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Richard Berengarten Feature

Neli Moody

A Syntax of Stones

Pre-Text, Edifice, and the Sacred Space in
Richard Berengarten’s ‘Avebury’


‘Avebury’ (For the Living 23–50, 219–20) was written in 1971 at Great Shelford, near Cambridge. On the most basic level, it is a poem about stones, stones being elemental products of the violent orogenesis of the earth. It is appropriately dedicated to Octavio Paz whose long poem, Piedra De Sol, or Sunstone (Paz 1991), Berengarten cites as one of his main influences (For the Living 219–20). [1] Paz not only strongly influenced Berengarten’s work and helped him shape his own theory of poetics, he impressed Berengarten on a personal level too. During the Mexican poet’s year at Churchill College at Cambridge as the Simón Bolivar Visiting Fellow in 1970–71, he and Berengarten often socialised, together with their wives (see Berengarten 1971). The two stayed in touch after that visit and Berengarten describes the post-Paz Cambridge as duller, drabber and more insular. [2] The postcards and letters that passed between them were full of respect for each other as poets, combined with considerable personal affection and warmth. Paz wrote to Berengarten about ‘Avebury’, ‘I’m not a prophet, but I believe you have written a great poem.’ [3]


This essay suggests, first, that the arrangement of the stones themselves constitutes a kind of pre-verbal syntax, and second, that in this poem Berengarten has succeeded in capturing and expressing this ‘patterning’ in words, at least to some degree.


‘Avebury’ and Sunstone are both ‘mystery’ poems, in that their settings do not easily yield up their meaning. Both are concerned with what might be termed architextuality. Paz’s Sunstone deals with the relationships between architecture, cycles, ritual and culture. It is lush with vegetation and sexuality, tinged with violence, and written with a piquancy that is shared by other Latin-American writers, such as poets Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo and novelists Gabriel García Márquez and Laura Esquivel. Like Sunstone, ‘Avebury’ contains imagery of fecundity and decay.


Avebury, a sacred site [4] larger than Stonehenge, becomes a place in which the poet seeks to unravel a mystery that is at once spiritual, communal and personal. Part of the allure of such sacred spaces, even today, is that they literally and figuratively stand for experiences beyond our comprehension. Their meanings, because pre-textual, are elusive to us; yet it is clear that their structures are based on significant numerical formulations. Thus, as if aiming explicitly to enact and embody these numerological significances, Sunstone is composed of 584 hendecasyllabic lines. The first six syllables are repeated at the end of the poem. The importance of this number is that it is equal to the synodical revolution of the planet Venus (Paz 1985: 57). The Mayan calendar begins with this Venusian cycle. Berengarten’s ‘Avebury’, on the other hand, is composed of 24 short sections, roughly divided thematically: this being the approximate number of hours it takes for the earth to complete one rotation. The cyclical trajectories of celestial bodies are mirrored in these recurrent patterns of words and lexical dualities, such as stone/dance, seeing/blindness, speech/ silence, just as they are celebrated at Avebury and Stonehenge.


Numerous cyclic motifs in ‘Avebury’ are evident at a number of levels. For example, the second section introduces us to a speaker who is described as pacing — circling the stones, much as an animal might circle and sniff a place in order to discover its story, its meaning (For the Living 26). The speaker hopes to find answers to his questions, ostensibly about the sacred circle, but, on a deeper level it soon becomes apparent that this quest is a search for self, for one’s place in the universe. ‘Avebury’ begins with static images of ancient stones in the grass, but these images suggest that here is a story waiting to be told. Furthermore, the idea of telling and saying is hinted at by words that have to do with the mouth, such as ‘yawning’, ‘tongued’ and ‘cracked jaw’ (For the Living 25). ‘Avebury’ ends with the imagery of water or, perhaps, of light: ‘waves / expanding, re-echoing / including / us here / enclosing / us here / say the stones / now every / where centre’ (For the Living 50). Hence, the movement is from circle to circle, centre to edges and back, physically, just as the text itself is arranged on the page.


