back toJacket2
Richard Berengarten

This piece is about 22 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Paul Scott Derrick and Jacket magazine 2010. See our [»»] Copyright notice.
The Internet address of this page is
Photo: Richard Berengarten

Back to the Richard Berengarten feature Contents list

Richard Berengarten Feature

Paul Scott Derrick

A Poet for a Time of Need

Remember the one who said, What’s the use of poets in a mean-spirited age? — that’s him, sitting there. He was already here long before I arrived, and here he will stay, like me. No doubt his memory will long outlast mine…

 — Richard Berengarten, ‘Ambassador’ (For the Living 175)



It isn’t easy to give an accurate assessment of the work of a living poet. Nor is it, perhaps, advisable to try. So many trees in the woods seem overwhelming when we’re standing right beside them. We need to have the benefit of distance to judge how tall they really are.


But how does one credibly criticize poetry anyway? In other words, how can we most effectively talk about it? A much better writer (and thinker) than I has put the matter succinctly: “The experience of poetry, like any other experience, is only partially translatable into words.” And if this utterance is a patent truth that all of us are — or should be — aware of, he further reflected on how this truth impinges on the performance of the critic:


[… ] some people who are inarticulate, and cannot say why they like a poem, may have deeper and more discriminating sensibility than some others who can talk glibly about it… . Even the most accomplished of critics can, in the end, only point to the poetry which seems to him to be the real thing (Eliot: 17, 18).


Having stood under one or two trees by now, I feel that I can point to the one named Richard Berengarten, and say, “This tree seems to me to be the real thing. If our children’s children are permitted to look back at the forest of what we were, this distinct form will stand out above the fuss and flutter of the surrounding foliage.”


But then, Berengarten has a propensity for trees. Several of his most significant poems take place in their proximity. It’s almost as though poems like ‘The Voice in the Garden’, ‘May’, ‘In the parks and among the flowering gardens’, ‘Croft Woods’ and of course, ‘Tree’, were written under their tutelage. Because, importantly, Berengarten is a poet who listens before he speaks:


Say, isn’t every secret worth its keeping
as open-hearted, generous and full-throated
an outpouring, as the choir of these dumb trees
you walk among here, hearing, overhearing,
their aweful and tremendous joys and sadnesses… (Under Balkan Light 72)


A secret that is kept by being expressed through silence: how seriously can we take an idea like this? A tree, or a chorus of trees, or anything else in the outside world, whispers without words into the poet’s ear, and the secrets they tell form the muted burden of the poem. We should, in fact take it very seriously. Walt Whitman did. That whole fabulous, loquacious, contradictory, astounding, sensual and entertaining message that is Song of Myself allegedly emerged from his intent contemplation of a “spear of summer grass”, in which he heard the wordless thrumming of the soul:


Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
(Baym, v. I: 1977)


We need to take this idea seriously because, as Whitman already knew in 1855, doing so directly affects the way we understand our relationship with the so-called outside world. [1] And this, in turn, leads us to a deeper question, one that addresses perhaps the most essential quality of human being: where does authentic language — speech that reflects most deeply on what we are and tells us what we need most desperately to know about ourselves — come from?


Berengarten has given his own response to questions such as these in an unpublished interview with Joanne Limburg. Talking about the lyrical voice, and the rich variety of formal patterns it assumes in his work, he describes what might best be called a receptive, open attitude. It could be termed a ‘listening’:


I think the voices of poems emerge according to rules, laws, volitions, directions of their own. I think the poet participates with them but doesn’t direct them… If the Heraclitan and Hermetic dictum carries — and I think it does — then perhaps one might be entitled to invert the Jungian spatial metaphor, so that one could equally well say that a poem’s voices come from layers higher than the conscious mind. [2]


This statement conjures up echoes of both Whitman and of the Emersonian ‘Oversoul’. Not many contemporary poets would wish to be thought of as ‘Romantics’, but a profession such as this places Berengarten directly in the central stream of the modern (and postmodern) Romantic tradition.


More than 160 years have passed since Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great synthesizer of Romantic thought for the culture of the United States, wrote that


… what is called Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees; by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others. The path of things is silent. Will they suffer a speaker to go with them? A spy they will not suffer; a lover, a poet, is the transcendency of their own nature, — him they will suffer. The condition of true naming, on the poet’s part, is his resigning himself to the divine aura which breathes through forms, and accompanying that. (Emerson: 993)


The message may sound outmoded, but we would still do well to attend to what he says. The path of things is silent. The poet though — unlike the scientific spy — communes with what is there and then responds. Through the poet, nature transcends itself. He, or she, speaks its heart (which is also the poet’s own), and essences (secrets) flower into words:


The sea, the mountain-ridge, Niagara, and every flower-bed, pre-exist, or super-exist, in pre-cantations, which sail like odors in the air, and when any man goes by with an ear sufficiently fine, he overhears them and endeavors to write down the notes without diluting or depraving them (Emerson: 992).


