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Richard Berengarten

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Richard Berengarten Feature

Simon Jenner

Janus Masks

on the Many Facets of Richard Berengarten’s Work


Peter Sellers once famously imitated a senior BBC mandarin, phoning the Head of Variety, to engage this ‘Sellers character’. Richard Berengarten shares with Peter Sellers this ability to spring a good hoax. Berengarten sent his poem ‘The Easter Rising 1967’ via courier to England, where it was published in the January 1968 edition of the London Magazine;the necessary pseudonym, Agnostos Nomolos (‘Solomon‘ spelt backwards) was readily accepted by the editor, Alan Ross. For a long time the alleged authorship seemed secure, despite suspicions that must have lurked in some Anglo-Greek minds (For the Living 219).


‘The Easter Rising 1967’ is the opening poem in Berengarten’s first Salt retrospective For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965–2000. Here is the first of its nine sections:


I am sick of the twittering of swallows’ voices,
My Lord, I have come down from the North
To find only You, but sitting by the well
I was assaulted by perfumes
And the babbling of a thousand animals
Performing the rites of Spring. I am sick to death
Of them all, My Lord.
You do not walk among them. (For the Living 3)


This is like nothing else being written in English then or later. Perfumes reminiscent of Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’ (Cavafy 1961: 29) might have been dreamt up by someone with a sense of pastiche, but a wider reading is also suggested by the hinted underlying presence of Seferis and Elytis — in the starkly tinctured landscape, drypoint tragedy and epic sweep. But what Berengarten has most evidently achieved here is to invoke his own gods, his visionary company, in a way that in late 1960s Britain most reviewers and critics would hardly have found welcome. In this early pseudo-translation, therefore, the lineaments of the poet are already fully formed. Later, with his power and self-positioning in a tradition of his own choosing, he elicited a similar bafflement in the early 1970s with his long poem ‘Angels‘ (For the Living 51–56).


These two features of ventriloquism and symbolism — the first not uncommon on a smaller scale, the second not common at all — distinguish Berengarten from his British contemporaries. They configure him, rather, in a modern European tradition — though one that is nonetheless rooted in English poetry, as is suggested by his invoking of Keats and Mandelstam together in ‘Croft Woods’ (For the Living 197–209). Indeed, given the range of Berengarten’s influences it would certainly be possible to consider his work in terms of Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’. However, Berengarten is a sufficiently accomplished writer to be wide open to influences without risking the disappearance of his own voice. In an almost bewildering display of both traditional and modernist techniques, Berengarten’s own tone is unmistakeable.


By turns visionary, sardonic, elegiac and — when the dead speak — hallucinatory, his work exhibits a strong kinship with that of Blake; indeed, the name of the little press Berengarten started in Cambridge, Los Poetry Press, is based on the character in Blake’s Prophetic Books who symbolises the creative imagination. However, unlike such post-war poets as Allen Ginsberg and Michael Horovitz, Berengarten has no need to echo Blake’s poetic devices or imitate his stylistic trappings. Rather, he is most akin to Blake in never allowing himself to be undermined by that almost universal British fear of taking oneself too seriously. If you don’t risk accusations of over-seriousness, Berengarten implies, why bother?


Moreover, Berengarten appears to have considerably closer affinities with Yeats and Pessoa than with most of his English contemporaries — both of whom happen to share Berengarten’s astrological sun sign, although there is no evidence in his work of any sympathy with, let alone belief in, astrology. In this connection, whilst the opening section of The Manager is entitled ‘Gemini’ (The Manager [2008] 7), this short piece, in fact, is something of a firecracker: rather than consider Berengarten’s sun sign, it sends up those lunatic glossy magazine horoscopes. Beginning with measured cliché, the language explodes in the two-word phrase ‘Particularly Friday’, where finally the reader is warned away from ‘voices’ — ‘Lest untamed angels in disguise [… ] smother you in sorrow’, and ‘sudden breakdown or memory lapse tumble and flood you in darkness’. The reader’s impression here is of a mind wandering over cliché to find itself hanging over a cliff-edge of insanity; as the banality of sentiment triggers its own dislocated misreading, the presentiment of breakdown is voiced. However, Berengarten is subtle enough not to colour his drama with implausible excesses of either character or confession.


