back toJacket2
Richard Berengarten

This piece is about 27 printed pages long.
It is copyright © philip kuhn 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

philip kuhn

‘Tis Death is dead, not he’


Reading Richard Reading Richard Reading


The soothsayers who found out from time what it had in store certainly did not experience time as either homogeneous or empty. Anyone who keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past times were experienced in remembrance — namely, in just the same way. We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogenous, empty time. For every second of time was the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter. (Benjamin 1999a: 255 italics added).


When Zeno the sceptic asked the oracle at Delphi what he should do to attain the best life the answer he received was: ‘Take on the complexion of the dead.’ (quoted in Nietzsche 2006: ix).


FROM DEATH, it is from the fear of death that all cognition of the All begins. Philosophy has the audacity to cast off the fear of the earthly, to remove from death its poisonous sting, from Hades his pestilential breath. (Rosenzweig 2005: 9)


Death is a possibility that is absolutely certain. It is the possibility that makes all possibility possible. (Levinas 2000: 49)


Or I negate the sentence: the rose is a rose, when I say: the rose is not a rose; and what do I get if I then negate the negation and say: but after all the rose is a rose? (Engels 1947: 172)


the dead rose
the dead rose
with the dead

the rose
the rose
of the dead
with the dead

the rose of the dead
the dying & the dead
with the dead
when the rose
of the dead
rose with the dead.

(‘Diptych for Richard 1’, p. kuhn)


My peregrinations begin with my reading the illustration on the front cover of For the Living, the first volume of your selected writings. It is a coloured reproduction of a detail from Ceri Richards’ Memorial to Dylan Thomas — a pen and ink drawing gifted to you by Frances Richards. It shows an upturned skull resting upon the cover of a book. The skull has been hollowed out either by hand or by time: gashed out holes where the eyes and nose should have been. Although the teeth on the upper jaw are still more or less intact, the lower jaw — the mandible — looks as if it is missing. Or maybe it is concealed by what stands in front of it because inside the skull there is an arrangement of freshly-cut flowers or, to be more precise, five flowers with six and seven petals. These flowers, the genus of which I cannot identify, are interspersed with sprigs of leaves. The juxtaposition between the skull and the freshly-cut flowers suggests that the skull, which is after all still only a skull, is also a vase.


Does this uncanny arrangement of flowers, set in an upturned skull, suggest something other than what it might seem? Contraries? Paradoxes? Disjunctions? A Harmony and An Equipoise? A Fiercesome Beauty to behold? (Blake 1971: 172)


And does my reading of the picture change if I see these flowers not as freshly cut but as dried? And what if this arrangement were a bouquet? Or a wreath? ‘Rooted in death, but death’s antithesis, / what is this wreath, if not hope’s chrysalis?’ (The Blue Butterfly 35).


If I contract my vision I could almost believe that the skull is not a skull but a vase with flowers and this spectacle produces a modernist painting of a nature morte.


But the teeth insist that this is a skull and not a vase. It is those mordant teeth that keep biting at my illusion(s): those teeth that make this still life. A memento mori for the living from the dead.


Now I turn the illustration through 180 degrees and the skull blossoms forth out of the flowers. Life thrusting into death / death thrusting out of life. Are these negations of negations?


Do you remember whenI first started researching your writings I asked you to tell me something about the Ceri Richards picture? In the course of your reply you remarked: ‘Incidentally, you may already have noticed that the skull upturned appears in The Manager, page 147.’ I had forgotten this, or overlooked it, or simply not noticed the significance of the reference. Here then is the passage in question: the Manager has been driving around for hours until, eventually, he finds the house that he is looking for. A strange old man opens the door. ‘His eyes gleam pitch-black light.’ He grabs the package the Manager has come to deliver and in that same instant thrusts a skull, instead, into the Manager’s hands. Then the old man closes the door and the Manager is left ‘[c]radling death up-turned in my arms, I stand on the doorstep, shivering. And know this vessel my Grail, my singing immortal head. Now blessèd I backwalk up Hope Street, alive. My cup runneth over’ (The Manager [2001] 147).


The skull that ‘squats’ in the old man’s right arm becomes transfigured at the very moment he thrusts it into the arms of the Manager. Thus it becomes a skull that metamorphs from a ‘burden’ into ‘death upturned’, from ‘death upturned’ into a ‘vessel’, from a vessel into ‘my Grail’, and from ‘my Grail’ into ‘my singing immortal head’. Or have I made too many leaps of imagination? And what of that phrase — ‘My cup runneth over’? I do not think it matters whether or not this was a conscious borrowing from Psalm 23, because that Psalm, let alone the phrase you have used, is so deeply engrained into our linguistic fibres. ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want’ — ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ — ‘thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over’. (Cohen 1992: 67–68) But I am perhaps running away with myself.


If there were only two references in your work to an upturned skull then, I suppose, they might be considered at best coincidental and not worth more than a few remarks in a footnote. But … Here are some lines from ‘Avebury’:


down in the pit I have seen your face mother
   your skull in the rockface

         and who is that other
           face in shadow
         the cloud that lurks just behind you? (For the Living 40)


And these lines are from ‘Tree’:


Tree planted
     in my core
spreading growing
     tree of songs
many branched
     flame tree
rooted in death (For the Living 119, italics added)


And these lines:


     earth drinking
sky swallowing
     bowelled living
grave tree (For the Living 120, italics added)


And these:


tree of creation
     tree of destruction
temple planted
     in an upturned skull
worming woody
     fibres through
eye socket
   and mandible (For the Living 123–124, italics added)


And these


Kali’s tree
     dancing on skulls (For the Living129)


You may recall that I smuggled a short passage from the Talmud into one of my long poems: ‘once at kefer saba / they found a skull stuck in the root of a sycamore tree’ (kuhn 2009: 59). That skull stuck in the root and not — as in ‘Tree’planted in an upturned skull. Death in Life / Life thrusting out of Death.


