Featured review

The Blue Butterfly

The Blue Butterfly

By Richard Berengarten (Burns)

Salt, 148pp, paperback, £11.95, ISBN 1-844712-58-3
Series 3 No.10 - The Big Green Issue

Alongside the poetic composition, these are a vital part of this work, mirroring the force of the real and evidencing a living poetry that meshes literature and experienced history, one potently articulating the other.

Review by Paschalis Nikolaou

Richard Burns’s The Blue Butterfly is one of the many volumes in his ongoing set of Selected Writings, testament to the renewed attention now enjoyed by – in the words of George Szirtes – ‘one of the major half-hidden poets of England’, as well as to the long route the composition has taken: this definitive form of The Blue Butterfly is a coming together of material amassed in the course of twenty years. In the meantime, several poems have already been housed in journals or previous collections, fragments of a whole whose structures and lines grew organically, gradually reaching a synchrony of elements and vision. Together with The Manager, the long ‘verse-paragraph’ poem published in 2001 after a similarly protracted gestation, a certain ‘blue butterfly’ has been the other major creative topos of Burns, even though inhabited through sporadic glimpses and distilled segments. Yet it is indicative of the quality and anticipation surrounding the ‘work-in-progress’ that an early, unpublished draft was the recipient of the Wingate-Jewish Quarterly Award for Poetry as early as 1991.

Already epic in scope, the book promises to be part of an even larger synthesis, a projected ‘Balkan Trilogy’. The second part, In a Time of Drought, a book-length sequence inspired by pan-Balkan rain ceremonies, was also published in 2006. Then, late 2008 will see the publication of Under Balkan Light, a collection of poems arising from Burns’s intimate engagement with the peoples and cultures of the region. The poet in the midst of this publishing commotion – a companion volume offering perspectives on his work is also forthcoming – does not belong to a ‘group’ or ‘school’ and attempts at categorization are further frustrated by the fact that Burns seems at home in any form: from poesia visiva and evocative vignettes to long, metrically elaborate constructions. What distinguishes his work is its frequent immersion in meeting points of history and experience, in cultural otherness, in a differing consciousness that is often grounded in an alien zone –  for example, Italy, Greece, Serbia – which implies an act of translation if it is to be read adequately by an anglophone reader. In The Blue Butterfly, this propensity finds an apposite theme in a massacre of Serbs at Kragujevac in October 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. The book is an elegy, but, paradoxically, among the mourners are not only the voices of imagined survivors but also those of the dead themselves, whom the poet hears, or imagines he overhears. Part of the task the poet sets himself is to enable these voices to live again in poetry, so that we may inhabit what should not be forgotten. 

The origins of a poetry that assumes such a task are themselves of interest: the book’s frontispiece is a photograph of the blue butterfly, landing on Burns’s ‘writing hand’ in May 1985 outside the 21 October Memorial Museum in Šumarice. The first stanzas began to emerge soon afterwards. Furthermore, this is a ‘Jew’s hand, born out of ghettos and shtetls, / raised from unmarked graves of my obliterated people / in Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia’. So the story of the particular hand upon which the butterfly has come to rest itself coincides with a panorama of genocide. The period of twenty-one years that intervened between the ‘calling’of the poet to this work and the finished book indicates not only the power and durability of that talismanic incident on the creative intellect but also the sheer depths of time that need to be plummeted if translation into literary expression is to be achieved at all. Early on in the first section of the book, there is a three-part poem entitled ‘The Telling’, each part glossed as an ‘attempt’. Written deep into the fabric of this endeavour is a multiple awareness – of limits to be transcended, of a responsibility to be undertaken, of tragedy reaching out for adequate language, and of the words that finally have been chosen, struggling for justice:

       ...Ah, but plausible
    though it may be to trust most of the time
    in language, in telling, in the passable
    undistorted transparencies of the word,
    how shall miracle, resistant, absurd,
    ring clean through the slickened varnish of rhyme? 

(‘The Telling: third attempt’) 

What follows is a constant finding of ways. From the two German Command documents that become ‘found poems’ – their pragmatic cruelty only intensified as they break into lines – to the anger and sorrow captured in ‘The Death of Children’ and subsequent ‘dialogue-poems’ between ‘a mother’ and ‘a father’; and from the lengthy, meditative sequences that make up ‘Flight of the Imago’ to the two lines of ‘War Again: Yugoslavia 1991’, Burns employs a plethora of viewpoints and expressive means in the service of a greater telling of loss. The book’s classical structure of seven sections, each consisting of seven poems, reveals an alternation of modes: seven wreaths, seven ‘songs’ of the dead, seven statements of survivors, and seven ‘blessings’, that are only granted in the book’s final section. Through and across these phases, the sequence charts a psychological progression from impossible suffering to desired redemption. The variety of rhyme schemes combines with the integrative agility of the composition to register many voices: among them, the last words of the dying, in fragments of letters that speak across time; intertextualised readings of the I Ching; and translations of two songs from the cycle Mauthausen by the Greek poet Iakovos Kampanellis, who was himself deported to that concentration camp.

The inclusion of such varied material itself suggests completeness of experience within a work of empathy and commemoration. The text of the poem is followed by photographic records of the massacre, coupled with heart-rending ‘last messages’, leading into a postscript that reflects on the inception and development of the poems and offers copious notes on the terrible events at Kragujevac from Burns’s research. Alongside the poetic composition, these are a vital part of this work, mirroring the force of the real and evidencing a living poetry that meshes literature and experienced history, one potently articulating the other. 

Despite the focus on a single event, The Blue Butterfly at several points hints at understandings of a wider ‘natural history of destruction’ – to borrow the poignant English title of W. G. Sebald’s book on literature and the air raids of the Second World War – as well as the very human capacity for what is named through a ‘conference of tongues’ in the last lines of ‘Nada: Hope or Nothing’: ‘a blue butterfly takes my hand and writes / in invisible ink across its page of air / Nada, Elpidha, Nadezhda, Esperanza, Hoffnung’. Ultimately, this kind of stirring, multifaceted, ‘embedded’ poetry operates simultaneously as mediator and enabler: it confronts the unspeakable parts of ourselves and the darknesses of shared history, as it searches for spiritual strength and necessary reconciliation in times of seemingly unending violence. It is then perhaps not surprising that even before the publication of this first edition in English, much of this book has already been translated into Serbian and other Balkan languages; even while this long, composite poem was still evolving in a foreign tongue, it was being internalised by the Slav inheritors of the original wound.

Paschalis Nikolaou

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