REVIEW: Festival Laureate Fiona Benson

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Review by Finn Haunch

Durham Book Festival has a wonderful tradition of selecting some of the most exciting contemporary poets as the ‘Festival Laureate’, and this year I had the pleasure of seeing Fiona Benson. I had not read much of her work before, but after watching this event I have ordered both of her books and am waiting for them with bated breath. In previous years, authors have included Sinéad Morrissey, Paul Muldoon and even Simon Armitage, and Benson can more than hold her own with the best of them.

As part of the Festival commission, Benson wrote a series of short poems about witches. Interestingly, these witches were real women who lived in County Durham centuries ago and whose lives (and alleged witchcraft) are archived in Palace Green Library, which was a great touch. However, later on in this event, Benson read a spectacular poem called ‘[translation from the annals: Ganymede]’, from her collection Vertigo & Ghost (winner of both the Forward and Roehampton Prizes), which helped clarify my one, minor, criticism of her witches. The poem was the result of a nightmare at the same time that the ‘Moors murders’ investigation was reopened, and in it she describes how

I did not fully understand
their dialect, and between themselves they talked
in an ancient language of the seraphim.

In Durham we, too, have an ‘ancient language’ — that’s to say, something mystical — and I would have liked to have seen this reflected a little more in the commission.

Like many other contemporary poets, Benson openly admits that she uses mythology in order to talk about what is happening now — in this case, the disempowerment of women. W. B. Yeats once wrote that myths elevate the accidence and incoherence of everyday life into something more intelligible, and Benson achieves that without forgetting that many of the people she writes about were real flesh-and-blood women.

The most interesting poem from this sequence for me was ‘Edmundbyers: Elizabeth Lee’. It describes the resting place of Elizabeth Lee, a witch from the nearby village of Edmundbyers, where the folk belief says that after she was buried a stained-glass window depicting the eye of God was erected, as a way of keeping her in her grave. Whether or not this is factually true is unimportant; in the poem accidence and incoherence become myth. We see a similar process in ‘[…Ganymede]’, in which atrocity is transmuted into something we can understanding — in this case, intense grief and fear.

It is clear to me that Benson is a poetic force to be reckoned with. Professor Simon James chaired the event excellently with infectious humour and some thoughtful questions.

The event is available on demand until 31 October, and Fiona Benson’s new poetry pamphlet, ‘The Durham Witch Project’, is available to download on the Durham Book Festival website.