In Ephemeron (Jonathan Cape 128pp £12), Fiona Benson’s capacity for capturing bodily sympathy in verse manifests as something like a superpower. In the opening series, ‘Insect Love Songs’, that power turns what could have been a dutiful eco-commission into something far more sensuous. In ‘Boarding-School Tales’, a sequence of poems revisiting the passions and deprivations of her schooldays, Benson summons her school self. The expressions of feeling for her fellow pupils can be extraordinary. She recalls the youngest boarder being scalded by hot chocolate from an urn, and how
The Victorian red-brick we lived in
became a strange extension of her lungs –
all those hollow rooms – and we swam
in scalding waves of pain.
When, in the section ‘Daughter Mother’, that sympathy is turned towards the injured body of Benson’s own daughter, it is hard not to wince.
There have been a number of impressive reshapings of classical tales in recent years, and it is a bold poet who would risk comparison with Alice Oswald and Anne Carson, but Benson’s ‘Translations from the Pasiphaë’ earns its place alongside their works. The extended sequence revisits familiar myths connected to Queen Pasiphaë and her children, including those involving her husband, King Minos, his employee Daedalus and her son the Minotaur, as well as far less rehearsed tales that surround them. Benson not only gives us the point of view of a female protagonist, Pasiphaë, in a traditionally hero-centred narrative, but also explores what these myths and their monsters might mean. At the centre of it is a disabled child and the feelings for him of his sister and mother:
He was beautiful, my son.
In his sleep, he shone.
I kissed the wet tufts of his fur,
his damp snout,
his long and delicate jaw.
Drawing on the popular tradition rather than the classical, Alison Brackenbury in Thorpeness (Carcanet 104pp £12.99) lays contemporary intonations across the patterns