I Ching-in­flu­enced poet who con­fronts borders

Chang­ing The Com­pan­ion to Richard Beren­garten

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Richard Beren­garten Nor­man Jope et al (Eds)

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)

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