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Review: Fiona Benson's Bright Travellers

Never mind movements, schools and styles: fundamentally, there are two types of poet – those who see spirits, and those who just drink them. As Sean O'Brien noted when reviewing her Faber New Poets pamphlet in these pages in 2009, Fiona Benson is a sober, contemplative sort. But as her first full collection Bright Travellers reveals, she is as much drawn to the metaphysical as to the mystical, treating the poem as a kind of secular prayer.

The opener, "Caveat", may be a terse appraisal of the cactus, its "moist heart" and "store of water / held beneath its spines" a working model of life's resilience in the face of inevitable hurt. But, elsewhere, a poem such as "Lares" is a full-blown hymn to the "small ghost" of a bird, conjuring this "noosed spirit of the eaves" as gatekeeper of a hidden world beyond our everyday outlook. Benson often draws on personal experience in her writing – wading "thigh-deep in pollen" with her husband in summer's "glaze of heat"; the love for her baby daughter that will "ride on" – but she rarely trades in simple anecdotes. Instead, her poems make a bid for what Michael Donaghy called the "alchemical payoff", mixing solemn scrutiny, intoxicating lyricism and a dark imagination in pursuit of the strangeness beneath the habitual.

One stylistic habit is her musing on a pivotal subject – a pine cone, say, or a "feral" rose – in the hope that, like a horse's skull placed in the corner of a room by guitarists, it might offer wider resonance through the poem's music. That rose, for instance, becomes no less than "its own lantern / hung above the garden", "ventricles and channels / charged with light, // its scarlet bell streaming, / as if it were Christ's sacred heart / radiating flames". As a concentrated, image-driven expression, this feels Romantic in origin, but in both theme and style it more clearly recalls Sylvia Plath, who emerges as a guiding hand in the dark. Comparisons between Plath and modern-day female poets are frequently dubious, of course – the work of lazy critics – but where Benson is concerned, the affinity is plain to see. Her obsession with animals, the wild and corporeal, with ghosts and with history's chasms; the handling of painful human emotion through naturalistic conceit; the searing imagery and singularly heightened register: all bear the hallmark of that most nihilistic and paradoxically tender of poets. When she muses on the vulnerability of a pine cone's needles, blown on the wind, it is hard to hear anyone else in the lines "one day / my daughter also / will travel far from here".

To dismiss Benson as a fine imitator and acolyte of Plath, however, would be to give her poetry short shrift. For one thing, there is a tranquil, Zen-like quality to some of her writing, measured lines and diction unspooling with an ease removed from the edgy, angular style employed elsewhere, acknowledging "our place // beneath this infinite sky / in a wind that knows we are mortal, porous, / a beautiful trick of the light".

A sequence of poems on parenthood and the pain and grief of miscarriage demonstrate Benson's ability to handle emotionally difficult and evidently personal subject matter with poise, grit and feeling. Here, avowedly maternal poems such as "Childbed" and "Cradle Cap" are full of praise and wonder for the newborn, but in its clinical yet candid tones, "Breastfeeding" is the most powerful piece. "Lost / to the manifold / stations of milk, / the breast siphoned off // then filling", the poet tells of how "you get down on your knees / at the foot of the change-mat", to clean off the "yellow curd / of the baby's shit". "It was always like this", the poem declaims, "a long line of women / sitting and kneeling, / out of their skins / with love and exhaustion." When Benson crafts her poems out of blood and muscle, memory and music, they stay with you. The pared-back tercets of "Sheep" develop a haunting parallel, in which the creature is seen "bedded in mud and afterbirth, / her three dead lambs // knotted in a plastic bag". "I can't not watch", implores the speaker, before telling of her own hurt and anguish, "afraid to look down / for what I might see". It is a brave and determined poem, one that bites and stings as the best poems can, and sometimes must.

"Love-Letter to Vincent", though, is the book's most sustained achievement. In these dramatic monologues Benson ventriloquises the prostitute-lover of the tortured Van Gogh, taking the titles of his canvases as a stepping-off point and framing device to paint portraits as intelligent and touching as they are visceral and grim. Though occasionally overblown – Benson has a tendency to reach for the intensifying adverb when a quieter, less cluttered phrasing would serve better – there is a good deal to admire: the smart riposte to masculine ignorance of female suffering that is "Still Life with Red Herrings"; the sun-lit sanctuary of "Yellow Room at Arles", where art becomes a means of preserving the past as a talisman against the future; love pitched against life's vicissitudes in "Self-portrait with a Bandaged Ear". "Here, whatever sorrow waits for us, is hope", ventures one poem, while another, written in the blaze of those famous sunflowers, declares: "Most of us are not this brave / our whole damn lives; / teach me to admit / a touch more light". Bright Travellers is a book of poems that balances its florid excesses with toughness, perspicacity and, above all, heart.

first published in The Guardian