These patterns suggest that, like Sunstone, ‘Avebury’ concludes where it began. Although the silent ghostly setting at the beginning of the poem is replaced by a site potent with life, teeming with creatures and resonant with echoes, breath, and words, the final stanza seems to answer the unspoken question of the first. However, this is not a return to the exact same spot. It cannot be. The speaker is changed. ‘You are not the same people who left that station,’ writes Eliot in ‘The Dry Salvages’ (Eliot 1952: 134). Rather, the movement is a spiralling inwards towards self-discovery. As Eliot writes in ‘Little Gidding’,


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning. (Eliot 1952: 145)


Metaphorically and symbolically, the stones are polysemous: they stand not only for culture, but also for deities, portals to heaven and hell; and ritualistically, the stones circumscribe sacred spaces where communal experiences were once enacted. Such rituals in themselves perform multiple functions. One is that, through religious experience, an individual defines and affirms lineage, i.e., blood connection to the community. In addition, the stones literally mark time. In the same way that the river becomes a vehicle for Eliot to examine concepts of time in ‘Dry Salvages’, Berengarten uses the stones of Avebury, the place, to perhaps discover something about the mystery of time as a non-linear event, because they have been invested with a power beyond their own time and function. The stones at such sacred sites are aligned with celestial events, such as the solstices, with an accuracy that today almost defies our sense of the possible, given the knowledge and manpower that must have been needed both to move and to set these huge slabs in place. In a sense, then, all such ancient stone artefacts are attempts by human beings to honour the patterns of nature. And quite apart from conceptual and religious factors, such matters were of clear practical relevance: it has been argued, for example, that such edifices were built on or near the flood-plains of Egypt and China in order to perhaps exercise some power over the cycles of flooding by appealing to various deities. But they also speak to social and cultural concerns, such as the well-being of the community.


In the case of a site such as Avebury, it is difficult for us even to imagine the connections that it embodied for its builders — for example, those between sky and earth, goddesses and gods, timelessness and time, dead ancestors and the living — partly because we are so removed from the family and kinship relationships that prevailed at the time when it was built, and partly because later paternalistic institutions more or less obliterated practices that sanctified the feminine, that is, other than within the acceptable dualistic frame of ‘virgin/whore’. In fact, the speaker in ‘Avebury’ challenges this duality in the penultimate section, when he states ‘this was no whore’ (For the Living 49).


‘Avebury’ freely moves through time, from pre-textual history to descriptions of art and civilisation, in the same way that Olson’s Maximus Poems and all of the poems in Eliot’s Four Quartets envision history as an event that is taking place now and always, past and present simultaneously existing. In the last stanza of Part 1 of ‘Little Gidding,’ the speaker theorizes about a pilgrimage where ‘[… ] the communication / of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. / Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / is England and nowhere. Never and always’ (Eliot 1952: 139). This is also a conception of time that G. R. Levy discusses in relation to ancient peoples and their sacred spaces in The Gate of Horn, as we shall see later. Avebury was (and, to the sympathetic visitor, remains) a ritual space, in which people were (and are) transformed, reborn as more realised versions of themselves.


To understand how the architecture of Berengarten’s ‘Avebury’ unravels the mystery of the stones, we must delve into the poem’s origins. This process will necessarily involve exploring motifs of fertility and creativity, of cyclic pattern and ritual, and of art as message and meaning.


Berengarten states that he was ‘heavily involved’ in concrete poetry in the early 1970s:


One of the tenets of concrete poetry as I understand it is that letters and words stop being merely alphabetic signs denoting sequences of phonemes and lexemes, but become iconic, mimetic and pictorial in themselves — though not necessarily representational in any crude sense. It might be said: they become more ideogrammatic. [5]


Berengarten’s comments suggest a way into ‘Avebury’ that involves the use of pre-literal skills; through encountering the text as visual composition, arrival at the metaphorical heart of the poem, through its iconicity, becomes easier. Berengarten goes on to say that the act of making the poem a ‘visual text’ opened the poem ‘spatially’ for him, so that it was no longer ‘linear’ — which is the ‘normative’ way we read text. By giving the poem spatiality, Berengarten has opened the poem temporally as well. In this context, Olson’s practice of field poetry intrigued Berengarten and, arguably, no form could have been more suited to the content of ‘Avebury’ than the Olsonian open form.