You will, of course, recall how the Manager (in The Manager) recalls that it was the ‘Shape of those roofs’ and ‘[t]hat oak tree’ which served him as a marker for ‘Hope Street’ — the ‘One street on my citymap [which] always eludes me’ (The Manager [2001] 146). But isn’t the Manager’s remark somewhat disingenuous, for surely he should have known that those markers of orientation were also mementoes for those long-forgotten streets on which he played as a child. And is it not strange that it was an oak tree that helped him find his way to the house in the newly-named Hope Street; that street to which there was no entry and from which he was to ‘backwalk’ with an upturned skull? And what of this oak in Hope Street? Is it, perhaps, resonant with ‘the oldest oak in Europe’ (The Blue Butterfly 8)? Or perhaps with the oak of the Valla?


Art thou, O ruin, the once glorious heaven? are these thy rocks
Where joy sang in the trees & pleasure sported on the rivers,
And laughter sat beneath the Oaks & innocence sported round
Upon the green plains, & sweet friendship met in palaces,

[… ] Where are they, whelmed beneath these ruins in horrible
destruction? (Blake 1971: 317)


Or is it possible that the ‘virginal / leaf new sprung on the oldest oak in Europe’ (The Blue Butterfly 8) is also a mirror of the oak tree that has shed a leaf into the lower right-hand margin of Blake’s second ‘Holy Thursday’? That upturned leaf which cradles a dead baby (Blake 2000: 75).


What strange threads connect your remembering Psalm 23 and ‘Tree’? What clews bind The Manager with the illustration which you chose for For the Living? And how do I read these various images of death overturned now that I have confirmed (for myself at least) that somewhere in the matrix of your imaginations lurk symbols, metaphors and conceits of upturned skulls which issue forth out of ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. Skulls which beckon me into those arcane worlds of libation vessels, Holy Grails, Singing immortal heads, and following the logic of Psalm 23 — bring me to the eternal Mansions of God.


Vienna, 12 July 1892. In a letter written shortly after the death of one of his old teachers, Sigmund Freud tells his friend Wilhelm Fliess: ‘Last week brought me a rare human pleasure: the opportunity to select from Meynert’s library what suited me — somehow like a savage drinking mead from his enemy’s skull’ (Freud 1985: 32).


Newstead Abbey, 1808. Lord Byron, ‘[o]bserving [a skull] to be of giant size, and in a perfect state of preservation’, was ‘seized’ by ‘a strange fancy’. So he had the skull ‘set and mounted as a drinking cup’, and then ‘sent it to town, and it returned with a very high polish, and of a mottled colour like tortoiseshell’.


Why not? since through life’s little day
Our heads such sad effects produce;
Redeem’d from worms and wasting clay,
This chance is theirs, to be of use. (1905: 80–81 & n).


Somewhere in India, sometime in 1065 (CE), there was a performance of the play Prabodha Chandrodaya, written by Krishnamishra (a sannyasi). One of the characters says: ‘My necklace and ornaments are of human bones; I dwell among the ashes of the dead and eat my food in human skulls… . We drink liquor out of the skulls of Brahmans [… ]’. According to Mircea Eliade (1969: online) this character may have been inspired by that ‘class of Shivaist ascetics, the Aghoris or Aghorapanthis, who follow[ed] the path of Shiva, [ate] from human skulls, haunt[ed] cemeteries, and still practiced cannibalism’ well into the late nineteenth century. Eliade also believedthat ‘the Aghoris are only the successors to a much older ascetic order, the Kapalikas, or ‘wearers of skulls’.’ Furthermore, he also points out that there is ‘an inscription from the first half of the seventh century [which] names the god Kapaleshvara and his ascetics’ and that The Maitrāyana Upanisad (VII, 8) also ‘already mentions a kapalin’. Here is the relevant passage which appears under the heading Polemic against Heretics: ‘Again, there are such people who without being entitled to them, claim pretensions to wear red clothes, the ear-rings and skull ornaments (of certain ascetics)’ (Deussen 1980: 382).


Some time in the eighth century (CE), the Sage Padma Sambhava (Guru Rinpoche) brought Buddhism from India into Tibet. It is worth noting that the skull-cup becomes an important symbol in the liturgy and art of Tibetan Buddhism. The skull-cup (not cap) is known in Sanskrit as the kapala and is fashioned from the oval upper section of the human cranium. In this tradition the kapala should be made from the skull of somebody who has died a violent death and, ideally, should be filled with a human heart and with human blood. In its liturgical form the kapala serves as a libation vessel and therefore as a constant reminder of death and impermanence. In Buddhist sacred art the kapala is frequently depicted in the left hand of Padma Sambhava (Zaharack 1998: online).


The Abbey of Monte Cassino, some time towards the end of the eighth century (CE). In his Historia gentis Langobardorum Paul the Deacon makes a specific reference to a skull-cup when he records how Albion, having killed and decapitated Cunimundus, the King of the Gepide, then fashioned a drinking cup from the skull of his defeated enemy. He then offered it to his wife, Cunimundus’ daughter, to drink from (Halsall: online 37).