Aren’t these “pre-cantations” another name for what Berengarten refers to as “layers higher than the conscious mind”?


I hardly mean to suggest, though, that Berengarten is an antiquated throwback to the nineteenth century. The issue is more complex than that. I might just as well argue that Emerson was a ‘conceptual sling-shot’ into the twenty-first century (which would, in fact, be closer to my intentions). What I do want to say, and to illustrate with Berengarten’s, is that even though most of us refuse to acknowledge it, we are still in our time dealing with the core issues raised by our Romantic predecessors.


One of those issues is how we are related to the world. The contemporary philosopher Stanley Cavell, who has spent much of his professional life attending to Emerson’s words, agrees that we have yet to understand correctly the dynamics of that relation. For example, discussing Emerson’s essay ‘Experience’, he writes:


The universe is as separate from me, but as intimately part of me, as one on whose behalf I contest, and who therefore wears my colors. We are in a state of ‘romance’ with the universe… ; we do not possess it, but our life is to return to it, in ever-widening circles (Cavell: 193).


The principal point of Cavell’s reading of Emerson is that this constantly expanding return to the universe is carried out through a particular and careful use of the mind. He describes it as a respectful, reverential and responsive form of thinking. And since one of Cavell’s purposes is to bring to light an underlying continuity between the thought of Emerson and that of Martin Heidegger, it should be no surprise that his description of Emerson’s more passive, receptive use of the mind closely corresponds with what Heidegger, at mid-twentieth century, delicately interpreted as ‘reflection’. [3]



[T]he responding in which man authentically listens to the appeal of language is that which speaks in the element of poetry. The more poetic a poet is — the freer (that is, the more open and ready for the unforeseen) his saying — the greater is the purity with which he submits what he says to an ever more painstaking listening, and the further what he says is from the mere propositional statement that is dealt with solely in regard to its correctness or incorrectness. (Heidegger 1975: 216)


This is what I hear in Richard Berengarten’s poetic speech: an affectionate, marvelling, reverential response to the world that we inhabit and have no choice but to learn how to love. And this is why it seems to me that ‘The voice in the garden’, that celebration of self-possessed surrender, could be read as a defining statement for entry into Berengarten’s work. As Emerson wrote in 1844: “I know not how it is that we need an interpreter, but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature” (Emerson: 985). This poem makes such a report. It traces original language back to its sources in the abiding silence of Being, and it lets the world pronounce itself through the poet’s voice.


Here we have a double, or embedded, response. Berengarten has listened to the voice of Yugoslav poet Ivan V. Lalić, who has reported his own disturbing conversation with nature. The pertinent line by Lalić forms the epigraph to an entire section of Under Balkan Light that is also entitled ‘The Voice in the Garden’, and is the starting-point for this circular revelation: “Who can I ask about the voice in the gardens?” (Under Balkan Light 67). [4] This poem offers a reply to Lalić’s haunted question. But in order to interpret the voice that Lalić has heard, Berengarten must also hear it himself. Due to its complex syntax, the first stanza, which is one complete sentence, needs to be quoted entire:


Did you ask for apotheosis, or transcendence,
or something else, not either, yet still higher,
when that curious voice assailed you in the garden
with song, unearthly, that you could not fully
comprehend in origin or depth, but knew
and recognised for what it was — a miracle
woven out of the silences, the pauses,
gaps and gulfs between perfumes, colours, movements,
or grace abundant, superimposed on grace –
realising the voice inside your head,
wired into time, earthed, forking out through space,
was the living call to the unborn from the dead? (Under Balkan Light 71)


What is moving in Lalić’s complaint is his fear that the voice in his mind may come from the dead, which is a feeling we can sympathize with. Most of us in this culture are afraid of ghosts, afraid of whatever death may have to reveal, afraid of death itself. But the speaker of Berengarten’s poem has listened more keenly. There seems to be a paradox here. The song is “unearthly”, yet it also emerges from the garden: “woven out of the silences, the pauses / gaps and gulfs between perfumes, colours, movements”. What, then, are these ‘empty spaces’ in the texture of the world? The suggestion, I believe, is that Being contains non-Being, that the All contains the Nothing, or that the living world is pervaded with death.