Berengarten uses words like ‘mime’, ‘embody’, ‘encapsulate’ and ‘enshrine’ to describe the process of building his ‘Avebury’. He refers to this process as ‘composing’ as he says, ‘in the strict etymological sense [of] putting together’. In this connection, Berengarten also mentions the poet W. S. Graham (1970, 1977), although he wrote the poem before he became familiar with Graham’s investigations of the ‘phenomenal world itself [as] language’. Thus Berengarten implies that, just as language is a code that must be deciphered, so are these stones ‘coded’, and it is the speaker’s task to recover the key and discover the meaning of the ‘text’. Eliot, however, writes in ‘East Coker’ of ‘old stones that cannot be deciphered’ (Eliot 1952: 129).


Conceptually, Berengarten also specifies that much of his thinking in this book derives from his reading of G. R. Levy’s The Gate of Horn. He incorporates phrases taken directly from Levy’s work, specifically from Chapter 1, which informed Berengarten’s writing about the Palaeolithic ‘Venus of Willendorf’ figurine (For the Living 30), as well as his descriptions of caves as sacred spaces of ritual and transformation (For the Living 35–40). The title of Levy’s book refers to the two Homeric entrances to the Underworld. In the Aeneid, Virgil describes these entrances to sleep as the ‘Gate of Ivory’ and the ‘Gate of Horn’ (Levy 1963: v). The Gate of Ivory is the gate of false dreams and the Gate of Horn leads one to truth (Book VI: ll. 1235–1240) Similarly, in ‘Avebury’, there is a descent into the underworld, a journey often required of initiates in ‘primitive’ spiritual ideologies, for it is only by dying, going down, that one can be reborn. Such a belief echoes as a predominant theme through Berengarten’s text, especially with the embedded quotation from Heraclitus: ‘and the way / up is way / down’ (For the Living 35). There is likewise a descent in Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘Descend lower, descend only / Into the world of perpetual solitude’ (Eliot 1952: 120).


Furthermore, this downward journey is the prerequisite to transformation and is certainly one required of the artist in order for the creative process to take place. Such a journey is also interpretable as a return to the womb, the site of one’s conception. In Christianity the Mother Goddess has been divested of all real power and replaced by a figure who is more a repository than an initiator. When Nicodemus asks Jesus how is it possible for an old man to be born again and wonders if he must re-enter his mothers womb in order to do so, Jesus replies: ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’ (John 3: 5).


Another source for Berengarten is the epic of Gilgamesh. Nancy. K. Sandars’ introduction explores the story, its origins and her approach to the translation of the text which, she writes, necessitated some overlapping and editing (Sandars 1960: 51). Berengarten references this multi-authored ancient text in his exploration of duality, specifically embodied in the characters of Gilgamesh and his ‘savage’ brother, Enkidu, especially in sections 12–14 of the poem (For the Living 36–39). Gilgamesh’s journey is that of the hero. This Sumerian/Babylonian world is darker than the Egyptian one, in that the Sumerian Heaven is reserved only for the gods; and it is this darkness that pervades Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s journey operates on many levels, as allegory, as a great adventure story, as a quasi-historical account of possible events. It contains a flood which predates the Biblical account by a thousand years, a river that must be crossed, and a forest through which the hero must find his way to the mountain. There he will find wood for the temple he is building. The mountain is the ‘seat of the gods and [entrance to] the underworld’ (Sandars 1960: 33). It is also the ‘sender of dreams’. The line between sleep and wakefulness is blurred both in the epic and in ‘Avebury’. Indeed, the oneiric realm is as important as the conscious world in both texts, as well as in Sunstone. Dreams provide clues to unravelling the mystery.


The first two sections of ‘Avebury’ also suggest that the site of the stone circle is itself an opening to some other realm. What is therefore clear to the reader at this point is that there is something to be figured out. At the same time, it could be argued that no one ever really wants the answers to the mystery. Its impenetrability is its source of power over rational beings. In the second section, the questioner enters the text in person. The living walk among the dead, and the ancestorless speaker wonders what the beings search for, ‘looking for what / the riddle? / the question?’ (For the Living 26).