At the beginning of ‘Avebury’ you offer this quotation from Heraclitus of Ephesus: ‘To rise up and become wakeful guardians of the living and of the dead’ (For the Living 18). This is, of course, fragment 63 according to the Diels-Kranz reference system (Barnes 1987: 34, 104). But let me quote from the translation that I prefer: ‘[Heraclitus says that] in his (its) presence they rise and become wakeful guardians of living (people) and corpses’ (Heraclitus 1987: 43). T. M. Robinson glosses this fragment by assuming that Heraclitus was following Hesiod’s Works and Days and might therefore be referring to the thirty thousand members of the golden race who were made divinities (daemones) by Zeus upon their death and then appointed ‘guardians of mortal men’. Robinson goes on to suggest how this notion of the guardian could also refer to the heroes’ psychē which, in Hesiod’s view, was constituted as air that rises up ‘(from the earth to the realm of the gods) and thereby achieves its destiny’. ‘After ‘dying, as if overcome by sleep’, the heroes are, as guardians, ‘awake’ once more, to protect ‘living people and corpses’. But why should corpses need protection? Robinson’s answer, which I find rather prosaic, is that those who died in battle were vulnerable to being robbed or mutilated and the Greeks found this particularly unpalatable. What is more,Robinson appears to offer no obvious suggestion as to how we might understand ‘in his (its) presence’ (Heraclitus 1987: 125). But perhaps when all is said and done, only the dead can truly know how to take care of the dead.


I want to continue these speculations by turning to a lecture course on the Pre-Platonic Philosophers which Nietzsche delivered at the University of Basel, probably during the winter semester of 1869–1870. In it he says the following:


If everything is in Becoming, then, accordingly, predicates cannot adhere to a thing but rather likewise must be in the flow of Becoming. Well, Heraclitus perceived that contrary predicates imply each other, something like what Plato says about the pleasant and the unpleasant in the Phaedo: they are intertwined like a knot.


Then paraphrasing a passage from Phaedo (70e-72e), Nietzsche continues:


In every human being the power of death works, like that of life, at every moment of his existence. The entrance of life and death, and of waking and sleeping, is only predominance becoming visible that one force has won over its opposite and momentarily begins to lose again to it. Both forces are continuously efficacious at the same time, since their eternal strife allows neither victory nor domination over time. It is one and the same thing to be living and dead, awake or asleep, young or old. Honey is both bitter and sweet. The world is a mixing cup that must remain undisturbed to avoid upsetting it. From the same source flow the sunny light of life and the darkness of death. (Nietzsche 2006: 65, italics added)


Nietzsche’s reading of Heraclitus leads me to that gentle soul who was Hölderlin. Let me remind you of the seventh stanza of Hölderlin’s elegy ‘Brod Und Wein’ [Bread and Wine], as offered through Michael Hamburger’s translation:


But, my friend, we have come too late. Though the gods are living,
     Over our heads they live, up in a different world.
Endlessly there they act and, such is their kind wish to spare us,
Little they seem to care whether we live or do not.
For not always a frail, a delicate vessel can hold them,
     Only at times can our kind bear the full impact of gods.
Ever after our life is dream about them. But frenzy,
Wandering, helps, like sleep; Night and distress make us strong
Till in that cradle of steel heroes enough have been fostered,
     Hearts in strength can match heavenly strength as before.
Thundering then they come. But meanwhile too often I think it’s
     Better to sleep than to be friendless as we are, alone,
Always waiting, and what to do or to say in the meantime
I don’t know, and who wants poets at all in lean years?
But they are, you say, like those holy ones, priests of the wine-god
     Who in holy Night roamed from one place to the next. (Hölderlin 1994: 269–271, italics added)


Albert Hofstadter, in his translation of Heidegger’s 1946 essay, ‘What are Poets For?’, renders Hölderlin’s phrase (1994: 269–271) ‘und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?’ as: ‘… and what are poets for in a destitute time?’ (Heidegger 1975: 91). Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes translate it as: ‘… and why poets in a desolate time?’ (Heidegger 2002: 200). But it can perhaps also be translated as ‘and why poets in wretched/miserable times?’ And do we live in wretched times? And if so, why poets?


In your strangely haunting(unheimlich) prose poem, ‘Ambassador (An Old Man in the Harbour)’ [‘Ambassador’], you adopt the persona of a poet who imagines, after many years of longing and wandering, he will finally meet up with George Seferis (the poet) in whose footsteps he and (is it also you?) have been walking. And in that meeting, ‘perhaps’ you, and maybe also the poet in the poem [the Poet], will ‘stammer’ these words:


‘Although, you know, we never met, before, I’ve walked your favourite streets [… ] and even though you were long gone, I’ve visited the house you lived in when you were a guest in my own country. And now at last I’ve found you, here in your own place… ’ (For the Living 175, italics added).


This is the harbour-town in which Seferis has finally settled because, as you or the Poet have Seferis say: he ‘knew’ it ‘for home, only when this mongrel [dog] yapped at me.’ (For the Living 175, italics added).


In this poem which twists through strange disjunctures of time and space, you, and/or the Poet, imagine an event, which you are now describing, as occurring in some half-distant future which is also contained within a half-imagined place. For this meeting will happen simply because it is taking place. And while Seferis is already dead there is no question, in your mind, that you and/or the Poet, will eventually meet with him. The only problem — which of course you have resolved through the writing of this poem — is the difficulty you will have in finding Seferis: because the name of the Harbour where he lives is ‘absent from maps in my language’ (For the Living 174–176, italics added).


Did you catch an uncanny mirror-echo as it bounced back and forth between ‘Ambassador’ and the ninety-fourth section of The Manager? Remember the Manager’s journey to deliver that package to an old man who thrusts him that upturned skull. A strange encounter on the threshold of a house the Manager had great difficulty finding,notwithstanding that it was ina zone he knew well andin which he had spent his childhood. How he drove‘back and forth hours’, unable to locate Hope Street — the ‘One street on my citymap [that] always eludes me.’ (The Manager [2001] 146, italics added).


But back to The Harbour which not only eludes you but perhaps also alludes to you: this Harbour which is also a place of meeting: this time not with some anonymous ‘old man, half shadowed’ who ‘threatens to throttle and gag’ you (The Manager [2001] 147) but with a kind and gentle man who (as if in a mirror image of that other old man) will ‘shake [your] hand warmly, spread [his] palm on [your] back, and guide [you] safely across the wide avenue’ where you will share a meal and ‘clink glasses together, toasting life, and memory, and each thinking of those we love’. (For the Living 174–175).