Here we come close to Heidegger’s concept of ‘nihilation’ [Vernichtung]. In the essay ‘What Is Metaphysics?’ [5] he deploys this term to explore what he considers the most essential quality of Being: the fact that everything-that-is is constantly disappearing. The ceaseless flow of nature, of which we form a part, can be thought of as a process of ‘de-becoming’. In Heidegger’s understanding, a sudden recognition that everything, including ourselves, is forever pulling away into nothingness, induces an unsettling sense of alienation from the world, that is, a sense of the world’s essential ‘otherness’, which causes the emotion of dread [Angst].


I suggest that this is one way to appreciate the feeling that Lalić so strongly expresses.


However, thinking through the emotion of dread offers the opportunity to comprehend Being in its wholeness. That irrevocable process of disappearance can also be understood as the source of language, since we use our words and the concepts they express both to ‘lift’ the multiform constituents of the world out of the amorphous flow of Being and also to prevent the totality of what-is from sinking into oblivion. Language is what ‘delivers’ the world, all that we can know, from the flux of Being into ex-istence.


We therefore need to use our language carefully. This kind of careful, thoughtful speech is what Heidegger refers to with his well-known concept of ‘letting-be’. Our gravest responsibility is not to impose our will and thereby transform Being into what we want it to be. Instead, by listening responsively, we should free ourselves from the will, and so permit the world to open itself, as it already is, through what we say and how we say it. [6]


Spilling out from itself, all singing is
what cannot be contained, the singular glory
of being, itself, its own apotheosis
which needs ask nothing, nothing being all it holds (Under Balkan Light 73)


This response to Lalić’s mood of dread is a reassurance. The texture of Being includes non-Being; but that non-Being is a component of what we are. The dead are not “outside the garden”, somewhere beyond and thus alien to the world. Death is an integral part of the process of life, as integral as the flowing movement of thought. ‘The voice in the garden’ therefore reinterprets dread, corrects it:


… do not be mistaken:
the dead have not gone elsewhere. They are here
inside us, in the song. This is its sense.
We are their audience and the instruments
they play on… (Under Balkan Light 73)


If art is our ultimate access to truth, then the ultimate truth may ‘engendered’ in the ‘womb’ of death.
This is one of those core issues of Romantic thinking. Once science had made Christian beliefs about the afterlife untenable, the Romantics gradually came to realise that they needed to reformulate the concept of death in Western culture. Consequently, one of the fundamental elements of the Romantic (re)turn to nature was the effort to re-conceive both life and death as aspects of a single, larger phenomenon, that is, as intimately related facets of an endless, flowing process.
This is what we nowadays call a ‘holistic paradigm’. Emerson was aware that the Romantic vision was holistic. The poet, he wrote, “re-attaches things to nature and the Whole” (Emerson: 990). We can find one of the first, somewhat faltering efforts to do so in American poetry as early as 1779. In The House of Night, Philip Freneau’s strained attempt to imagine the deathbed scene of death itself, the speaker suddenly interjects:


What is this Death, ye deep read sophists, say, —
Death is no more than one unceasing change;
New forms arise, while other forms decay,
Yet all is LIFE throughout creation’s range.
(Baym, v. I: 718)


Freneau was a victim of his own time, caught between the Age of Reason and the rising tide of Romanticism. Both his thinking and his poetry suffered as a result of the competing pulls of these two very different ways of thinking the world.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, though, Walt Whitman was able to formulate the same idea in a much more powerful form:


What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appeared. (Baym, v. I: 1978)


Reattaching things to nature and ‘the Whole’ entails a re-conceiving of logical dualities. The ultimate logical opposites are our ideas of life and death. This is why it is so hard for us in the West to accommodate a holistic paradigm. Yet that is the final burden of ‘The voice in the garden’. As we have seen, the song in the poet’s head, which also becomes and is the poem, is both unearthly and earthly. It comes into language out of silence. It carries a message to the living from the dead, and will speak through the living to the not-yet-born. One of the points, if not the main point, that the poem communicates is precisely the need to bridge this kind of logical paradox. ‘The voice in the garden’ speaks in words that propagate the wholeness of Being.




