I Ching-influenced poet who confronts borders
Changing The Companion to Richard Berengarten
Shearsman, £19.95 Shearsman, £24.95 Reviewed by Owen Lowery
BRIGHTNESS DIFFUSING, the final poem of Richard Berengarten’s collection, Changing, describes completion. Here, “Everything sighs,” and “It all coheres, no question”. This is the end of a shared odyssey, as the poet offers us “a glass of wine.” After 450 poems, or the 450 component parts of one single poem, balance is established. Reflection, and what Berengarten describes as “echoic resonance”, can begin.
The serene imagery of the final element of Changing, evokes what Jeremy Hooker refers to as “the memory of Seferis”. Hooker’s essay on Richard Berengarten’s Art of Transformation, is one of many insightful explorations of Berengarten’s work contained in The Companion to Richard Berengarten, and helps to provide a context to Berengarten’s poetry, linking Changing to his earlier Balkan Trilogy, and Black Light.
Equally important is Chee Lay Tan’s Chinese Influences on the Poetry of Richard Berengarten, which considers the relationship between Berengarten’s The Follower and the ancient Chinese I Ching, or Book of Changes. Tan’s comments are even more pertinent to Changing, as each of the 64 divinatory hexagrams of the I Ching is explored here through seven correspondingly themed poems. Thus, the first hexagram, Initiating,
Richard Berengarten: European leads to poetry “celebrating the endlessness/in beginninglessness of heaven under heavens”. Further, the majority of the poems in Changing use six tercets, reflecting the hexagrams and trigrams of the I Ching. Tan also assesses the significance of “synchronicity” in Berengarten’s Chinese-influenced poetry, the way it “cuts through and across linear time”, and “life and death”. Francis R. Jones’s essay on the Balkan Trilogy, extends this idea, claiming that the “single socio-political current” running through that work is “opposition to the bringers of death and the burners of books,” and “insistence on the value of the fragile and the ordinary.” Changing bears out this view of Berengarten as a voice against death and atrocity. In Aged 21, a female witness to “barbaric atrocities” vows “Never again” to “let insight/be bought by others’ suffering.” Elsewhere, a “forensic archaeologist” investigates mass graves. At Majdanek, “souls” are: “scattered so deep/into waste-pits they/could never re-emerge.”
Stephen Wilson considers Berengarten’s consciousness in relation to his Jewish heritage, and, referring to Theodor Adorno’s often misconstrued statement regarding the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, correctly concludes that Berengarten “doesn’t flinch from the record of human depravity,” and “never fails to preserve the spirit of human hope”. Berengarten’s poetic response to Adorno is defiant: “I shall find words, my/own, after, despite, and because/of this. And speak of it.”
Adding that demand for “silence… misconstrues what/poems are, do, are for,” Berengarten invokes “hope, /compassion, courage, truth,” and opposes “death-makers”. This balancing, like the bravery of the inmates of Berengarten’s Warsaw Ghetto, April-May 1943, who fought back, implies that hope lies in syncretism, “Cosmos-building”, the “relationship between prayer, prophecy, and poetry” identified in Edward L. Shaughnessy’s Preface, the dark and light of Yin and Yang, and the “holy union of male and female powers”. Berengarten calls for balance, in poems such as Way, in which “What is low /sits on what is /most high”; or A lake on a mountain, in which “opposed//forces meet and/merge in fine self-/checking balance.
Associated with this plea is the internationalism of “a European poet who writes in English”, and whose multiculturism can seldom have been more relevant. As Norman Jope asserts in his introduction to The Companion, Berengarten’s poetry “throws down a challenge to all notions of exclusivity and the closure of borders”.
Owen Lowery is a reviewer and poet. His two collections are: ‘Otherwise Unchanged’ (2012) and ‘Rego Retold’ (2015)