During a recent conversation you suggested that the Harbour, in ‘Ambassador’, could be read for Ithaca and Seferis for Odysseus. Of course the mangy dog is a reference back not only to the ‘half-dead from neglect, / … Argos’ (Homer 1997: 300–301) but also to Seferis’ own reference to Odysseus’ home-coming (1973: 281) And of course behind your figure of Seferis stands ‘Stratis Thalassinos’ (literally ‘Stratis the Mariner’), Seferis’ own figure for Odysseus. And were I to follow your reading even further I could suggest that where Seferis is read for Odysseus and the Harbour for Ithaca then surely Ithaca must also be read for Home [Heimat]? For ‘Ambassador’ conjures up a profound sense of the already familiar (heimisch): the shared meal, the generosity of Seferis who is a host at ease in ‘the wooden chair’ (For the Living 174). And if the Harbour could be read for Home then what if I were to identify that Harbour as Hope Harbour? For its resonance with Hope Street seems unmistakeable. The Manager who arrives and is returning, if not exactly home, then at least to the place of his childhood. And even if he does not recall a yapping dog at least he remember ‘wolves and jackals’ (The Manager [2001] 146).


But this reading will only take me so far because I am not convinced that ‘Ambassador’ is ultimately about your relationship with Seferis. Rather I believe it to be about your (self) reflection upon your self being ‘the Poet’. And if this is so then the Harbour (which may well be Ithaca / Home for Seferis) cannot be Home for you, or the Poet. And if the Harbour is not your Home then neither is it ‘Ithaca’ the ‘ultimate goal’ that might still give you ‘the beautiful voyage’ (Cavafy 1976: 36). And because this Harbour is not your Home it is only a resting-place, and being a resting-place it must become, by virtue of mitosis, the crossed-road on the Poet’s own long journey Home: a journey which, you hope, will eventually take you/him to that ‘place in the hills … which still today, as then, is an occupied city.’ (For the Living 175). And should that city be Jerusalem, as you have suggested, then my question is this: ‘Ithaca or Zion’ (The Blue Butterfly 65)?


But I still want to linger in this Harbour for there you will have Seferis ‘point out a very old man at another table, intent over a book, a glass of wine before him’. And you, or the Poet, will have Seferis say: ‘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 out-last mine … ’’ (For the Living 175, italics added). Of course that very old man at another table, with his glass of wine before him, is Hölderlin.


Now Hölderlin probably composed ‘Andenken’ [Remembrance] in the spring of 1803 (1984: 265). In a draft, which does not appear in the poem, he wrote: ‘So God’s weather wanders above / But you holy song / And you, poor mariner, seek the inhabited / look toward the stars.’ Heidegger (2000: 111), who quotes and glosses this fragment, suggests that for Hölderlin ‘the name mariners [was] the essential word for poets’ because mariners must ‘know the heavenly bodies and be masters in reading the quarters of the sky.’ Furthermore the reference to the northeast wind, which appears in the first line of the published poem (and which blows from the poet’s native Germany), is also significant because it ‘‘calls’ the poets to find themselves in the destiny of their historical being.’ Richard Sieburth extends this point in his note to the fourth strophe of the poem when he suggests that the sailors (mentioned in the first strophe) now hesitate ‘to go or return to the source’. From here he concludes that these sailors


are like rivers whose course leads seaward, away from their origin. Yet it is only in the sea, in the solitary and arduous process of voyaging, far from the familiar, that the source may be recalled: oblivion is integral to memory (Hölderlin 1984: 266, italics added)


When I asked you, recently, about your relationship with Seferis, you said something like: his Collected Works are never far from reach. I begin to see, now, how his presence and absence hover over your writings: a constant companion, a fellow wanderer, a wakeful guardian, and a priest of the wine-god. And I have suddenly remembered these haunting lines from ‘In Lieblicher Bläue’ [In Lovely Blueness], a late Hölderlin prose poem,


[… ] may a man look up and say: I too would like to resemble these? Yes. As long as kindliness, which is pure, remains in his heart not unhappily a man may compare himself with the divinity. Is God unknown? Is He manifest as the sky? This rather I believe. It is the measure of man. Full
of acquirements, but poetically, man dwells on this earth. But the darkness of night with all the stars is not purer, if I could put it like that, than man, who is called the image of God. (1994: 715)


During that same conversation you also reminded me that the epigraph for ‘Ambassador’ — ‘The first thing God made is the long journey’ (For the Living 174)wastaken from ‘Stratis Thalassinos Among the Agapanthi’. Here is part of the final stanza of that remarkable poem:


The first thing God made is love
then comes blood
and the thirst for blood
roused by
the body’s sperm as by salt.
The first thing God made is the long journey;
that house there is waiting
with its blue smoke
with its aged dog
waiting for the homecoming so that it can die.
But the dead must guide me;
it is the agapanthi that keep them from speaking,
like the depths of the sea or the water in a glass. (Seferis 1973: 281)


Stratis Thalassinos who will finally return home, perhaps to die? Or perhaps, like Odysseus and those other poets in ‘Ambassador’, he has returned home from the dead. But why do the flowers of love, the Agapanthi (agape ‘love’/anthos ‘flower’) ‘order silence’ whenever Stratis calls out? Let me quote some lines fromthe third stanza:


It is painful and difficult, the living are not enough for me
first because they do not speak, and then
because I have to ask the dead
in order to go on further.
There’s no other way: the moment I fall asleep
the companions cut the silver strings
and the flask of the winds empties.
I fill it and it empties, I fill it and it empties:
I wake
like a goldfish swimming
in the lightning’s crevices (Seferis 1973: 279)


And why do the flowers keep the dead from speaking? Is it perhaps because the dead can speak only when they are no longer dead? And does all of this suggest that Hölderlin and Seferis have become ‘wakeful guardians’ of the living and the dead? And what about you, Richard? Are you, like Hölderlin and Seferis, another one of ‘those holy ones, priests of the wine-god / Who in holy Night roam [… ] from one place to the next’ (italics added)? I am not at all surprised that you should have chosen the first three lines from this stanza as one of the epigraphs to the fourth section of Under Balkan Light (67), that final book in your Balkan trilogy.


