Monster is a bold and lyrical exploration of the Black female body as a site of oppression and resistance. At its heart is a study of the world of Sarah Baartman, aka the Hottentot Venus, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa who was displayed in freak shows in 19th-century Europe. Baartman’s voice is framed within the social, political and legal structures of the day, offering a unique perspective.
Other poems draw clear parallels with Benson’s own experience as a Black woman born in London but raised in Ghana who returned to the UK at the age of 18. The collection is an exciting mix of vivid lyricism, sometimes laced with dark humour, using complex poetry, monologue and theatrical devices. The influence of Shakespeare sits comfortably with references to Ewe mythology and history in a collection of wide scope and depth. This is a highly accomplished first collection by a mature voice. One of a small group of published Black women poets, Benson makes an important contribution to current British poetry with the publication of Monster.
'[In October 2024] Bloodaxe will be launching Dzifa Benson’s long-awaited debut, Monster. Benson is a poet who’s been exciting audiences with her cross-genre work for decades but is yet to publish a full collection. Based on the poem recently commissioned for Mary’s Kuper’s "A Birthday Garland" exhibition (currently on view at the National Poetry Library) Benson’s debut is set to be a heady and visionary experience.’ – Chris McCabe, National poetry librarian, Southbank Centre National Poetry Library, The Bookseller
'This is an amazing collection, not only for a debut but for a poet at any stage. It’s versatile and virtuosic, experimental and moving, complex and culturally important.' – Bernardine Evaristo
'Yes, there is a knowledge of injustice, a passionate linguistic response and at the same time a wonderful skill of sensual language that makes this world bearable in Dzifa Benson’s poems. Yes, there is also an unmistakable gift of inventiveness and joy (via playfulness, via humour) of speech in Dzifa Benson’s poems. There, too, at the same time, is deep awareness of kinship with ancestral spirits that comes not through mere figures of speech but also through what makes us speak, what makes words a music, a tune, more magnetic than just the given meanings these words signify. What appeals most to me, in the end, is the wisdom that one feels lives in this language, in its imagery: a kind of clarity of perspective that is uncommon. Take, for instance, this: “Sycamores know that not everything has the luxury of roots,” she writes. “Their masterstroke is knowing they carry the seeds of greatness within.” Indeed. It is this clarity of knowing that gives these words their inimitable heft, I feel. That allows one a clarity of watching one’s species, even one’s body. My evidence? Here: “This body is an underwater cave whose lungs I cannot drain while I wait for air to become breath.” It is fascinating, indeed, to follow the Benson poem, whether the poem is playful or serious – or often both, at once! – there is a kind of knowing that’s always unexpected in its unfolding, and always welcome. I love this poet’s work.' – Ilya Kaminsky
'These are the most brilliant and accomplished poems I have read in many years. This is what truly great poetry is about. In Dzifa Benson’s poems something that seemed lost is now found, the familiar becomes strange again and we’re guided through a wilderness that blossoms before our eyes as the poet strikes rock after rock of ancestral grief and crystalline revelations stream forth.' – Lorna Goodison
'Dzifa Benson’s collection is so many things, a careful unfurling and retelling of the story of Saartjie Baartman; deeply penetrating as it is intelligent as it is compassionate…the pages in this book contain a carefully controlled rage allied to an attention to language, form and music. This debut announces a vital new voice; Dzifa Benson is a brilliantly original poet who refuses to turn away, who resolves to commit to write into the pain and horrors of our buried histories. This is an exceptional debut.' – Mona Arshi
'Monster is the most alive book I’ve read, it makes me cry, laugh and rage. Dzifa Benson is a genius, she brings to light the suffering and defiance of the Hottentot Venus, the richness of Ewe culture, and neglected paintings of Black men, with verve, erudition, and a Shakespearean vibrancy. This is an extraordinary debut, its themes are major and urgent: the decolonisation of the mind, and the empowering of the female Black body in European culture that historically has devalued it. The result is an explosive and original masterwork.' – Pascale Petit
'The language of Dzifa Benson’s poetic universe is bodily & boldly made: sonic, potent and kickingly alive.' – Tishani Doshi
Dzifa Benson: 'Self-portrait as a Creature of Numbers'
Dzifa Benson reads her poem 'Self-portrait as a Creature of Numbers' from the Bloodaxe anthology Staying Human at Oxford House in London in 2020 on the eve of the second national lockdown. This poem is included in Monster.
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