Where does language come from? How do we assimilate the phenomenon of death into a post-Christian system of thought? I propose that we are still involved in the long and complicated process of resolving these two problems that the Romantic thinkers only began to articulate for Western culture. ‘The voice in the garden’ elegantly addresses them both, and therefore takes us one step further along this alternative — or recessive — line of Western thinking, or, as Heidegger often described it, this particular “pathway” through thought.
Heidegger’s later essays mark a high point on this pathway and offer a profound elucidation of those questions the Romantics were struggling to formulate. Clearly, we can find the proper answers only when our questions are properly framed. [7] This is why, for Heidegger, the thinker and the poet are kindred travellers on this path, closely related through their mutual task of listening. He called this receptive use of the mind ein eindenkendes Denken, a thinking that memorializes and responds (Heidegger 1975: ix). In ‘Science and Reflection’, he proposes this more contemplative approach to the world as a possible antidote for the dangerous spiritual impoverishment of modern man. Heidegger’s argument is also a twentieth-century metamorphosis of Emerson’s concept of ‘Reason’ (an intuitive response to nature) as opposed to ‘Understanding’ (an analytical grasp of nature). As already noted, Emerson says that “the condition of true naming, on the poet’s part, is his resigning himself to the divine aura which breathes through forms, and accompanying that” (Emerson: 993). Heidegger writes:


Language speaks as the peal of stillness… the very nature, the presencing of language needs and uses the speaking of mortals in order to sound as the peal of stillness for the hearing of mortals. Only as men belong within the peal of stillness are mortals able to speak in their own way in sounds (Heidegger 1975: 207, 208).


What better explication of ‘The voice in the garden’ — and of the poet’s voice — could we ask for? “The thinker utters Being. The poet names what is holy” (Heidegger 1970: 360). This kind of loving response to experience not only restores us to a healthier, more harmonious relationship with the world, it also breaks down our culture’s pre-conceived barriers between life and death.




Berengarten deals with the same theme, on a much more personal and emotional level, in ‘May’ (For the Living 177–184). Responding to the exuberant, intoxicating life-force of spring, and in the company of his two young children, he feels the urge to burst into speech himself, and to make a poem for his son and daughter ‘out of’ the powerful scent of lilac in the garden. But, “borne on the lilac’s perfume, whispering through my mind”, he hears the voices, and music, of “ghosts” (For the Living 182) — the presences that Lalić seemed to be so afraid of in that other garden.
In the midst of life, there is death. In the midst of all this joy, there is sorrow. The poem itself can be released only by expressing that muted “litany of sadnesses” (For the Living 182).
It is no coincidence that the trigger that releases this expression is his daughter’s first efforts at speech:


Fthah, says Lara, pointing. Does she mean There
or Flower? And the whole garden opens around her,
you can see it in her wide eyes, as, two years old,
cheeks burning, she toddles on the brink of speech. (For the Living 179)


Berengarten may be playing somewhat coy here; for “Fthah”, the key that turns the lock in the door of memory, may well indicate neither “There” nor “Flower”, but ‘Father’. The child’s first, imperfect word points the poet back toward the waiting ghosts of his own childhood, at once opening him to them and permitting them to speak through him, just as through his daughter’s eyes the garden itself now ‘opens up’ for them both.


Fthah”: the father’s presence waits to be unfolded from this word and to ‘flower’ through the poet into speech. What is calling through the joyful power of spring, and what the poem gradually uncovers, is the memory of Berengarten’s younger sister, Sarah, born deaf and dumb and blind. The effect of this on his father, Alexander, a cellist, was devastating, and apparently led to his untimely death.


Thus, the poet finally discovers that what he has been trying so long not to hear was Alexander’s “finest concert”, performed night after night in their home, as he played again and again ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ into his daughter’s unhearing ears, pouring all of his love through a song that seemed to be lost forever, to disappear into absence and nothingness. The sorrow may have caused Alexander’s heart to stop, but neither the love nor the music were really lost. His son has heard them both; and


Now, walking in this garden, among blossoms falling,
with my own daughter Lara and son Alexander,
I hear my father’s music call me from his grave,
and the Swan of Tuonela rises from the lake
to beat its white wings against my shuffled heart. (For the Living 182)


This poem, written in the mid-1980s, meticulously and lovingly executes the knowledge that ‘The voice in the garden’, written in 1988, will also reveal:


[T]he dead have not gone elsewhere. They are here
inside us, in the song. This is its sense.
We are the audience and the instruments
they play on, who conduct all living things
as willing pipe and horn and shimmering strings. (Under Balkan Light 73)


A transitory moment in the garden, a moment’s powerful emotion, is miraculously unfolded into speech and suspended out of time. Alexander’s cello plays from the grave through Richard’s voice, and its message of love and pain reaches Richard’s children, Lara and Alexander. This is the ‘meaning’ of Richard’s father’s art — and the poet’s own. This is what Richard, as a son, has to learn to accept, and then pass on to his own children: love, pain and death are all a part of the miracle of life. As ‘The Voice in the Garden’ tells us, “[e]verything, even suffering, is a gift” (Under Balkan Light 74).



