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Black Light: Poems in memory of George Seferis

Black Light: Poems in memory of George Seferis

By Richard Berengarten (Burns)

King of Hearts, Norwich (3rd edition) 1995, ISBN 0 9518657, pb 28pp, £ 4.95
Series 3 No. 5 - Transgressions

Both textual vertigo and a sense of true homecoming arrive with a new, bilingual edition in which these poems, already so drenched in what is Greek, are faced with their Greek translations.

Review by Paschalis Nikolaou

Also reviewed: Richard Burns, Mavro Fos: Poiimata eis mnimin Yiorgou Seferi, translated by Nasos Vayenas, Ilias Layios. Lalon Ydor series no. 3, Typothito, Athens 2005, ISBN 960-402-186-9, pb 68pp, € 6.73

'He was struck, as everyone is, by the light. Instead of being half absorbed into the object, as in England, in Greece the object seemed to give off light, as if lit from within.'
Roger Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore.

There is good reason to describe Richard Burns as a European poet writing in English: equally interested in politico-historical issues and inner spaces, at ease with both established and experimental forms in short lyrics as well as long poems, his is a shape-shifting, encompassing voice, nourished by long spells in places like France, Greece, and former Yugoslavia. Burns draws from diverse influences, and finds common ground in Mediterranean, Balkan and Jewish traditions, attempting to align constants of humanity, to commune with affirmations of life, listen to the legacies of the dead. The poet who founded the Cambridge Poetry Festival three decades ago is now at the peak of his powers: The Manager, a 100-part, verse-paragraph cross-section of modern consciousness appeared in 2001, accompanied by the resounding praise that announces the truly significant. Another major work first conceived in the mid-eighties, The Blue Butterfly, inspired by a massacre of Serbs by the Nazis at Kragujevac in 1941, has recently been published in its complete form.

An earlier highpoint in Burns’s output grew from his relationship with Greece, and his sensed bonds with one of its Nobel laureates, George Seferis. The seeds of Black Light can be traced to observations Seferis records in his journal in June 1946 (there we read that ‘…behind the grey and golden weft of the Attic summer exists a frightful black … we are all of us the playthings of this black’); shortly after, they infiltrate his long poem ‘The Thrush’. In twelve poems exploring the meeting of cultures and staging amalgamations of languages and literary voices, Burns pursues this intimation of death/black, which forever follows, and enables light/life, as it chimes with his own experience of the Greek landscape and people. So we find the Greek poet in Burns, Burns in (Seferis’s) Greece:

So no charts, friend, this exacting light defeats them, just as the
    waves cancel our wake:
we’re on our way to an island, and all I know is, I’m helplessly
    in love with this mountain and this sea,
for here desire and fulfilment are stitched in one weft of light,
    cross-woven, stilled and impossible to unravel
from this seamless tide of days which flow in one movement together,
    its whole fabric soaked and doubly strengthened in salt,
and mine is its crusted harvest with the perfect inner sheen,
    although I have gnawed summer down to its black core.
(‘Salt’)

It all unfolds with a sense of resolve and clarity of vision often reminiscent of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and in an array of forms – from the villanelles ‘In Memory of George Seferis’ which open and close the sequence, to the prose poetry of ‘Shell’ – that witness the measured immediacy of Burns’s diction synchronizing with the metaphysical substrata lurking in the apparent warmth of his chosen surroundings: a taverna, waterfronts in sunset, Pelion, the constant drone of cicadas ‘like waves of an inland sea’. Being there, Burns strives to decipher a pre-verbal, primary experience that has already called for insistent retellings. In this he is assisted by Seferis, whose spectre arrives in ‘Neolithic’ to remind him that ‘light is mirrored in blood…dark and light are one’, and whose vision Burns’s originals are also among the best translations of, a prime example of poetry understood by poetry.

While further enunciating presences of translation and dialogue in the poetic act, Black Light’s intertextual intricacies (translations of the related passages from Seferis’s journal and ‘The Thrush’ open the collection; lines of his become epigraphs to all, and are found embedded or transmuted within most, poems; Burns’s ‘notes and acknowledgements’ disclose an affluence of literary and cultural absorptions, serve to accent the workings of empathy, they intimate manifold cognitions and desires between living and writing. As Burns’s dialogue with both his ‘Greek experience’ and the universals of transience progresses, these poems emerge as not just ‘in memory’ but equally of memory; for Black Light is above all a sustained meditation on its callings, and on imperatives of survival within the creative condition: if ‘black is the light behind the blaze of day/ and dark the core beneath its coloured coat’, as ‘In Memory of George Seferis (II)’ tells us, then you must ‘devour it, lest it eat your soul away’.

Both textual vertigo and a sense of true homecoming arrive with a new, bilingual edition in which these poems, already so drenched in what is Greek, are faced with their Greek translations. In part because translation, here, will also coincide with un-translation: the fragments of Seferis in English revert to the originals, italicised transliterations of words like koré or tsípouro and other cultural appropriations disappear into a ‘target language’ now claiming its own fabric. Responsible for echoing the encounter of Burns and Seferis are two poets, Nasos Vayenas* and Ilias Layios, each rendering half of Black Light’s poems. It is inevitable that their respective poetic accents be sensed; as is their consensus that translation must unravel original and itself in order to really take place. Insight into the nature of what is undertaken, together with considerable verbal agility, brings mesmerizing renderings that are themselves nothing short of poetry in Greek; a sureness of touch exudes from every line.

Mavro Fos emerges as a game of mirrors where originals conspire with translations toward scenes of recognition: the translating that attends the poetry is allowed to surface, translations reveal what they share with literary creation, the two poet-translators glimpse their own reflection in what Burns has made. We confront a quartet of sensibilities in multi-layered, many-sided conversation that lays bare interdependences of poetry, translation, and influence. There is an overwhelming sense not only of the constitution and essences of Burns’s originals being most aptly reverberated across these arenas of dialogue, but of a further completion effected, a new whole that sees Seferis’s ‘black light’ more illuminated than ever. It is then apposite that Mavro Fos closes with a newly added prose piece by Burns (‘An Old Man at the Harbour’) that directly imagines an encounter with the Greek poet. It makes for a poignant coda to this polyphonic book, one that is also – as often happens with poetry publications in Greece – a work of art in itself.

Paschalis Nikolaou


*It is worth noting that Vayenas has long been conversing with Burns: the latter translated Vayenas’s second collection, Biography in 1978 (seeds of Burns’s own The Manager can be detected here); in turn, Vayenas included a translation of ‘Only the Common Miracle’ from Black Light, in a collection he published in 1989; the acknowledgements of Black Light refer to Vayenas’s 1979 study of Seferis, The Poet and the Dancer, as one of the many influences behind the sequence.

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