Ephemeron by Fiona Benson

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Review by Anna Hollingsworth

On the cover of Fiona Benson’s Ephemeron, there is a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web. It’s a melancholy image, where beauty and death come together to mark the transitory nature of life.

Divided into four sections, the collection is an exploration of these ephemeral states. The first, Insect Love Songs, is a direct reflection of the cover; a kind of Attenborough-esque look at animal relationships, whether in the wild or in a lab. The reader will naturally search for touch points with humans. Benson responds by offering an anthropomorphic treatment that is in no way disneyfied. In ‘Mama Cockroach, I Love You’, she writes of the cockroach maternal instinct and doesn’t shy away from hardship:

Because you suffer your young to swarm upon/ you back, and do not flinch or buck them  off,// but carry them like a human playing horse/ with her children, down on hands and knees,// decrying the swag of her own loose flesh.

She also steps back to look at the relationship between humans and insects. In ‘Wasp theology’, the fear of wasps — because the speaker’s father was “stung as a boy,/ whose throat was slit// and a breathing tube forced down/ his swollen windpipe” and so, thank God, survived” — is juxtaposed with the cult-like organisation of the hive, a nursery “for the body of their Christ”. The hive is described through delicious combinations of the human and the wasp-like: it’s a “piñata of stings” and “spit-balled papier mâché”. In a beautiful way, a sense of unity emerges where we expect clashes between humans and nature.

From insects, the collection moves into boarding schools — which is not, in fact, as big a jump as you might imagine. Benson’s boarders form hierarchies and communities just like the insects earlier; they go through growth pains and establish allies and opponents. The girls in ‘Like A Prayer’ are almost like a swarm of bees as they dance to the Madonna song:

Acolytes in her sexed-up church/ we knew what it meant/ to get down on our knees,/ our awakening manifest/ in every choreographed shrug and thrust.

The poems captures the transitory phase of youth which is full of exploration and danger, where boys’ sperm might chase you in swimming pool like “turbo-powered fish” and where girls bare nipples to each other and “confess masturbation”: “I showed her the mini Body Shop bottles I’d tired inserting”. In their soul-bearing honesty, the boarding school tales are among the biggest victories in the collection.

The longest section, Translation from the Pasiphaë, is a re-imagination of the Greek myth of Pasiphaë, wife of Minos and mother of Asterios, also known as the Minotaur. Here, she defies convention and keeps her disabled child; he is then locked up in a labyrinth as punishment. Conceptually, the poems are a powerful reworking of the stories surrounding the Minotaur from a feminist perspective. Some of the scenes are gut-wrenching, as when Minos drowns Scylla, a teenage girl, by dragging her under a ship:

the impact of her skull travelling up into our bodies/ through our braced soles as we rowed for hell, /then the sound of her pulled up,/ the sudden rush/ of dividing water and the eerie sound she was making now.

However, it feels like there is something lacking in the imagery and rhythm of this section. Asterios has “the Milky Way reflected in his eyes” and “stank of piss” — these lines evoke the senses but lack the freshness that runs elsewhere in collection.

Finally, Daughter Mother underlines motherhood. The theme is already there in the insects and Pasiphaë but here it comes to the fore not shrouded under the guise of a different species or in myth. It’s here where the ephemeral scenes find some form of permanence; in ‘Edelweiss’, the dead grandmother of the speaker comes to soothe her great-grandchild. There’s a sense of continuity also in one of the collection’s most powerful poems. In ‘Dispatches’, a screaming baby is juxtaposed with old women in a nursing home “pulling themselves up by their bed-guards/ and crying for their mothers down the dimly-lit corridors”. There’s both brutality and calm as life comes full circle.

There are times when Ephemeron is conceptually more interesting than it is lyrically. Despite that, it succeeds in twisting and reshaping reality in a brilliantly thought-provoking way.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist.

Fiona Benson, Ephemeron (Jonathan Cape, 2022). 978-1787333710, 112pp., paperback.

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