But perhaps now it is time to begin to remember Yugoslavia.


The date was 25 May 1985. It was shortly before you would write ‘Ambassador’. You and your first daughter Lara were visiting the memorial museum of Šumarice on the outskirts of Kragujevac. While you ‘were queuing to enter the museum, a blue butterfly suddenly came to rest on the forefinger of [your] left hand — that is, [your] writing hand’ (The Blue Butterfly 123). You have remarked on the significance of this moment on several occasions but perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in ‘Arijana’s Thread’, that short and poignant essay which serves as a Postscript to In a Time of Drought (73–77). In that essay you relate how, in the course of researching that book, you suddenly discovered that ‘Peperuda’, one of the names given to the Bulgarian rain maiden, could also mean butterfly. This discovery confirmed your ‘sense that [you were] somehow being ‘called’’ to write that poem; and, at the same time, you ‘realised in a flash’ that here ‘was the ‘ending’ to The Blue Butterfly which [you] had been searching for’ (In a Time of Drought 76).


I want to dwell, for a moment, on that moment, by suggesting that just as important as the coming of the blue butterfly was the manner of its manifestation — that it landed on the forefinger of your writing hand. I understood its significance only subsequently when I read the quotation from Slobodan Rakitić which you use as one of the epigraphs to section 6 of Under Balkan Light.


In some beliefs, the pointing (index) finger is [… ] the finger of life, while the middle finger is the finger of death. In another belief, the pointing finger is that of the Lord of Words … In [this] context, the pointing finger embeds both symbolisms: the finger of life is the finger of the word itself, that is, of the poem itself. (Under Balkan Light 119, italics added)


A blue butterfly that settled just long enough on your left forefinger for you to be able to take that photograph which would eventually appear, 21 years later, on the frontispiece of the book that you had not yet written. Even without the proof of that grainy image I read this, your (his)story of the blue butterfly, as a wonderful conceit. The blue butterfly that becomes the inspiration for the book. Inspiration: to breathe in — like ‘[t]he breath whose might I have invoked in song’ (Shelley 1974: 317). The blue butterfly that is (like) one of those nameless alien spirits that suddenly arrive from somewhere other (Under Balkan Light 115) — another world? — and gently taps upon your shoulder. Or one of those magical voices whose inaudible whispers barely disturb the crisp autumnal leaves and yet, taking hold of your pen, begin to guide it mysteriously across the page. Or perhaps like Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory, Mother-Goddess of the Muses, who sometimes visits poets in the deepest hollows of sleep, or trance, or psychosis and, silently whispering gentleness in their ear, beckons them towards the edge of some dark precipice. The blue butterfly that becomes an anthropomorphic shade, shadow, pneuma, anima or geist: one of those familiar unfamiliars who divine and change, move and have moved, shape and have shaped a multitude of poetries across so many distances and times. Like the ombra — the shade of Virgil — who guides Dante on his long and perilous journey (1961, 24/25 [1.66]). Or like the ghostly ghost of Hamlet (I, v) who haunts and goads his son towards his anguished bloody revenge. Or like the ‘Heavenly Muse’, the ‘Dove-like’ ‘Spirit’ that Milton called down to ‘aid’ his ‘adventurous song’ (Bk I, 6–21). And now you, Richard with the blue butterfly, a winged insect that has become a messenger from the dead, settled upon your finger in order to call you, softly, urgently urging you, an English European Jew, to follow her into those forgotten distances of time and space and memory.


Now my ears awakened in an alert
attentive and percipient listening
to scoured shells of voices, wholly prised apart
from those dead mouths, pouring their testament
onto spring wind, stirred by the instrument
of the butterfly at rest on my finger, glistening. (The Blue Butterfly 10, italics added)


Here, then, is a conceit composed of many different threads. First came that blue lepidopteron which came to rest briefly upon your finger. Then in memory (eidetic, graphic and photographic) the blue butterfly (which now no longer exists) becomes the sign for a particular species which probably will never be positively identified (The Blue Butterfly 124). By degrees it then becomes a name you use to christen a short poem (The Blue Butterfly 8). This poem will then become part of a sequence which, when taken all together, will also bear its name. But this same sign can also be read as an imago, a symbol and/or an allegory of the psyche that dances between gaps and rents in some invisible firmament: or hovers over those silences that speak through ‘the language of flowers only’ (Seferis 1973: 279). Or like Mercury who passes intelligences between friends and enemies: or the quick-silvered hermetic-tongued trickster who leads you to the very edge of that unknown abyss that lies between ‘no / man’s land, contested gap between time-end / and time … ’ The Blue Butterfly 90). That blue butterfly that becomes, in its mercurial flight, an ethereal messenger, like the wingèd Hermes (Under Balkan Light 129), who arrives suddenly unbidden, carrying a cacophony of messages from wine-gods, or victims or survivors of a bloody massacre that took place somewhere near to where you once stood in time and place. And so, by degrees, that same blue butterfly will also become ‘[… ] miraculously blessed / by the two thousand eight hundred martyred / men, women and children fallen at Kragujevac’ in late October 1941 (The Blue Butterfly 8). And once blessed. it will lead you into and through that long psychic journey that was not just ‘Kragujevac’ but also In a Time of Drought and, at long last, finally to Under Balkan Light.