Section 4 introduces one of the ritual motifs of the poem, dancing, and establishes the idea of stone as syntax: ‘metaphor on metaphor / silence / anagrammatised / measured | spaced out / in this syntax of land / this plot of time’ (For the Living 28). Dance and time are both motifs of Eliot’s Four Quartets, in particular the first and second stanzas of ‘Burnt Norton’. He writes, ‘there is only the dance’ (Eliot 1952: 119) and earlier, ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past’ (Eliot 1952: 117). Here, the sacred space, ritualised through dance and the marking of time, is a place of death, as in section 2: ‘ossified dreams’, ‘dead memorials’ (For the Living 26). From the outset, as we have already seen, words associated with the mouth reveal another motif, and these appear throughout the poem: in section 5, ‘sky’s throat’, (For the Living 29); in section 8, ‘protecting her cave | the mouth of her’, where the mouth/cave is imaged as vaginal opening (For the Living 31); in section 14 ‘mouth of stone’ (For the Living 39); in section 20, where the stones are ‘defying discourse’ (For the Living 45); and in section 21, where language is stuck ‘in my throat’ (For the Living 46) and the stones and words become one as the man is reborn,


      from the cave he was immured in

in a tide on these stones
clean        word
into stone
         out of stone (For the Living 46)


Fertility and ritual are the themes of sections 6–10. Images of fertility and the duality of male and female appear in these five open-field ‘sonnets’ about sculptures: two are concerned with male and two with female images, while the fifth concerns musicians who, it might be argued, join the sexes together through art. Thus we have moved from images of stasis and death to ones of life. However, one of the male figures, from Michelangelo’s series of Prisoners, has


             … genitals
under unhewn rock
                        the arms
unable to heave
                     stone off his head  (For the Living 31)


In contrast, when it comes to the goddesses, the ‘Venus of Willendorf’ (For the Living 30) is pregnant and/or full breasted and bellied, and the ‘Nike’ (‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’) has


incredible arrogant breasts

              and the breakers
        under the belly
        forming         like an unseen hand
protecting [… ]                 the mouth of her… (For the Living 32).


Nike is ready to fly. Interestingly, both male and female statues are featureless. Does this anonymity make them more universal? Does it remove them from the constraints of time and place? The speaker does not seem distressed by the headless, faceless statues. The phalloi of section 9 would seem potent images save for the last lines, ‘one of the shafts / broken / above the marble scrotum’ (For the Living 33). In spite of this seeming impotency, the poet appears to join the dance of section 10, a joyful celebration, even though the flautist is chinless. [6] The image of the female here is striking: ‘great dusky sea, so many pebbles round your neck / so many glinting jewels in your hair’ (For the Living 34). These last lines are taken from ‘Amorgos’, a poem by the Greek poet Nikos Gatsos (Keeley & Sherrard 1966: 99), whom Berengarten cites as an influence on this work. [7]


Sections 11–14 are inward journeys. The speaker is not sure whether he is awake or asleep. He is ‘in / the cave, tomb / and temple’ (For the Living 35). The word ‘tomb’ here suggests its opposite, ‘womb’. It is a tenebrous world of shades and shadows, just as it is for Dante in the Divine Comedy and it is a theme Berengarten visits often in For the Living, especially in ‘Transformations’ and ‘Black Light’. This is the journey deep into the psyche, where one expects to encounter versions of oneself; Berengarten also cites Jung’s work with dreams as an influence, and it is here that the speaker is not sure which way is up or down. [8] He also encounters ghosts of his own past much as the speaker of ‘Little Gidding’ encounters the familiar compound ghost in Section II of the poem (Eliot 1952: 140). This is the first time that the speaker of ‘Avebury’ is aware of his own place in time. Ironically, the ghosts are preceded by the line, ‘where I lost my memory’ (For the Living 35). Many wisdom traditions assert that one must lose one’s self to find one’s self. Paradoxically, it is through forgetting that the poet remembers. In section 12, the ‘corridor wound like a horn’ appears, the entrance to truth (For the Living 36). The visions of the poet are strange:


you touch but don’t believe,
nor the shadow of a glimmer down beyond them
    your eyelids
jumping like a fish
veil nothing here:          you are the very
shadow you discarded (For the Living 36).


