, she must commit trespass, legally and figuratively, floating down the river past the martins’ nests dug out of the bank. She is “a compass to the currents,” not because she provides direction, but because she is made to give it, to become the sign, pulled around in the water just as the Earth’s magnetic field tugs on a compass needle.

Grief gradually moves toward healing. In “Blue Heron,” someone has lost something. The wading bird standing in the marsh, watching the shadows of the fish under the slowly-forming ice, doing the “slow, hunched river-work of grief,” is presented with a choice: fly south with the others to a warmer clime, or stay and freeze. Heal or lose yourself. The speaker plainly and trustingly urges the heron to “lift / from the tightening shallows,” and assures the reader that “there will be love, release.” 

The very next poem, “Wildebeest”, somersaults into the theme of motherhood. Benson depicts the birth of a child as the birth of a wildebeest calf. The birth is a stampede, her body “both the flood / and the furious corral,” a “torrent of muscle” impossibly squeezing out a “Taurean star…unfolding / like sharp origami // then falling in a hot / and slippery rush.” The baby is relievedly human, “dark-haired like your sister.”

The theme of transformation continues to figure prominently as Part Two draws closer to its end. Like the bear imagery in the Callisto poem, the speaker expresses an appalled acceptance of the distortions her body has endured from pregnancy and childbirth. In “After Birth,” her stomach is “a flaccid bag,” her breasts leaking colostrum, and all for “the stranger sleeping in the crib.” The title of the poem “Ruins” suggests how the speaker views her body, but however much that bothers her, we trust she wouldn’t change a thing about her life when she says, with the most adorable imagery, “amen I say to all of this / if I have you — / your screwball smile / at every dawn.”

As the children grow, so does the speaker’s awareness of the threats to their safety and her role as their protector. “Daughter Drowning” focuses on the guilt a mother feels about the vigils her infant receives after almost drowning, while her older sister is “fighting for attention, as if it were oxygen / and she were drowning” and the speaker “hadn’t even seen her / start to slip.” 

In “Cells,” Benson weaves an intriguing explanation of the “agonies of protection” she feels towards no one in particular, involving the cells of a miscarried chimeric fetus living on in the mother’s body and that time scientists built a robot car driven by a web of rat neurons. The car went crazy, scurrying for cover. The speaker has her miscarried daughter’s cells in her brain and “it’s not my own mortality / I flail at now, but theirs.” She concludes with the haunting lines, “Look how fitfully I steer, / how obsolete I am in person; / I am wheeled and governed.” 

“Mexican Free-Tail Bats” is another example of Benson’s skill in fusing human and animal into one subject. The baby bats (kits) fall to the floor of the cave and stagger around on their little wing-tips while the mother bat swoops around under the dozing colony on the cave roof, like a “black glove of panic,” frantically thinking “not here; not here.”

About motherhood, Benson expresses guilt, anxiety, fear, revulsion, joy, and contentment. Part Two begins in a somber vein. The slide from despair into hope is not a clear and straight path, with some poems slipping back into despair. 

The Zeus poems evoke a similar uncertainty. Just as sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on the moment of wrong-doing in instances of sexual harassment and intimidation, the Zeus poems are difficult to refer to in this review with precision because the titles are redundant. There are at least three poems titled “[surveillance]” and four just titled “[Zeus].” The poems elude reference just as predators elude recognition.

One thing not left to uncertainty in the Zeus poems is identifying when Zeus himself is speaking. Benson’s ingenious use of all caps for his words underscores how the predator’s words are so often given more importance than the victim’s, not only because he asserts himself, speaking loudly and boldly, but because society believes his word, emphasizes its importance, and values the qualities he embodies. The all caps also evoke the oft-ridiculed online writing style of bullies yelling in the comments, and offers perhaps the only opening for readers to laugh at the monstrous Zeus.

While reading Vertigo & Ghost, I mused upon how dark and violent it is, and wondered how Benson held these images and ideas in her head so evenly and considerately. Her secret, I believe, is contained within the poem named “Love Poem, Lucca.” Her husband James is “the sure / and steady ground; because of him / we live.” Their relationship, his commitment to her self-actualization and to her safety, gives her room to explore the watchtower they are visiting as a family, that “brick vase of forest” with the trees profanely growing out of the top of it. She does this despite her apparent fear of heights and fear for her child who “ricochets between the ledge / and the steep of the stair like a firework / in a confined space, half crazed, / about to fall.” But this dangerous outing is a necessary exploration if one is to truly live. Despite the danger and her anxiety, Benson undertakes the quest. She writes about violence, explores it, and even makes it beautiful, because she has someone—James—to pull her back. Love is her safety line.


Brian A. Salmons lives in Orlando and writes essays, poems, and plays, which can be found in Qu, The Ekphrastic Review, Autofocus Lit, Stereo Stories, Memoir Mixtapes, Arkansas International, and other places. He also reads for Autofocus Lit.

Find him on IG @teacup_should_be and Twitter @brianasalmons.