A blue butterfly that once landed ‘on [your] left forefinger’ and beckoned you into ‘a different dimension [… ] like Alice, / imperceptibly through some invisible screen / in an effortless slippage across time’s barriers’. For


occasionally we too sense we reach right through
time’s surfaces or contours, even if not to its core,
and the edges of our voices suddenly stretch out
to reach and touch notes, albeit quavering, faltering,
they’ve never been capable even of approaching before.
(The Blue Butterfly 77, italics added)


This blue butterfly that inspired you to sing the songs of those massacres which you had originally thought only to learn about in the museum of Šumarice.


[… ] ‘Listen,
take me in, drink me,’ and sometime entering you too,
spreading drops on your hands, feeding your mouth with words,
unclasping your throat in song’s affirmation and harmony,
like a blue butterfly (The Blue Butterfly 76)


And so, Richard, what I now want to know is whether you believe, along with Stratis Thalassinosand Hölderlin and Seferis (and all those other old men) in The Harbour that ‘[… ] the living are not enough for [you] / first because they do not speak, and then / because [you] have to ask the dead / in order to go further’ (Seferis 1973: 279)?


In one of Kafka’s wondrous short stories (but are they not all wondrous?) a boat comes into a harbour and a bier is carried from the boat and brought into the Burgomaster’s house. In the bier is a man who ‘was probably dead’. But the moment the Burgomaster is alone in his room, the man on the bier rises and introduces himself as the hunter Gracchus. ‘Are you dead?’ asks the Burgomaster. ‘Yes,’ said the hunter, ‘as you see.’ ‘But you are alive too,’ said the Burgomaster. ‘In a certain sense,’ said the hunter, ‘in a certain sense I am alive too.’ But it transpires that the Burgomaster has already known that he will have this meeting because during the previous night a dove whispered in his ear: ‘Tomorrow the dead hunter Gracchus is coming; receive him in the name of the city.’ Gracchus then proceeds to tell the Burgomaster how he had been killed falling from a precipice whilst hunting a chamois. And then how his ‘death ship lost its way; a wrong turn of the wheel, a moment’s absence of mind on the pilot’s part, a longing to turn aside towards my lovely native country, I cannot tell what it was; I only know this, that I remained on earth and that ever since my ship has sailed earthly waters.’ Then, to the Burgomaster’s enquiry as to whether the hunter had any ‘part in the other world’, Gracchus replied:


I am forever [… ] on the great stair that leads up to it. On that infinitely wide and spacious stair I clamber about, sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, always in motion. The hunter has been turned into a butterfly [… ] I am always in motion. But when I make a supreme flight and see the gate actually shining before me I awaken presently on my own ship, still stranded forlornly in some earthly sea or other (Kafka 1960: 104–110).


At the heart of The Blue Butterfly lies Section Six, the ‘Flight of the Imago’ (The Blue Butterfly 73–101): those seven ‘dialogues’ in which the living and the dead invoke you, Richard, a European Jew, to help them make sense of the senseless, give meaning to the meaningless, articulate what could no longer be thought of, spoken, remembered or denied. But I also believe that at the heart of the heart of section six lies ‘Conversation between a blue butterfly and a murdered man at one of the entrances to the Underworld’ [‘Conversation’] (The Blue Butterfly 89–98). It is a poem of paradoxical intensity in which a murdered man seeks to come to terms with the fact of his dying, of his about-to-be-dead, and to disappear from life. A dead man trapped between no-life and death in a ‘no / man’s land, contested gap between time-end / and a time, a pause that is never a pause’ (The Blue Butterfly 90). A dead man, frozen forever at the instant he is about to pass into that ‘undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns’(Shakespeare, Hamlet: III. i. 79–80).


In my reading of ‘Conversation’ I found myself standing at an equipoise balanced on an edge of infinity. And in that moment I recalled another character from another of Kafka’s ‘fairy tales for dialecticians’ (Benjamin 1999b: 799) — not the un-dead Gracchus but the not dead ‘man from the country who begs for admittance to the Law’. And through the prisms of these readings I imagine how the blue butterfly might transform itself into that most powerful and yet very lowest door-keeper of the Law (Kafka 1953: 235). And by degrees Kafka’s gate to the Law will become ‘one of the gates, countless, unseeable, / that leads down to the Underworld, this being / your special entrance, open for you only.’ (The Blue Butterfly 90, italics added). And like Kafka’s sphinx-like and spectral shadow of a gatekeeper, the blue butterfly becomes protector, watcher and guardian of that single portal that might yet offer the murdered man his last hope of/for redemption. And through reading these writings which preface the Law (Kafka 1953: 235–244), I arrive, by less than six degrees of separation, at the Angelus Novus, Paul Klee’s haunting painting, which Walter Benjamin reads as ‘the angel of history. His face [… ] turned towards the past’ (1999a: 249). And in this frame the blue butterfly also becomes the Avenging Angel ministering not only to the Living but also to the Dead: ‘Angel of life or death, my blue butterfly, no matter.’ (The Blue Butterfly 98)