By becoming blind, one sees. In this same section, the speaker shields his eyes ‘against a blaze of inner noon’. A transformation has taken place. Blood is introduced as part of the ritual of sacrifice. The speaker wonders if it is his brother he hears in the darkness and, in section 13, an unnamed Enkidu, feral brother and darker self of Gilgamesh, and protector of the forest which stands between Gilgamesh and the Cedar Mountain, appears. In the epic, it is the temple priestess who ‘tames’ Enkidu, separating him from his animal companions through sexual initiation, and it is this separation from the beasts, who have no language, that marks the civilised man. Enkidu is given the double-edged sword of language, a highly significant gift but one that alienates him from his former companions.


In the following section, Berengarten alludes to the Medusa myth. The only mortal of the three Gorgons, Medusa, is also seen as the guardian at the threshold of the underworld (Odyssey, XI: ll. 633–5; Dante’s Divine Comedy [Inferno, IX: ll. 55–7[ and Milton’s Paradise Lost pII: ll. 611]). It is Athena who, in a jealous rage, enacts her vengeance on Medusa, not Poseidon, for raping the Gorgon in Athena’s temple. She is the one who transforms Medusa into the snake-tressed monster who can turn men to stone. Yet she so believes in the apotropaic powers of Medusa, whom some have theorized is the embodiment of a dissociated self (Neumann 2003: 96–99), that she carries the face of the defeated ‘Mother Goddess’ on her shield (Hesiod, Book 11: ll. 32–40):


      before she came
with her ear-rings
of amber                      her breasts bared
her armpits scented
         let down her braided hair
and struck you with that gaze of stone
     taught you the art of her stone smile
woke you with language
  of cattle
     byre and cave (For the Living 38). [9]


An entire chapter of Levy’s book is entitled ‘Cattle Byre and Milk-Yielding Tree’. In this chapter, she discusses the Isis/Osiris myth and especially the importance of the Mother Goddess, who was a divinity of vegetation and fertility, as well as death. This duality is embodied in Ishtar and the Sumerian Innana, goddess of love, fertility and war. Sections 13 and 14 refer to Gilgamesh’s search for his brother/other: ‘brother, you / were the axe at my side’ (For the Living 39). Gilgamesh has to use trickery to defeat his brother, who has control of the woods. It is not difficult for him to enlist the aid of the gods because he is two-thirds god himself. Embodied in the persons of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are both god and beast. Here, too, we find the image of the mouth, ‘standing in this cave of light / this mouth of stone / that eats me’ (For the Living 39). And just as Enkidu is civilised by language, so the speaker becomes full of words: ‘words you rush in on me like a surf / into my core like semen to the uterus / like torchlight on these stones’ (For the Living 40). Berengarten alludes to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in this section, who comes ‘riding / in on the foam this long haired / green creature who brings me / back again among the scattered seasons’. And underground the speaker finds the mother:


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

                and who is that other
face in shadow (For the Living 40)


Sections 16–21 are particularly influenced by Paz, especially by passages of Piedra del Sol, where Paz writes of the goddess / mother and the dreamer (1991: 51 & 53) and also by Peter Russell’s unpublished Ephemeron. [10] Section 16 moves from spiritual to scientific enquiry. As the stone is an elemental product of earth, the poet queries his own substance, ‘you too / a monad / atom / as I am / what is the sum / of these quanta? / I am not just / my body’ (For the Living 41). In the philosophy of Leibniz, the monad is the elemental spiritual substance from which all material properties arise; thus, by choosing this particular word, Berengarten seeks to embody (textualise) the substance of the inquisitive speaker.