In its overall structure and patterning, The Manager recalls some of Beddoes’ dramatic fragments in their mordancy, their wit and their nightmarish quality. Indeed, in the context of another poem by Berengarten, Act III, Scene III of Beddoes’ The Brides’ Tragedy comes specifically to mind: in this passage, the last shipwrecked sailor is watching sea monsters ‘For his dead messmates warring all, save one / That leers upon him with a ravenous gaze’ (Beddoes 42: 15–16) — which is about to eat him. This extinction of one’s own kind, ending with the doomed witness anticipating his own extinction, strangely prefigures Berengarten’s extraordinary ‘Angels’. Beddoes, of course, also wandered over Europe for much of his life. Berengarten’s ludic wit turns to deadly purpose, again making him decisively a European rather than an insular British poet. Geoffrey Hill, despite his Miltonic protestations, is of a similar cast of mind.


Norman Jope has suggested that Berengarten is one of those poets, modernist in scope and reach, whose focus on both the visionary and the act of translation locates him in a zone excluded by either modernist or mainstream.


Richard Berengarten (Burns) is just one obvious example among other writers I particularly admire, who fall foul of a kind of schism [… ] I’m not sure if one can identify a unified ‘third stream’ but would suggest two zones of exclusion, to start with — writers who deal with issues of spirituality and personal transformation, and writers whose influences are strongly or mainly from other literatures in translation. Both the mainstream and the avant-garde are set, on the whole, against both of these tendencies. (quoted in Jenner 2008: 16)


Jope’s eclecticism clearly embraces many of the most interesting poets, wary of schools, who are determined to continue to absorb and learn from ‘foreign‘ poetry. However, from the point of view of getting published, at least until recently, living abroad hasn’t generally proved to be a particularly good tactical move for a British poet either: too many interests, too much politics, too much garish colour.


‘Actaeon’ (1965–6) and ‘Avebury’ (1971) with its dedication to Octavio Paz — both of which are ambitious and experimental in their approach to poetic form — honed the poet’s imagistic precision in splintered stanzas. ‘Avebury’ is in twenty-four sections, and moves far from considerations of that flint-strewn place. Section VIII is particularly rich:


and at Samothraki
striding out came dancing
the daughter

in the wind and taking wings
her robe a river of hair
over the jutting curve of her
incredible arrogant breasts

and the breakers
under the belly
forming like an unseen hand
protecting her cave the mouth of her (For the Living 32)


Berengarten merges the standing stones of Avebury with images ‘set in stone’ from elsewhere, in order todepict a disturbed and eroticised topography. The spacings and patterning of words on the pages mean that each section actually ‘reads’ like fractured and piled stone. What whistles through these gaps is worth capturing: a sonority of barrow-wraiths. ‘Avebury’ is perhaps an interrogation of myth and history, a prising of rock, by tapping it at the right angle.


‘Angels’ (1974–6), on the other hand, is presciently ecological, and almost anticipates Lowell’s dolphin poemsthemselves often hailed as prescient — which were published in the year before ‘Angels’. But Berengarten’s poem is, both metaphorically and literally, a deeper sounding altogether. First published as one of his poster poems, ‘Angels’ explores the extinction of a large mammal hunted on land, whose last survivors manage to reach the ocean. By changing habitat, the species is reprieved, and under water it breeds, evolves and thrives. However, resultant complacency dooms the whale-like though never explicitly identified angels to a second, now permanent extinction:


Then we were few: three, perhaps, four.
To zones unhaunted, by no fish followed,
where water’s weight and sheer blackness
pressed till we shrank and merged with shadows,
down we dived, deeper than terror.
Then we were two, and we sang each other
of Tiphareth, of the Throne, of the Glory.
Indescribable our lamentations,
we the uncounted, the unaccountables,
sons and daughters of the starry heavens
became a lost calling without a name
drifting among unfathomed valleys,
until I called, recalled, and heard
no answering song. Then quietly I climbed
and on a still sea trumpeted, took air
and dived for ever. And you’ll not find me
nor you nor you, till the almond tree flowers
on the mountain, and there is no more sea. (For the Living 55–56)


Berengarten’s variations on Kabbalistic, liturgical and Biblical images and references, such as ‘Tiphareth’, ‘the Throne’, ‘the Glory’, ‘almond tree’ and ‘no more sea’ — and his homophonic variations like ‘uncounted’ and ‘unaccountables’ (a neologism too) — contribute to the single huge breath of the poem. The steady sway of the phrasing and the accusatory interruptions of repeated key phrases (‘nor you nor you’) reinforce the poem’s trance-like ambience, which persists even when its rhythms thrash, plunge and dive most forcefully through the watery heights and depths. One of Berengarten’s most moving poems, ‘Angels’ far transcends its principal constituent metaphor; it is almost as if the terrible beauty of its final Biblical invocation involves the inhalation of searing lungfuls, not of air, but of fire.


‘Ode on the End of the Third Exile’ (1976–8) proves that Berengarten’s early immersion in Greece and in the work of Seferis (as the homage in Black Light makes explicit) was hardly an ephemeral accident. It is almost as if Berengarten re-located to Greece because that was where his poetry needed to be — in the same way as happened again, years later, in Yugoslavia. This ‘Ode’ is playfully Ovidian, in its exilic slant and in the metamorphoses of both protagonist and his sometime siren, who is sexily described in Section II. From the outset, ‘resin and thyme’ clearly evoke the Mediterranean and perhaps also the background hum of Seferis. Inlaid description vies with a diction that is demotic and casual (‘going barmy’) to fill out the Berengarten landscape:


Bearer of the double flute among those hill walled cities,
through villages hive crowned, smelling of resin and thyme
and the swallows going barmy in their ivy hung eaves,
in wood stacked fishing hamlets precarious on estuaries,
breezing into valleys of silvering olive trees, [… ] (For the Living 57)


All too typical of legendary sea voyages that involve a poet, the sequence of five sections climaxes with the crew demanding that the ‘fat Hebrew’ sing them out of a storm. Refusing that particular office, the protagonist lets himself be thrown overboard; he’s then borne aloft, fantastically, by a female apparition: ‘Son of earth, sky breather, / Enough of sea and weeping. Now it is time to return.’ (For the Living 63). And so he returns, on the green-eyed siren’s back, as if riding a dolphin — to ‘work for love and justice’. It’s a remarkable fable, even though the end owns a 1968ish, flatly delivered expression of reforming zeal.


Other poems like ‘Tree’ illustrate (very literally) Berengarten’s virtuosity when it is placed in the service of the natural order, both poetically and botanically. The reader’s focus is kept on the breathless movement of the poem’s narrow ribbon of text. ‘Tree’ maintains an extraordinary resource of metaphor, never flagging in its arboreal reach or apposite growing-points.


‘Black Light’ (1982/86) is subtitled ‘In Memory of George Seferis, 1900–71’, and in its explicit homage this sequence shows Berengarten at his most ambitious and achieved (For the Living 147–176). He often names the poets he’s invoking, because his voice is powerful enough to confront them, pay homage, and render something different. Here, each poem in the sequence is prefaced by an epigraph from Seferis. Berengarten’s ability to base his own work on the resource of a cantus firmus, whether from the near or distant past, is one that any poet born before 1800 would have taken for granted as a basic tenet of the Art. In ‘Black Light’, Berengarten’s range extends from the two strict villanelles that structurally and thematically frame the beginning and end of the sequence — a form to which he later returns with overwhelming force and point in ‘The Death of Children’ (BB 17–25) — to intimations of friendship and mortality, couched in a variety of other forms, that seem all the more masterful for being delivered so casually. In ‘Soulmonger’ (For the Living 155–156), the theme is broached in loosely-knit hexameters:


And my guide said, ‘Do not probe too deeply in darkness
but construct your world out of daylight. As for dreams,
you should listen to them carefully, for their voices
may often be prophetic, pointing the true way [… ] (For the Living 155)


Another poem, ‘Cicadas I’, evokes an intimacy at the meal table, strongly inflected by the Greek language (For the Living 159). But the fullest strength is felt in poems like ‘Volta’:


Porous city, her name is Eleftheria,
and though your scars are grey flecks in her eyes
still, at this hour when light and light’s inflections
play subtly in her face as speech or song,
hers is the ancient right to walk this quayside
as instrument and guardian of your light
collecting it in the wells of her deep pupils,
and hers, the darling freedom, to tread you like a dancer.

Darling evening, light thousands of years old,
clear throated singer, lovely as this woman,
how can I not adore the grace you cast
this city and its people in, a mould
that sculptures all it touches, the whole world?
I have become your slave, if not your citizen.
And thirsting to drink you wholly, I would fill
every pore with your radiance, her freedom. (For the Living 158)


The variegated patterning of ‘light’ in the sequence is concentrated, by a single flashing feminine glance, in full Mediterranean intensity. This light also provides a kind of release from the almost tangibly ‘lived-in’ aspects of the sequence, replete with all its local words, colours and coffee smells. At the time he was writing ‘Black Light’, Berengarten had virtually no peer in English in his exploration of the post-romantic use of language — that is, in the visionary, wryly fabulous scope he was making his own. With such an intimate evocation in mid-career as this, I would argue that here Berengarten came of age as a poet: this elegiac and metaphysically searching meditation announces his reach as one who, among things, is able, as William Empson put it, to ’argufy’ in verse with other poets.


Several masterpieces of Berengarten’s maturity demand full treatment, notably The Blue Butterfly. But ‘Croft Woods’ (1998–9), which combines a dense surface reminiscent of Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ with a Shelleyan sweep of lyrical argument, offers a more manageable example from his mature period. This, incidentally, is a manner that Hart Crane would have recognised; and, as has already been mentioned, Keats and Mandelstam are explicitly invoked in the poem itself. ‘Croft Woods’ displays Berengarten at the height of his transcendent powers:


The light here hangs diagonally down,
an alphabet of traceries and shadows
I have not learned, but only half intuit.
Illiterate, I stumble like a foreigner
who cannot read the simplest of its messages.
But still it daunts me, calls me deep into it.

Blue moss, moonwort, fronded maidenhair,
dusty spores of buckler and hart’s-tongue nestling
under cow-grass and nettles, where I tread,
cry for release: Go soft now and in peace.
I wish I were a ghost, not to disturb
their roots planted more deeply than our dead. (For the Living 199)


The formal quality here is Shelleyan in its intellectual power, while the sensuous detail and texturing in the second of these stanzas are, more precisely, Keatsian. Exhortative measures such as ‘Go soft now’ are recognisable as pure Berengarten: he has carried these keys with him from a time before even the writing of ‘Black Light’ (where, like the light itself, they solidified). The movement in ‘Croft Woods’ is a journey towards voices through ‘a slanted source of sunlight’ (For the Living 143); and this visual aspect bears direct comparison with the setting of another poem, ‘Diagonal’ (The Blue Butterfly 70–72), in which the protagonist is visited by a fleeting, Beatrice-like guide. Such figures, voices and musical sounds often flit in and out of Berengarten’s poems; and although these are sometimes capable of flirting, like Ondine, to lead the protagonist astray, they are usually benign — more like Odysseus’ goddesses. In ‘Croft Woods’, lute sounds invoking ‘Dowland, Wyatt’s, Shakespeare’s’ give way to an overhearing of oneself:


I am a shell without a listening child
to hear the sea in. I’m the sea itself
solidified, without a moon to pull
a wind or raise a cloud or comb a wave.
Where have I gone — where has my own self gone
out of this everlasting-seeming pause? (For the Living 200)


The forest of other voices is so dense that it ‘hollows one out’ by comparison. This dark wood itself is both a translation of listening and a negation of it. More than individuality is threatened; the humanity of speech, of listening and of silence is overwhelmed by the half scrubbed-out palimpsest of anti-voices. Primordial, certainly kin to the savage gods of depression and the blackness plunging one into silence, these also threaten all individual voicing:


And these translucent symphonies of sap
print negatives of speech, gaps, absences,
unstitching and unweaving human voices
to dim inverted echoes of our origins,
as shimmering escarpments, cliffs and peaks
reflect in lakes through which the abyss speaks.
[… ]
Unbearable polyphonies! I’m hemmed
on all sides by a shadow-orchestra
playing not sound, but mirrorings of sound,
an anti-music, music’s twin and opposite,
fluid in meanings, filled with coded messages
of bodiless bodies, dry dews, airless airs. (For the Living 202–203)


Not only are ‘Avebury’ and ‘Angels’ echoed in this unusually denotative language; they are also challenged, as the next stanza affirms, in ‘punning alien non-calls’. Thus Berengarten’s language, even at its most richly orchestrated, switches back to the vernacular and checks itself against ‘common sense’ in a constantly critical, criss-cross deconstruction of the very elaborate trajectory of the poem which, all the while, is proceeding in almost regally measured stanzas.


Inevitably, perhaps, the muse that haunts so much of Berengarten’s best work italicises his text in a whisper so that, after ambivalent exhortations (‘come and be sentry to these catacombs, / the minotaur of labyrinthine caves’), the poem turns:


and listening to this music is descending
a ladder dangling in an endless void,
to reach its end, let go, and still to tumble
throughout one’s self until all self is blown
like breath from dying lungs or a balloon,
and further fall, a meteoric stone.

Deeper than self entirely, made transparent,
the dreamer enters unsleep, a new zone,
and in so doing, climbs! If this is falling,
it is a falling upwards, a dawn breaking
a dream undreamed, redressed, a double-waking,
and through fear so far gone, fear is unknown. (For the Living 204–205)


In this ‘climb’, the speaker identifies strata of artists and their artistry, (‘I touch a world inside the veins of rock / which Michelangelo knew before he chiselled [… ] I’m Goethe’s Faust [… ] I am at one with Keats and Mandelstam / I am the bloodless blood inside the rose.’ [For the Living 205]). The poet who, like Orpheus, Aeneas or Dante — not to mention Lazarus — began his descent in ‘negative’ mode, is now able to ‘print out’ his ‘positive’ affirmation: ‘And now, I have the key — of songs perpetual [… ]’. His penetrating meditation on the roots of the theme of ‘Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow’ is reminiscent of this gloss by Keats on his own melancholy, in his eponymous ‘Ode’ (Keats 1895: 352). Berengarten, however, is more explicit and takes more envisioned risks, extraordinary in any period but particularly unusual in a climate of post-modern irony and scepticism:


These boughs and trunks are valves the underworld
allows the dead we tread on underfoot
to breathe a little through from atmospheres
funnelled from earthly moistures. Each porous
bulb, root, tuber is a well sprung door
hinged between death and life and keyed by dream.

