Three Poems | Fiona Benson | Granta

Three Poems

Fiona Benson

Oarsman on the Drowning of Nisus’s Daughter Scylla

Let the records hold that King Minos of Crete
keelhauled a girl.

Fifteen and sick of throwing stones
at the musical tower

frightened by the corpses piled within the city walls,
and the cholera

Scylla conceived a passion for our leader
and betrayed her city and her father.

She cut off her father’s strength – that purple lock
amongst his snow-white hair –

and presented it to Minos.
She understood the way in which we barter bodies.

She offered herself in return
for her decimated town.

Minos took the city and made fair settlement
but ordered us to keelhaul the girl.

She didn’t know his judgement, and came
as soft and gentle as a kitten,

let us handle her into the ship.
It was only when we bound her legs

she began to understand, and kicked and fought
and made to get out.

It took three of us to hold her.
We strung her from the yardarm

where she flexed and bent in mid-air with unlikely strength,
trying to wrench herself up and untie the knots

flashing and contorting like a fish out of water,
yelping for her father,

who plunged in after us when he saw what we were doing,
all his anger at her betrayal gone,

but we’d already heaved anchor, the wind picking up
as we began to row. Almost as soon as the sail filled,

still within sight of the shore and the father gone mad
trying to swim after, fully robed,

Minos swung the yardarm and released the pulley
so the girl dropped headfirst in the water;

she struggled up, lifting her chin and thrashing
as she was dragged heel-first through the waves

then drawn under the keel.
We could hear her passed beneath the ship

that sickening thump as she knocked against the boards.
He drew her under too fast to kill her

raised her on the other side, streaming water,
gasping, choking, let her hang a minute

then downed again and passed again
this time more slowly, thumping over and over,

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

high-pitched, unearthly, and the water leaving her
blood-red, her skull sodden, pulsing blood

her torso lacerated and surely dying now –
but still he ducked and ducked again till she was pulp,

unrecognisable, a raw lump he left to trail
in the wake of the boat which the birds came to pick at

and then the fish, the water a scurry of them, soon
boiling round her corpse. She slipped from the ropes and was gone.

We heaved on the oars to pull away
and didn’t look back, but how she follows us now:

when we hear a gull we hear the girl
fifteen-years-old, still a child, her mewling cry

in the wind as it splits round the city walls;
as we lie in our beds, she is weeping in the storm,

weeping in the calm, last thing at night
first thing at dawn.






Pasiphaë on Her Granddaughter, Apemosyne

Catreus’ daughter, my granddaughter, Apemosyne,
was pursued by the god Hermes,
who, for all his speed, could not catch her,
she ran so fast on her bare feet,
slim dark daughter slipping between
the shadows of the trees –

here then gone, a sliver of a thing,
the kind of speed that defeats a god,
the kind of slender that can be confused
with the shadow of a sapling –
little dark heart slipping through the forest
then taking the quick way home.

Here is the god outrun, hunting in the forest,
here he is with his seven brace of fawns
dragging them into the clearing one by one
piling them in a soft heap,
hanging the first by its neck from a tree,
slitting it from throat to dappled rump

sliding the knife under the pelt,
hacking away at its ligaments
careless, quick, spoiling the meat.
He rolls the skin from the back
of its fawn-neck like a shrug,
holds it in his fists to tug off hair and hide

its web of membranes ripping like a torn caul,
a slick, wet, marbling of white on wine-black meat
the moon-pale underside of subcutaneous fat,
and the faun peeled bare save for its face.
Here is a pile of cast-off lower legs,
their dainty sleeves; here is where the carcass itself

is slung to waste, its raw mass cast away,
here is a rickle of skins. The air is beginning to hum,
beginning to seethe, a darkness of flies –
the second fawn and the third, skinned and weeping –
here is a clearing convulsed with brittle wings
a god who has maggots hatching in his lungs

breathing hard cutting into shoulders and rump
here is a god with flies swarming from his mouth
up to his elbows in blood
here is a clearing dark red with discarded hearts
and bowels, here is a butcher god
taking the skins and spreading them on the path.

See the girl slipping as she runs
looking back over her shoulder to watch where he hunts,
how the fatty, blood-soaked underlayer of the skins
skids and slips, treacherous as ice
how the skins fester and weep
how she tries to get up again and they slip.

The god can hear her as she cries for her brother
he does not see that when this brother finds her
instead of tending to the bruised and broken body
of his sister, he will kick her in the stomach
and the girl will die alone in the forest
with her little bones and her insides bleeding.

Listen to me granddaughter
as the moonlight finds your swollen face
get up out of your body –
get up and run – it’s the same god
who raped you who comes
to take your soul;

get up beloved,
flee across the forest floor
to the clearing – here is the dark sky
silver daughter, it is yours,
fly to Hecate’s moon;
he must never touch you again.






The Chimp House

The Chimp House drowses in midsummer heat;
I watch through reinforced glass and see a mother
sway on her haunches, not daring to sleep
as she minds her infant, who is edging towards a piece
of iced fruit on the floor of the pit. Across the arena,
a silverback dangles an oversized arm from the side
of his hammock. His knuckles graze the concrete floor
as he rocks back and forth in its synthetic cradle of straps.
Nap-time, woozy and dim; sawdust, the fly’s soft tinnitus…
The mother snatches her baby to her chest and barrels
towards the door-flap and out into a blaze of light so fast
she is just a blur; I have to replay it in my mind to see
the grey-hackled male rise from his couch,
boiled over like a sudden, lidded pan,
fly-stung, inhabited by blood, so diminished
in his territories – all his lost forests and tanked-in fury –
he wants to kill. The scrap of infant gone,
he starts to body-slam the glass, which shudders and jars
under the muscular smash of his shoulders, so close
I see his fur splay to a flash of blue skin before it re-joins
as he backs up to slam again, his long bared teeth
brown in their oily grooves as if gummed with molasses.
I snatch up my daughter and leave,
though isn’t this what she must learn –
how if you are female or small, you must run.


Photograph © postmoderngirl, Detail of Greek Vase

Fiona Benson

Fiona Benson’s collection Bright Travellers, received the 2015 Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for First Full Collection and the 2015 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Her second book, Vertigo & Ghost, is the winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2019, the Roehampton Prize for Best Poetry Colleciton 2019, and is shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2020.

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