Sections 17–20 describe the ritual that precedes the transformation. Section 18 returns to the circle and the dance:


stone in me
stone that I am
centre or periphery
nomad and society of atoms

      eyed by stone
eaten by stone
      loved by stone

danced in the dance
by the dance
           of stone

by stone
by stone
       dreamed (For the Living 43)


In this passage, the appearance of the word ‘nomad’ suggests punning wordplay on the previous term ‘monad’, and perhaps the sort of trick that the mind plays in dream and on the threshold between waking and sleep. As in the lives of the ancients, the dream is of vital importance to the poet, who is at the threshold between the conscious and subconscious mind. The poet has been spoken and dreamed. The ‘blood’ of section 19 brings the poet back to the altar of sacrifice, and the death of the ancestors is recalled. The durability of the stone and of the ancestors is contained in the last lines, which describe the elemental forces at work: ‘the sun’s hammer / the frost’s nails / the wind’s arsenal! (For the Living 44). These images are reminiscent of the power of Enlil, who in The Epic of Gilgamesh is the god of the storm and wind and of the breath and word of Anu, father of the gods (Sandars 1960: 120).


In the longer sections 20 and 21 the poet returns to the themes of the mysteries of coded text and the literal and figurative silence of the stones. They are ‘defying discourse’, ‘telling nothing’ and ‘giving nothing’, ‘being of absence / core the dream’. (For the Living 45). The speaker refers to the stone as ‘subversive’, ‘uprooting / word from language / winding down / time to rubble’. (For the Living 45). We have begun to circle back to the ‘time’s teeth’ of the first section. In section 21, the speaker is ‘reborn’. Images of birth, of the throat and mouth and of speech dominate:


in my throat
the man rises
      from the cave he was immured in

in a tide on these stones
clean                    break
word  (For the Living 46).


By the end of this section, the speaker has been reunited with the ‘ghost gone at end / of childhood’ (For the Living 46) and his ancestors. He rejoins the community as a new being. Section 22 is a departure from the spiritual community to the secular society and the edifices of the modern world, i.e., ‘The Labour Exchange’, ‘The Square and Compasses’, a pub, [11] and the ‘Maplan Supermarket’. [12] The supermarket is presented, ironically, as the ‘sacred space’ in the modern world, because it ‘sells everything’, ‘with just room to move / from corner to corner / in a web of gravities / thick as a word’ (For the Living 47). Olson writes in the Maximus Poems, ‘The corner magazine store / (Oconnell’s, at Prospect and Washington) / has more essential room in it than programs’ (Olson 1983: 379). The shimmering commodities of daily life curiously call the poet back to his ancestors who are ‘locked in stone’. Now it is we who ‘struggle out of / measuring / immeasurables’ (For the Living 48). And now, in Section 23, the goddess figure returns. She has been introduced as ‘Venus / of the hunters’ in Section 6, and has been present in various manifestations of femininity throughout the poem; but here it is recognised that she ‘was no whore’. Now, significantly, there is ‘no gap / between speech and her mouth’, as ‘lips touch / speech / tongues’ and ‘the world’ is ‘born’. Blindness has been replaced by ‘light of eyes / eye of light / child of elements’ and the affirmation ‘anywhere centre / say these stones / of Avebury’ (For the Living 49).


The italics of the last section highlight what the speaker has found as a result of his ‘death and rebirth’. ‘any / where’ is ‘centre’ and not only the poet but the world awakens to this newness. Echoes are heard from ‘out of galactic range / creatures awake on distant shores’. Not only has the poet been reborn but he has found his place among the others.


           us here

us here
                  say the stones

now every
where centre
                                 I do not tell          I say (For the Living 50)


We have come full circle. ‘For the first time in our history we are contemporaries of all mankind’ writes Octavio Paz (1961 [1967]: 194). [13] Of the three epigraphs to ‘Avebury’, in my view this quotation from Paz would seem to be the most significant. Elsewhere, Berengarten writes about Paz’s Sunstone, Blanco and The Labyrinth of Solitude:


[T]hey have contributed to forming a key aspect of my poetics — especially in my current researches and explorations for what I now call Universal Poetics. Some of these ideas about universality (that centres are everywhere) are first expressed in my work in ‘Avebury’, where they are encoded into the end of the poem. [14]


Taking the standing stones of Avebury both as his point of departure and the locus to which he returns, Berengarten discovers that the architext of the sacred circle is inclusive. The sacred space is indeed anywhere and everywhere.