Withstanding stresses higher than our hopes,
through hollowed pipes which subtly coil and bend
on stems stretched taut, to analyse and parse
galactic grammars without start or end,
blossoms and flowers, like astral telescopes,
in petalled bowls snatch impulses from stars. (For the Living 207)


The only passage I can compare to this ‘string theory’ vision of the connectedness of vegetable and stellar worlds is Crane’s The Bridge, in particular its final section, ‘Atlantis’. Very few poems since then can begin to match Crane’s rhapsodic parabola of hymned steel. However, ‘Croft Woods’ runs it close. ‘Croft Woods’ is a considerably longer piece than ‘Atlantis’, but it contains several passages that possess a ringing authority, coupled with an imagistic precision — or incision, almost akin to the visual and tactile effect of drypoint. This makes Berengarten’s lines tremulously alive to the ways in which:


Chords brushed from nothing, plaited lacy stuff,
Chains out of nowhere, cables combed from void,
join death to us across their bridge of hair. (For the Living 208)


I have suggested some of the ways in which Berengarten has proceeded from his glued-in poem of revolt, hanging like a chrysalis from inside the back cover of the London Magazine, to the epic sweep of his later work. And, as ‘Croft Woods’ spells darkly, a genuine loss involving the ‘Janusing’ or negativing of self — like that of ‘Solomon’ into ‘Nomolos’– is a prerequisite for entering the self’s striated darkness and returning to the world of language with poetry of lasting impact. Beyond a very few contemporaries such as Mario Petrucci, with his marvellous Heavy Water, and of course Geoffrey Hill, there are few who dare to claim this Shelleyan, vatic inheritance for poetry — even when such claims are vital for its continuance. And fewer who can.

Works Cited

Beddoes, Thomas Lowell. 1950. Plays and Poems. (ed. H. W. Donner). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Berengarten, Richard. 2004. For the Living. Selected Writings 1: Longer Poems 1965–2000. Cambridge: Salt Publishing.

——— . 2008a. The Blue Butterfly. Selected Writings Vol. 3: The Balkan Trilogy Part 1. Cambridge: Salt Publishing.

——— . 2008b. The Manager: a poem. Selected Writings, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Salt Publishing.

——— . 2008c. Under Balkan Light. Selected Writings Vol. 5: The Balkan Trilogy Part 3. Cambridge: Salt Publishing.

Blake, William. 1956. Poetry and Prose, ed. Geoffrey Keynes. London: The Nonesuch Library.

Cavafy, Constantine. 1961. Complete Poems, expanded (tr. Rae Dalven, with an introduction by W. H. Auden). New York: Harvest.

Crane. Hart. 1999. Complete Poems, Centennial Edition (ed. Marc Simon, introduced by Harold Bloom). New York: Liveright.

Empson, William. 1987. Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Jenner, Simon. 2008. ‘Introduction’ to Orphans of Albion (ed. Barry Tebb). London: Survivors’ Press: pp 7–17.

Keats, John. 1895. The Poetical Works (ed. Harry Buxton Forman). London: Reeves & Turner.

Lowell, Robert. 1973. The Dolphin. New York: Farrar, Straus.

Simon Jenner

Simon Jenner

Simon Jenner was born in Cuckfield, Sussex in 1959. Failing everything at school except art, he learnt to fly instead, although discovering poetry forestalled a career in airframes. He was belatedly educated at Leeds, then Cambridge, where his PhD topic was’ Oxford Poetry of the 1940s’. Despite early recognition from poets and critics such as Martin Seymour-Smith, Peter Porter and Robert Nye, Jenner’s solo debut was curiously delayed: his debut collection, About Bloody Time, was published eventually by Waterloo Press in 2007. Extensive reviews of this volume currently appear in Stride (Steve Spence), Tears in the Fence 51 (David Pollard), and PN Review (Jim Keery). Prior to publication of his debut collection, he undertook poetry tours in Germany in 1996 and 1997, a South East Arts Bursary in 1999, Royal Literary Fund grants in 2003 and 2006 and appearances on the BBC between 1999 and 2003. He has been Director of Survivors’ Poetry since 2003 and, since 2008, has also been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow (currently at the University of East London). In September 2009 he will take up the same post at Chichester University.

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