Winner of an Eric Gregory Award in 2006 and a Faber New Poets Award in 2009, Fiona Benson’s first full collection, Bright Travellers, explores various aspects of nature and the human experience, including those that are difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching. She addresses her subject matter directly and fearlessly. Consider “Sheep”, which opens as follows:
She’s lying under a low wind
bedded in mud and afterbirth,
her three dead lambs
knotted in a plastic bag.
Crows have pecked out her arse.
These few lines portray the complications that come with new life and death, and how horrifyingly their paths can cross. The graphic nature of the corpse causes the reader to recoil. Benson transposes this scene as the narrator’s own nightmare – a mother’s fear of childbirth manifesting itself. Continuing in the first person, the speaker describes what plays out before her as she lies in her “own dirt”,
the miscarried child
soaking the mattress in blood.
Although described in a rather shockingly harsh manner, this change in perspective hints at personal experience, and the recurring topic of child loss reinforces the idea that the poems in the collection might be autobiographical. The tone is, however, typical of the collection. In “River, Second Miscarriage”, the speaker describes how she has been “raked clean”, imagery that likens the loss of her unborn child to being as natural as the fall of leaves in Autumn. Once again, Benson pushes the comfort boundaries of her readers, as we find it somewhat problematic to accept such an alarming comparison. Fervently and directly, Benson addresses those matters that usually we would try to avoid. By doing so, she acknowledges and highlights the frailty of existence – nature’s unpredictable and unforgiving face.
Although much of the collection explores the darker sides of human experience, a series of nine poems demonstrates hope and positivity, centring as they do on life, its creating and creation and the innate connection between mother and child. In the poem “Childbed”, the final stanza ends with great promise and optimism as a mother looks down at her new-born child,
your lungs beginning to draw
as you verged on our world
and waited, prescient, rare.
These lines emit a sense of calm. Despite the child’s vulnerability at the very onset of existence, the new life is possibly knowing and peaceful.
Throughout the collection and in moments like these, we recall the title – Bright Travellers. As clichéd as that statement might seem, Benson travels through so many aspects of life’s journey in this small compilation, the most wonderful and also the most oppressive capacities of human existence. In the final work, “Daughter Song” she appears to address her own child, explaining the elemental nature of her and her partner’s love for their daughter. Even though her child may encounter some of life’s most trying pathways, the one thing her daughter can depend on is her parents’ love –
helpless and absolute
yes, though it makes no sense –
and I speak for your father also in this –
our love is like that
it hurtles on and on
This optimism makes for a touching and poignant ending. Although some of the works in Bright Travellers may be difficult to read, heightened by Benson’s rather matter-of-fact word choice and graphic imagery, they are necessary to the collection as a whole. Her direct way of dealing with subject matter may seem harsh but it is in no way unfeeling, and appears to be strongly rooted in the personal. By refusing to ignore difficult subject matter or shield her readers, Benson creates not only a more realistic work but also a powerful study that will stay with her audience long after they have finished reading.