Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghost : Rape Culture, Greek Myth & Abuse of Power

Amidst my erratic book purchases in January, I picked up Vertigo and Ghost after seeing many people, whose opinions I highly value, screaming about its importance. And after swallowing it up in a matter of hours, I am stunned and also feel I should be screaming about it from the rooftops. Benson has climbed to the top of my poetry-seeking radar and I can’t wait to annoy everybody I know by recommending this collection again and again.

 

Poseidon the sea godIMG_1242

raped Medusa

where she prayed

in the temple of Athena

 

and Athena

cursed the girl

with a head full

of snakes.

 

I came to understand

IMG_1257

rape is cultural,

pervasive;

that in this world

 

the woman is blamed.

 

 

One of the key themes of Vertigo and Ghost stands out very vividly: rape and the culture surrounding it, which has pervaded human society since the earliest civilisations, and still continues to occur violently in the contemporary world we exist in. Benson captures this parallel between history and modernity so intelligently, creating a narrative which personifies rape culture through the character of Zeus. For those unfamiliar with mythology, Zeus is the mythological king of the Gods, god himself of the sky and of thunder, and is often symbolised by a lightning bolt, a motif which Benson capitalises on within her collection. Throughout ancient mythology and the literature that emerged from ancient Greece and Rome, Zeus is famed for his sexual endeavours. He rapes women for all sorts of reasons; pleasure and punishment being two of the most prominent. The way Benson channels contemporary discourse on toxic masculinity and rape culture through the symbol of Zeus, a highly respected and heavily worshipped God, is extremely significant, and is the main reason why I feel I have been eaten whole by it. It really resonated with me, particularly the way Zeus is used in place of names for the violent men she has experienced. Not all men are violent and not all men are rapists, but when you are a woman and you are constantly endangered by the presence, motives and movements of men, it’s hard to differentiate. Zeus is more than just a mythological God, he is an embodiment of the rape culture which pervades the lives of all women, and signifies how patriarchal power has been abused.

One of my favourite things about poetry, particularly the contemporary sort, is the freedom we are beginning to see in poets’ writings to alternate form, subvert sentence structure and transform the way words appear on the page. It not only affects the way we read the text, but also makes us think more deeply about the reasoning behind this. Of course, this is not a modern phenomenon. The Russian futurists of the post-revolutionary period printed poems on discarded wallpaper and subverted everything from word order to font size. But I think what we are beginning to see more of in the last few years is a fearlessness to throw everything out onto the page and allow the reader to absorb it in a way that is acutely personal to them. One of my favourite instances of this in Vertigo and Ghost is this spiralled poem- [transformation: Cyane]- which forces you to physically rotate the book as you read it. It somewhat mirrors the content, subjects so intensely brutal that literally send your head into a consistent rotation to comprehend it.

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Whilst the Part One is entitled Zeus, and focuses very much on the narrator’s relationship with him and all the meanings attached, Part Two is more thematically varied, and features a mass of differing poems. I loved how the first part’s structure and continuity in topic contrasted to the second part, which seems less of a collective and allows the poems to stand alone and provoke individual reflection. Benson covers all the bases of poetic style that I love, is what I’m trying to say. She provides us with a story at first, brimming with mythological references and situational aching which breaks you down and makes you question everything, makes you hurt inside. And then the second part illustrates more erratically the dispersed feelings associated with family life and depression. Benson inserts herself into this collection and it’s very evident how personal this collection must be to her. I’ve never come across anyone who can put feeling into words like she does in this collection. I’m genuinely broken.

 

One of my favourite poem’s from Part Two is this one, entitled 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.

 

Something about this one just felt really dark and significant to me. It’s hard to appreciate what’s around us sometimes, in our lives and in the world, and this one just reminded me that it’s okay to feel a bit dead sometimes. I like that her poetry looks into a lot of darker aspects of life that literature allows people to find solace in, and sometimes advice too. She reflects on motherhood, and what its like to have daughters whilst being aware of the dangers posed against women on the outside world. She evokes Zeus again more subtly:

I don’t know who

I’m teaching you to hide from

but look how eagerly you learn.

reminding us that the overarching subject matter of Zeus- or what he embodies- runs throughout the book.

Vertigo and Ghost is by far one of the most compelling and heart-wrenching collections of poetry I have read in quite some time, and I am convinced that everyone must read it and understand how important the voice of Fiona Benson is to modern day readers, and more specifically modern day women. We can learn a great deal from her words, and empower ourselves through the fearlessness that manifests itself in her creative approach.

 

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