The mesmerising rhythm and sense of longing of Fiona Benson’s most recent collection accompany the reader in the world of arthropods. This elegant edition published by Guillemot Press includes woodcut illustrations by Anupa Gardner that counterbalance in an essential style the rich and sensual poems. The physical description of the insects and the parallel exploration of the potentials of language offer a transcendent quality that characterises the collection in a cycle of life and death that passes through mating. As Benson remarks in the acknowledgements, the poems were commissioned by Arts and Culture at the University of Exeter for 2019–2020’s Project Urgency. The poems are also part of sound piece collaborations with sound artists Mair Bosworth and Eliza Lomas.
Compared to her previous collections, Bright Travellers (Cape Poetry 2014) and Vertigo and Ghost(Cape Poetry 2019), Bioluminescent Baby still lingers on the topic of love and procreation but does not investigate the traumatic experiences of miscarriage and abuse. Bright Travellers concentrates on motherhood and includes some poems on Van Gogh’s artwork. Vertigo and Ghost exposes the violence and abuse of classical myths in which women are often subjected to abduction and rape. The poem ‘Ruin’, which is about childbirth and motherhood, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for The Best Single Poem.
In this new collection the life of the insects is subtly related to the human condition; they mutually struggle to survive in a limited existence in which procreation is crucial for the continuation of the species. The connection with the community is also important; it is the environment where they find each other and where they look for a companion that will guarantee procreation:
All night she signals him in:
come find me – it is time –and almost dawn;
the city’s neon signs:
where are you – it is time –and almost dawn…
and it is time –and almost dawn and love,
my love, there is no finding then.
(‘Love Poem, Lampyridae, Lampyris noctiluca’)
Courtship and love are recurring themes; they are fulfilling moments in life that donate physical and mental ecstasy, an intense pleasure that goes together with the instinct of survival.
Each title refers to an insect and is subtitled with the Latin name, as in entomology treatises that date back to Aristotle, Pliny the Elder and Ulisse Aldovrandi. This practice grounds the poems in a scientific context and is emphasised by the keen observation and detailed descriptions of the insects’ habits. However, these descriptions often blur in an imaginary dimension that exposes the insides of the creatures, the inner secret part of them that yearns to evolve despite their brief lives:
four to six weeks
The forest is littered
with a million
(‘Magicicadas, Magicicada septendecim, ix’)
This process implies mutation and transformation: the ‘crisp larval skins [are]/discarded’. It is ‘not death’; the skin is shed like ‘an unzipped dress’ and she will become a luminous new creature ‘and dance with the others/in fluid spires’ (‘Mayfly, Ephemera Danica, i Subimago’). This capacity to mutate, to abandon the discarded skin, seems to be the rite of passage for further developments that will bring love and conception. Therefore, the cycle of life is denoted by change, an ‘endless mutating song’ that speaks of love:
like an effigy in flames
(‘Notes Towards an Understanding of Butterfly Wings, 8. Notes: Hyperspectral 2’)
The attention to the life of insects and to the natural world evoked in Benson’s poems can be linked to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, with whom Benson shares the sensual quality of her verses as well as experimentation with sounds and language structures. In both poets there is a sense of renewal that is envisaged in nature and cannot be defeated by death. This cycle of resurrection reproduces itself in a ‘gorgeous living chain’ in which DNA merges and replicates, and it is the antidote to ‘the catastrophic world’ we are currently living in.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio 24th November 2021