People always ask: For whom does the poet write? He needs only to answer, For whom do you do good? Are you kind to your daughter because in the end someone will pay you for being?… The poet writes his poem for its own sake, for the sake of the order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it. (Randall Jarrell 1980: 26)


As Berengarten explains in the ‘Postscript’ to The Blue Butterfly, there was a specific — and very terrible — ‘order of things’ waiting to be dealt with by this extraordinary collection of poems: the massacre at Kragujevac, in central Serbia, in October, 1941. An odd occurrence inspired him during a visit to Kragujevac with his daughter on May 25, 1985. He describes that experience in the Postscript: “While we were queuing to enter the museum [that commemorates the massacre], a blue butterfly suddenly came to rest on the forefinger of my left hand — that is, my writing hand. Lara and I each had just enough time to take a photograph of the creature” (The Blue Butterfly 123).


Was this occurrence a miracle, or a coincidence? What might have been no more than a moment’s amusement or mild surprise for anyone else, turns out for the poet to be a portentous visitation. This uncanny junction of two living beings in time and space is reminiscent of Emerson’s chance encounter with the Rhodora and of Robert Frost stumbling unawares on a dimpled white spider that was holding up a dead moth on a white heal-all. All three encounters led to poems. [8] And in Berengarten’s case, more than one poem. The touch of that blue butterfly set off a process of composition that stretched over twenty years and finally produced this book. Berengarten reports that first small nudge, as well as his response to it, in ‘Nada: hope or nothing’:


like a silent song sung by the ghost of nobody
to an unknown, sweet and melodious instrument
buried ages in the deepest cave of being,

like a word only half heard, half remembered,
not yet fully learned, from a stranger’s language,
the sad heart longs for, to unlock its deepest cells,

a blue butterfly takes my hand and writes
in invisible ink across its page of air
Nada, Elpidha, Nadezhda, Esperanza, Hoffnung. (Blue Butterfly 9)


The Blue Butterfly accomplishes on a larger scale what has already been sketched out in ‘May’ and ‘The voice in the garden’. By dowsing and fathoming the “faintest sounds / that hatch through cracks of timelessness in time” (Under Balkan Light 74), in a place made sacred as a memorial to human injustice and human suffering, the poet once again becomes a channel through which the voices of the dead can speak both to the living and to the not-yet-born.


If we can think of The Blue Butterfly as a culmination of this central line of development in Berengarten’s work, then I would also suggest that it might be considered as a culmination of a similar line of development in the ‘recessive’ Romantic component of Western culture, in which I locate Berengarten’s work.


The book’s tightly-controlled structure and technical complexity plot out a maze-like design, (akin, perhaps, to the design on the wing of a butterfly) whose intricacies might be explored and unravelled for years. The Blue Butterfly is much more than either a poetic condemnation of all-too-human inhumanity or a moving commemoration of the suffering and nobility of the almost 3,000 victims of the Kragujevac massacre. When that blue butterfly settled on Berengarten’s writing hand, it called him to an even deeper task: to work his way into and through the labyrinth of horrors enacted in that place, to bring death back into the texture of life, and to try to restore the ‘wholeness’ of Being.




In ‘What Are Poets For?’, [9] one of his most compelling discussions of the function of language within Being, Heidegger writes: “In the age of the world’s night, the abyss must be experienced and endured. But for this it is necessary that there be those who reach into the abyss” (1975: 92). In this essay, Heidegger is responding to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. But everything he says in it might equally apply to The Blue Butterfly.


Berengarten also reaches deeply into the abyss of the impoverished human spirit in our destitute time. As did Rilke and Heidegger, he understands the need to change our approach to death, to stop resisting it (or to learn to resist it in a different way), and to acknowledge that death is the most intimate aspect of what we are. Heidegger suggests that this is the ultimate existential lesson that we are still on the difficult way to learning (or re-learning):


The time remains destitute not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality. Mortals have not yet come into ownership of their own nature. Death withdraws into the enigmatic. The mystery of pain remains veiled. Love has not been learned. (Heidegger 1975: 96)


Love, pain, and the relationship between the living and the dead are also Berengarten’s central concerns. Would it be too far-fetched, then, to propose that Berengarten’s poetry takes us one more step toward assuming the ownership of our own nature?