But does it really not matter? And what of the Poet in these wretched times? Is he to become a meshuggener — a crazy man — in order to survive? And you, Richard, are you one of those meshuggeners who seek to stretch out the very Being of Language so as to squeeze each word through the thules of time? You, with your mishegoss — your crazy ideas — of talking with the dead. And why do you persist with this quest when, surely, you must know it to be im/possible? Maybe it is because there is always a nagging doubt that after all is said and done, it might just not be im/possible? Or is it because you believe the im/possible lies not in the im/possibility itself but inside those grimoires which the ‘Lords of the far side’ (Under Balkan Light 107), or maybe even the ‘Invisible Master’ himself (Under Balkan Light 110), have concealed somewhere in those ‘elsewheres’ (Under Balkan Light 62)? And if that is so then it might still be possible to discover even though it will always elude you. Or maybe you believe that the im/possibility exists only in the finitudes of Language with all its ‘gaps and holes’, in which there ‘lurk / many incomprehensible expanses’ (The Blue Butterfly 91). But what if the im/possibilities have already been moulded into the very search itself so that your yearning to know all about death is paradoxically ‘ungrantable’ because ultimately it is ‘the invisible / puppet-masters and mistresses who pull the strings / of the living, and the dead — who may even be / the dead’ (The Blue Butterfly 81)? And what if the im/possible also lies in our always being dependent upon not having (yet) learnt how to read the secrets of nature: ‘fluent in their clammy languages of indecipherable / signs and shadows that are to us wholly insoluble / and may only be traced in such ideograms and glyphs / as flower forms, wind scents and bee murmurs [… ]’ (The Blue Butterfly 82)? If you could only learn how to speak ‘the language of flowers’, then perhaps you might yet learn how to communicate with ‘[t]he dead’ (Seferis 1973: 279). But surely you can speak the language of flowers only if you first learn how to talk with the dead. But if you would talk with the dead you must first find ‘words like flowers leaping alive’ (Hölderlin 1994: 269).


So when I enter my last mortal sleep,
after all dreams have gone, and I am dead,
     will then I wake and, doubly waking, keep
some mirror of that garden in my head
and, back inside it, rising from the deep
distress of death, sleepwalk? Or wake instead? (Under Balkan Light 84)


During my reading of ‘Ambassador’ I turned one of your comments into this question: ‘Ithaca or Zion’? (The Blue Butterfly 65).


There is a Talmudic tradition banning Jews from the ‘place of evil waters’: or to put it more starkly, a Jew is forbidden to drink at the fountains of ‘Greek wisdom’ (Epstein 1936: 269; Blackman 1990: 493). In his poem, ‘Of The Hebrews (A.D. 50)’, Cavafy (1976: 93) casts a wry glance at this rabbinical ruling, although I have no idea whether he did so with conscious intent. In this poem Cavafy has Janthis struggle to break free from ‘the beautiful hard hellenism’ in order that he might ‘become the one I would always / want to remain: of the Hebrews, / of the Holy Hebrews, the son. … But he did not stay such a man at all. / The Hedonism and the Arts of Alexandria / kept him their devoted child.’ Does this mean, for the Jew at least, that Zion and Ithaca must always remain incompatible?


I venture a response by returning, once again, to ‘Conversation’, that powerful meditation on the murdered man’s flight, or slippage, into death: his passing out of life. Of course, had I paid attention to the full title: ‘Conversation between a blue butterfly and a murdered man at one of the entrances to the Underworld’ (The Blue Butterfly 89–98, italics added), I would have realised much earlier that this was a poem that envisioned death as a voyage, or a journey, ‘that leads down to the underworld’ (The Blue Butterfly 90, italics added): and leading down it encompasses Classical Mythology. You christen ‘Fortune’ not only ‘Ananke’ but also ‘This elder sister of Hades’ (The Blue Butterfly 95). And you name ‘grim Death’ ‘Thanatos, Hades, Dis, Charon’ and ‘plutocrat Pluto, brother to Ananke’ (The Blue Butterfly 96, 97). In the light of my previous comments I would now go so far as to say that this poem’s entire ideological underpinning, if I could put it like that, is built firmly upon Ithaca. And if this is so, then what of Zion? And why has she been occluded from your discourse?


Wolfson (1994: 335) suggests that in the Jewish mystical tradition there is a belief ‘that at the moment of death the individual soul, freed from its physical encasement, sees the Shekhinah.’ He goes on to observe that: ‘In zoharic literature, moreover, death is represented as the erotic union of the soul with the feminine Shekhinah. Just as the unitive experience of the mystic is a kind of ecstatic death, so in turn is death a kind of mystical union.’ For his part Guttmann (1964: 25) suggests that this mystical tradition can be traced back to the writings of Philo (20 BCE–50 CE), generally considered the first Jewish philosopher. Philo conceived God as standing ‘over and against the world in absolute transcendence… and spirituality’, a view which appears to contrast radically with the materialism and pantheism of many Greek thinkers. Philo also claimed (1993: 253, 258) that Moses taught: that it was man’s duty to ‘Take heed to thyself’. Only by following this injunction could a Jew hope to free himself ‘from that base and polluted prison house of the body’ thereby finding the way to come nearer to God. Guttmann concludes (1964: 28) that Philo’s ideas were subsequently interpreted by a number of mystics as being an articulation of the ‘ideal of an ascent of the soul to the suprasensual world, culminating in a union with God’. This thread may well have inspired the subsequent concept of devekut, loosely defined as: that private and mystical upsurge of the soul which brings man into ‘close and most intimate communion with God’ (italics added there are no italics!). For his part Scholem (1995: 203, 227) has argued that this concept of devekut remains ‘without eschatological connotations… for it can be realised in this life, in a direct and personal way… ’. It is through a ‘state of devekut [that] man finds himself by losing himself in God, and by giving up his identity he discovers it on a higher plane’. (italics added). What is important to note is that devekut is here considered to be a spiritual journey of ‘a strictly individual attainment’ rooted neither in the belief in ‘Messianic redemption, nor [… ] in a hope or, for that matter, an anticipation of the Hereafter, of the World-to-come. In an eschatological sense, man can not be redeemed alone, individually.’ Or to put it another way, redemption can occur only with the coming of Messiah. Devekut becomes, therefore, the only possible response for the Jew who sits in a tradition that believes man can have no part in his own redemption. In this sense Life is lived as if in a waiting room, not for the World-to-come, but in constant anticipation of the Messiah who is always about to enter. Which means that the life of the mystic seeking devekut is always ‘a life lived in deferment’. (Scholem 1995: 35). Which, of course returns me to that Benjamin quotation with which I started this letter.


to the petals
that have fallen
to the floor

the souls
that have entered
death’s last door

five white petals
untied the knot
from the rose
the dried
white petals
that dropped
from the red
of the rose

the soul
the corpse
the rose
to the knot
that ties
the living to the dead
the knot
of the living
to the dead


(kuhn, ‘Diptych for Richard’ 2)

Works Cited

Barnes, Jonathan. 1987. Early Greek Philosophy. London: Penguin Books.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999a. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations (tr. H. Zorn). London: Pimlico: 245–255.

