I had not expected to spend long with these poems, assuming a collection devoted to insects was likely to prove marginal. But Fiona Benson’s Bioluminescent Baby has hijacked me. This is a wonder of a book and a thing of beauty: Guillemot Press has produced a small grey volume with a gleaming green firefly in its top left-hand corner that looks on the point of whizzing down to disrupt the title. Anupa Gardner’s woodcuts are an unpretentious joy and the book is framed by elegantly creepy-crawly end papers. But it is the poems themselves that are exceptional: elating, moving and revelatory. They take one aback, remind one that most of us do not spend enough time considering the insect world, a parallel universe at once so removed and so close to us with so much – and at the same time so little – to tell us about ourselves.
No need to fear that there is cute anthropomorphising ahead. Benson earns an honourable place in the company of poets who have written about insects that includes John Donne (The Flea), William Blake (The Fly) and, more recently, Denise Riley (To a Lady, viewed by a Head-Louse). She is especially interested in the science of insects and her poetry is underpinned by research. Mosquitoes, Mozambique Anopheles gambiae is a fascinating show-stopper of a poem in which mosquitoes and the threat of malaria are interwoven (of mosquitoes, she admits, “I’m one of their chosen ones”) and in Marmalade Hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus she focuses on an experiment designed to understand how hoverflies migrate, which movingly evolves into a poem about her heart’s direction. Synchronous Fireflies Photinus carolinus is a poem of ardent stealth: as she watches the fireflies, she feels suddenly excluded by their “complicated language” that reorients her towards the non-insect world and the man she loves.
These poems exist in the context of the climate crisis and allude, too, to lockdown
Throughout, Benson brings a forensic inventiveness to her task. In Blue Ghost Firefly Phausis reticulata, “epaulettes of light” is sartorial perfection; in Magicicadas Magicicada septendecim, larval skins stuck to bark “like lost mittens” is more modestly and cosily exact and, from the same poem, I loved the witty description of cicadas’ unsatisfactory copulation:
two drivers, manoeuvring –
more an awkward,
Benson is interested in what insects tell us about life itself – and instinct. The opening poem, Love Poem, Lampyridae Lampyris noctiluca, is about a firefly that uses bioluminescence to attract its mate. It is a poem of drive and precision in which the fireflies are having a more successful time of it than the cicadas:
oh she must twist and turn her tail’s green fire
like bait, its little stab of brightness in the night,
and he must search with wings through troubled air
to find her pinhole lure, its single, green,
In the final poem, Field Crickets Gryllus campestris, she recoils from the sight of crickets in a lab: “My single self sickens, understanding itself/ as slave to DNA – all the blood-flesh agonies of love/ to end as a husk on your knees…”
These poems exist in the context of the climate crisis and allude, too, to lockdown. In Big Dipper Fireflies Photinus pyralis, she refers to people “in multiple prisons/ unleaved, unskyed.” But just as Gerard Manley Hopkins once identified “the dearest freshness deep down things” in spite of man’s wrecking interventions, Benson rallies to find herself again: “once more in wonder/ the raw green girl/ who lives in me still/ trembles ignites.”
Although she has expressed the fear “we think we have meaning but already biology has done with us”, her poems insist on the human blessing of meaning in every line.
Blue Ghost Firefly
The female is small
like a grimy rice grain.
Up close you see
its epaulettes of light.
coiled round your eggs,
like a diminutive dragon
guarding your hoard,
its wet, nested glow.
It’s the rest
of your life’s work
to make yourself a lid,
a shield, a reinforced roof.
I too keep guard –
the softest part of me –
and will die
at my post.
• Bioluminescent Baby by Fiona Benson is published by Guillemot Press (£10)