When Berengarten incorporates the blue butterfly into the body of his poetry, it also becomes a symbolic link between the living and the dead. [10] The ‘real’ creature introduced him to his subject; but the symbolic one carries his awareness, across the frontier of life, into what Eliot called “death’s dream kingdom”. [11] It hovers in the poems above both life and death.. Therefore, in the extended Romantic context to which I am appealing, it should be no surprise to discover that the figure of the blue butterfly fulfils the same function in Berengarten’s sequence as Rilke’s ‘Angel’ in The Duino Elegies. On 3 November 1925, Rilke wrote to Witold Hulewiez:


The angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we are accomplishing, already appears in its completion… ; that being who guarantees the recognition of a higher level of reality in the invisible (Rilke 1987: 317).


The Butterfly and the Angel converge in this way because both Rilke and Berengarten are following the same “pathway” of thinking-towards-death that was initiated in Western culture by the Romantic revolution, and that Heidegger devoted so much of his own thought to illuminating. And this is why Rilke’s explanation of his intentions, in that same letter, tells us more about The Blue Butterfly, and more effectively, than anything else I could say at this point:


IN THE “ELEGIES” AFFIRMATION OF LIFE AND AFFIRMATION OF DEATH REVEAL THEMSELVES AS ONE… . Death is our reverted, our unilluminated, SIDE OF LIFE: we must try to achieve the greatest possible consciousness of our existence, which is at home in BOTH OF THESE UNLIMITED PROVINCES, which is INEXHAUSTIBLY NOURISHED OUT OF BOTH . . . The true form of life extends through BOTH regions, the blood of the mightiest circulation pulses through BOTH: THERE IS NEITHER A HERE NOR A BEYOND, BUT ONLY THE GREAT UNITY, in which the “Angels,” those beings that surpass us, are at home (Rilke 1963: 93).


The seven sections, or movements, of The Blue Butterfly, each consisting of seven poems, constitute a gradual penetration of the labyrinth of Being that moves the lyric consciousness — and, it is to be hoped, the readers’ consciousness — into the “reverted, unilluminated side of life.” At the end of section 4, for example, in ‘Unmarked Voices from a Mass Grave’, we are poised, in awe and apprehension, on the brink of the immovable mystery where knowable experience ends and comprehensible language is nourished by silence:


You have come to a place, not a place, where no-one can remember
any words they may have heard, or ways out of the maze,
or steps once learned in dancing, or their subtle variations,
and time is a catacomb, a grove of bones, a permanence,
a station and a destiny, but not a destination,
where all contours of yesterdays are stratified in a fault
and tomorrow is an abyss, and the trains of space-time halt. (Blue Butterfly 49)


This is the same frontier between language and silence, rational knowledge and mystical revelation, life and death, that American Romantics such as Poe, Whitman and Dickinson often felt compelled to explore, and attempt to report on, in the nineteenth century. However, like Rilke, Berengarten goes even further in the attempt to reclaim a place for the abiding unknown within the human edifice of knowledge.


The speaker is ushered across this final frontier in the seventh poem of section 5, ‘Diagonal’ (Blue Butterfly 70–72). Here, “in the shade of early evening / in a place I did not know, and yet recalled”, he encounters a mysterious female figure under whose spell of beauty he is drawn toward the a kind of revelation ‘… in the core of darkness / among the deepest terrors, you must face… alone, devoid of help from other men’. But this passage into the night must be made, as the final words of the poem reveal, in order to discover there “the secret source of day” (Blue Butterfly 70–72).


The climax of this journey occurs in section 6, ‘The Flight of the Imago’, which also rings with distant echoes of the journey of Orpheus into the underworld. In the book’s longest poem, ‘Conversation between a butterfly and a murdered man at one of the gates of the Underworld’, human thought and language go as far as they can possibly reach toward the impassive mystery that is the other side of life. This is a region that Emily Dickinson visited quite often in her masterful poems on the epistemological quandary of death. [12] The whole of this ‘Conversation’ takes place in the amorphous interval between the moment of death and the dissolution of the individual consciousness, which I have elsewhere described as “the locus of the Romantic imagination” (Derrick: 92). [13] “Blow on this dandelion,” the butterfly begins,


Spread its seeds on
the wind. I’ll rest in your hand while you’re dying.