——— . 1999b, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Volume 2, 1927–1934 (tr. Rodney Livingstone and others). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.

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. In a Time of Drought. Selected Writings Vol. 4: The Balkan Trilogy Part 2. Cambridge: Salt Publishing.

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

Blackman, P. 1990. Mishna. Volume 4, Order Nezikin. Gateshead: Judaica Press.

Blake, William. 1971. Complete Writings, with variant readings (ed. G. Keynes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

——— . 2000. The Complete Illuminated Books. London: Thames and Hudson.

Burns, Richard. 2001. The Manager: a poem. London/Bath: Elliott & Thompson.

Byron, George. 1905. The Poetical Works of Lord Byron (ed. E. H. Coleridge). London: John Murray.

Cavafy, C. P. 1976. The Complete Poems of Cavafy: Expanded Edition (tr. Rae Dalven). London: Harcourt Brace & Co.

Cohen, Rev. Dr. A. (ed.). 1992. The Psalms. London: The Soncino Press.

Dante. 1961. The Divine Comedy: Inferno (tr. John D. Sinclair). New York: Oxford University Press.

Deussen, Paul. 1980. ‘Maitrāyaņa Upanisad’ in Sixty Upanisads of the Veda. Vol. 1 (tr. from the German by V. M. Bedekar & G. B. Palsule). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass: 327–386.

Eliade, Mircea. 1969. Yoga, Immortality and Freedom. Princeton University Press. (consulted April 14 2008).

Engels, Frederick. 1947. Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (tr. E. Burns). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Epstein, I. 1936 ‘Sotah’ in The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim. Vol. 3. London: Soncino Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1985. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887–1904 (tr. J. M. Masson). London: The Belknap Press.

Guttmann, Julius. 1964. Philosophies of Judaism: The History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig (tr. David W. Silverman). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Halsall, Guy (ed.). Humour, History & Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. (consulted 14 April 2008).

Heidegger, Martin. 1975. ‘What are poets for?’ in Poetry, Language, Thought (tr. Albert Hofstadter). New York: Harper: 91–142.

——— . 2000. Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry (tr. Keith Hoeller). New York: Humanity Books.

——— . 2002. ‘Why Poets?’ in Off the Beaten Track (tr. Julian Young & Kenneth Haynes). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 200–241.

Heraclitus. 1987. Fragments: A Text and Translation with a Commentary (tr. T. M. Robinson). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hölderlin, Friedrich. 1984. Hymns and Fragments (tr. Richard Sieburth). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

——— . 1994. Poems & Fragments (tr. Michael Hamburger). London: Anvil Press.

Homer. 1997. The Odyssey (tr. Robert Fagles). Bath: The Soft Back Preview,

Kafka, Franz. 1953. The Trial (tr. Willa & Edwin Muir). London: Penguin Books.

——— . 1960. ‘The Hunter Gracchus’ in Description of a Struggle And The Great Wall of China (tr. Willa & Edwin Muir and Tania & James Stern). London: Secker and Warburg: 104–110.

kuhn, philip. 2009. at maimonides table. Exeter: Shearsman Books

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2000. ‘Death and Time’ in God, Death, And Time (tr. Bettina Bergo). Stanford: Stanford University Press: 5–117.

Milton, John. nd. Paradise Lost in Paradise Lost And Paradise Regained. New York: Franklin Watts.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2006. The Pre-Platonic Philosophers (tr. Greg Whitlock). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Philo. 1993. The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (tr. C. D. Yonge). Hendrickson: America.

Rosenzweig, Franz. 2005. The Star of Redemption (tr. Barbara E. Galli). Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

Seferis, George. 1973. Collected Poems 1924–1955 (tr. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard). London: Jonathan Cape.

Shakespeare, William. 1982. Hamlet (ed. Harold Jenkins) (The Arden Shakespeare). London, Methuen.

Shelley, Percy. 1974. The Poetical Works of Shelley (ed. Newell F. Ford) (Cambridge Edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Scholem, Gershom. 1995. The Messianic Idea in Judaism: And Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York: Schocken Books.

Wolfson, E. R. 1994. Through A Speculum That Shines: Visions and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zaharack, Brian. 1998. ‘Skull Cup’. Museum #: 91.001.014. The Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (College of the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH: USA). (consulted 14 April 2008).

philip kuhn, Blue Bus reading, London UK, Wednesday, 10 March 2010, photo by Laurie Duggan

philip kuhn, Blue Bus reading, London UK, 10 March 2010, photo by Laurie Duggan

philip kuhn is a poet, historian, designer book-binder, photographer, archivist and audio artist currently living and working on Dartmoor (Devon), from where he also co-hosts the ‘occasional readings series’. His historical articles have appeared in psychoanalytic journals in England, America and Germany. Some of his poetry can be found in Tremblestone (Nos. 3, 4 and 5), Shearsman (67/68 and 73/74), In The Presence of Sharks: New Poetry from Plymouth, edited by Ian Robinson and Norman Jope (Phlebas 2006) and The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson (Reality Street 2008). In February 2009 Shearsman Books published at maimonides table, his first long book-length poem An occasional contributor to the webzine TerribleWork, philip is currently completing two further editions for publication: Mary Bartlett’s 75 Years of Printing and Book Binding on the Dartington Estate, and how to make radical leaflets. He is also collaborating with Ruth von Zimmermann in a translation of Welten (1937), Kolmar’s last known collection of poems.

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.