Your time of times has come. Now is the last
of your moments. Now you must pass for ever
out of time. (Blue Butterfly 89)


This extended moment of juncture between all that the mind can know and something else, which we name death, can be read as one more step in a continuing process of inquiry that our Romantic predecessors began for us. The ‘Conversation’ itself consists of a series of variations on the problem of how to think the unthinkable, how to say what we cannot know, and which is therefore unsayable; and it transports us into the same uncanny ‘place-that-is-no-place’ that Rilke expresses so powerfully in his ‘First Elegy’:


True, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to use no longer customs scarcely acquired,
not to interpret roses, and other things
that promise so much, in terms of a human future;
to be no longer all that one used to be
in endlessly anxious hands, and to lay aside
even one’s proper name like a broken toy.
Strange, not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange,
to see all that was once relation so loosely fluttering
hither and thither in space. And it’s hard, being dead,
and full of retrieving before one begins to espy
a trace of eternity. (Rilke 1963: 25)


From a sense of estrangement to the first faint glimmer of the light of home: this is precisely the process that long conversation between the butterfly and the murdered man encompasses. Rilke ends this passage with the following reflection:


Angels (they say) are often unable to tell
whether they move among living or dead. The eternal
torrent whirls all the ages through either realm
for ever, and sounds above their voices in both. (Rilke 1963: 25)


It is more than a simple coincidence that, at the end of Berengarten’s poem, after the butterfly has calmed the man’s fears and prepared his mind to accept an infinite mindlessness, the speaker addresses it as:


Angel of life or death, my butterfly, no matter. You
Blue speckler and flecker of wind, handsomest airborne drifter,
Master lightfoot, with your club-tipped antennae, go, shimmering. (Blue Butterfly 98)




Ours is a culture that is threatened with many serious crises. This Romantic pathway back toward a different conceptual framework for death may offer us a viable way forward, a way to save ourselves from ourselves. Heidegger clearly believed that it did. What he found in both Rilke and Hölderlin only confirmed his own conviction that the gift of thought should be used to find our way through the confusion that we sponsor toward a harmonious and healthy relationship with the world of which our sponsorship forms a decisive part. Perhaps, Heidegger suggests, the ultimate implication of the initial Romantic impulse toward a holistic paradigm is that an acceptance of death is the key to wholeness. “Death,” he writes, “is what touches mortals in their nature, and so sets them on their way to the other side of life… Death thus gathers into the whole of what is already posited” (Heidegger 1975: 126).


The health of Being (which embraces the health of us all) depends on our accommodating mystery, the secret waiting in “the core of darkness” (Blue Butterfly 72). And that secret, precisely because it extends beyond our reach, beyond what we are, can be thought of as ‘holy’. This, suggests Heidegger, is what poets are for in a time of need. The rationalistic, materialistic culture of the West has banished any serious concept of ‘spirit’ from our frameworks of explanation. Poets though, follow the trace of the disappearing gods, and sing to heal a world that is falling into pieces. Heidegger reminds us that in German, as in English, such words as health, haleness, wholeness and holiness are cognate. , each implies all the others:


Holiness can appear only within the widest orbit of the wholesome. Poets who are the most venturesome kind are under way on the track of the holy because they experience the unholy as such. Their song over the land hallows. Their singing hails the integrity of the globe of Being. (Heidegger 1975: 141)


Berengarten’s poetry witnesses, commemorates, laments, affirms and blesses. The final poem of The Blue Butterfly, ‘Grace’, is a simple hymn, to ‘hallow’ the land and to confirm the hope for our long and difficult journey back to ‘wholeness’:


Under the hills, quiet
fire. From their graves
the dead awaken.

Blessing on you
who live, they call
through our own voices,

as in their places
we too shall call
our own unborn.

Under hills, this
grace flows
through everything.

Chestnut and oak
bud, green
earth’s carpet.

Red tulip petals
scatter. A blue
butterfly hovers. (Blue Butterfly 111)


If there is indeed “a Hand to turn the time”, as Thomas Pynchon ambiguously suggests at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow (760), it just might be the hand of a poet like Richard Berengarten, that can draw a blue butterfly out of the sky, and write its silent, life-giving ‘message of death’ for all of us to hear.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina et. al. (eds). 1989. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, Vols. 1 & 2.

Berengarten, Richard. 2008. The Blue Butterfly (second, revised edition). Selected Writings 3, Part I. The Balkan Trilogy Cambridge: Salt Publishing.

———. For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965–2000 (second, revised edition). Selected Writings 1. Cambridge: Salt Publishing.

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

Buell, Lawrence (ed.). 1993. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice Hall.

Burns, Richard. 2005. The Blue Butterfly. Cambridge: Salt Publishing.

———. 2005. In a Time of Drought. Nottingham: Shoestring Press.

Cavell, Stanley. 1993. ‘Thinking of Emerson’ in Buell: 191–98.

Derrick, Paul Scott. 2003. “We Stand before the Secret of the World”: Traces along the Pathway of American Romanticism. Valencia: Biblioteca Javier Coy d’estudis nord-americans.

Eliot. T. S. 1980 [1933]. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. London & Boston: Faber and Faber.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1989 [1844]. ‘The Poet’ in Baym et al.: 984–97.

Heidegger, Martin. 1970 [1949]. Existence and Being (ed. Werner Brock). Chicago: Gateway.

———. 1975. Poetry, Language, Thought (tr. Albert Hofstadter). New York: Harper Colophon Books.

———. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (tr. William Lovitt). New York: Harper Colophon Books.

Jarrell, Randall. 1980 [1953]. Poetry and the Age. New York: The Ecco Press.

Johnson, Thomas H. (ed.). 1979 [1955]. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Limburg, Joanne. 1992. ‘Richard Burns’s The Manager: a poem for our time’. The Jewish Quarterly 49 (1).

Pynchon, Thomas. 1973. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: The Viking Press.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1963 [1939]. The Duino Elegies. (trs. J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender) New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

———. 1987 [1980]. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. (tr. Stephen Mitchell). London: Picador.


[1] Or, to provide another example, think about the first six lines of “Mowing”, one of Robert Frost’s earliest published poems:

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound –
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

The rest of this modified sonnet is devoted to fathoming, and expressing, the wordless message whispered by the speaker’s scythe.

[2] Interview on The Manager, with Joanne Limburg, December 2001 (text provided by Richard Berengarten). For the feature written from this interview, see Limburg 2002: 17–23.

[3] In the essay ‘Science and Reflection’ (Wissenschaft und Besinnung, originally published in 1954), he writes: “We do not yet have reflection when we have only consciousness. Reflection is more. It is calm, self-possessed surrender to that which is worthy of questioning” (Heidegger 1977: 180).

[4] The poem ‘The voice in the garden’ was published in the first edition of For the Living (2004, p. 133), where the following further lines by Lalić appear as part of its epigraph: “As for the dead, whom I am afraid / To ask in case they know too much, too much, / … they are outside the gardens anyway.”

[5] Was Ist Metaphysik?, originally published in 1929.

[6] In this context, it is interesting to consider another passage from Berengarten’s interview with Limburg:

[S]urely it isn’t inconceivable that the craft itself may well have its own purpose in working its way through the artist — not so much in order to ‘enable that artist to achieve’, but to enable the artist to become the channel (tunnel, tube, pipe for the delivery [deliverance, appearance, birth]) of the created ‘object’. Rumi’s hollow reed; the Aeolian Harp; the gong in the oaks at Dodona… Childbirth? Prophecies? Oracles?

[7] Or, according to Thomas Pynchon’s third Proverb for Paranoids: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they won’t have to worry about answers” (Pynchon 1973: 251).

[8] In Emerson’s case, ‘The Rhodora’; in Frost’s, ‘Design’.

[9] Wozu Dichter?, originally published in 1950.

[10] The butterfly flits in and out of the book, just as we might imagine it flying back and forth between this world and the next, appearing not only in the title poem, ‘The Blue Butterfly’, but also in ‘Nada: hope or nothing’, ‘The telling’, ‘Seventh wreath’, ‘Conversation between a butterfly and a murdered man at one of the gates of the Underworld’, ‘Signet ring’ and ‘Grace’.

[11] In ‘The Hollow Men’, l. 20.

[12] See, for example, ‘I felt a Funeral in my Brain’ (J280), ‘I died for Beauty’ (J449), ‘I heard a Fly buzz — when I died — ’ (J465), ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ (J712) and ‘This Consciousness that is aware’ (J822).

[13] ‘Ballad of the seagull’ occupies the identical intermediate zone between life and death (Blue Butterfly 42–44).

Paul Scott Derrick

Paul Scott Derrick

Paul Scott Derrick is a Senior Lecturer in American literature at the University of Valencia. His main fields of interest are Romanticism and American Transcendentalism and their manifestations in subsequent American literature and art. He has published two collections of essays in English and has co-authored a number of bilingual, critical editions of works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson and Henry Adams. He is also co-editor of Modernism Revisited: Transgressing Boundaries and Strategies of Renewal in American Poetry (Rodopi, 2007). His most recent book-length publication is La tierra de los abetos puntiagudos (Biblioteca Javier Coy, 2008), a translation and critical study of Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs.

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in Jacket magazine is copyright © Jacket magazine and the individual authors and copyright owners 1997–2010; it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.