Martin Booth, reviewing ‘Avebury’ on its first publication, wrote that the poem poses challenges to the reader, but that recurrent images provide grounding, create tension and sustain the themes (Booth 1973). Aged only 28 at the time, Berengarten undertook the difficult task of writing a long poem. Yet there is a timeless quality to the work in its attempt to understand pre-literate syntax and place oneself in an historical context: to find meaning in the stones.

Works Cited

Berengarten, Richard. 1971. ‘A Poet in Cambridge: on the achievement of Octavio Paz’ in The Times Educational Supplement (1 January, 1971): 113–14.

–––. 2008a. For the Living: Selected Writings, Vol. 1: Longer Poems 1965–2000. Cambridge: Salt.

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

–––. 2008c. ‘Notes on Avebury’, Unpublished text.

Booth, Martin. 1973. ‘Self-placement in time and order’, The Teacher (18 May 1973).

Burns, Richard. 1999. Against Perfection. Norwich: The King of Hearts.

–––. 1973. Avebury. London: Anvil Press Poetry.

–––. 1872. Double Flute. London: Enitharmon Press.

Dante.Alighieri (tr. John D. Sinclair). 1939. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. New York: Oxford University Press.

Eliot, T. S. 1952. Complete Plays and Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Garber, Marjorie B. and Nancy J. Vickers (eds). 2003. The Medusa Reader. New York: Routledge.

Graham, W. S. 1970. Malcolm Mooney’s Land. London: Faber & Faber.

–––. 1977. Implements in Their Places. London: Faber & Faber.

Homer. The Odyssey (tr. A. T. Murray). 1953. Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press and William Heinemann, Ltd.

Jope, Norman. 1996. For the Wedding-Guest. Exeter: Stride Books.

Keeley, Edmund & Philip Sherrard (tr.). 1966. Four Greek Poets. London: Penguin Books.

Levy, G. R. 1963 [1948]. The Gate of Horn: Religious Conceptions of the Stone Age and Their Influence upon European Thought. New York: Harper and Row.

Milton, John. 1929. The Poetical Works of John Milton, London: McMillan and Co. Limited.

Neumann, Erich. 2003 [1949]. ‘A Jungian View of the Terrible Mother’ (tr. R. F. C. Hull) in Garbers & Vickers (2003): 96–99.

Olson, Charles. 1983. The Maximus Poems. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press.

Paz, Octavio. 1961 [1967]. The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings (tr. Lysander Kemp). New York: Grove Press [London: Allen Lane].

–––. 1991. Sun Stone [Piedra De Sol] (tr. Eliot Weinberger). New York: New Directions.

Sandars, N. K (ed. & tr.). 1960. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Books.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. 1901. The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Cambridge Edition (ed. George Edward Woodberry). Boston and New York: The Riverside Press and Houghton, Mifflin and Co.

Virgil. 1961. Aeneid, (tr. John Dryden with introductions and notes). New York: P.F. Collier & Son.


[1] Editors’ note: All references to the text of ‘Avebury’, in this essay, are to the re-published text that appears in the second edition of For the Living (Salt, 28008). However, the author also refers to the ‘Afterwords’ that appear in the first published edition, Avebury (1972, London: Anvil Press Poetry). Whereas the text of the poem is identical in both editions, the ‘Afterwords’ are not included in For the Living and, therefore, the 1973 edition (hereafter Ave) is referred where appropriate. Avebury has been re-published by Shearsman, as an e-book, at http://

[2] ‘Notes on Avebury’, an unpublished text sent to the author by Richard Berengarten, July 2008. Further references to this text are listed as: RB, Notes on Avebury, 2008.

[3] Unpublished correspendence between Octavio Paz to Richard Berengarten, July 28, 1973.

[4] Strictly speaking, Avebury is not a single site but a complex of Neolithic monuments from at least two millennia, spread out across several square kilometres of the chalk uplands of Central Southern England (specifically, the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire). In addition to the stone circle that surrounds the village of Avebury itself (built some time in the third millennium BC), these include Silbury Hill (the largest prehistoric artificial mound in Europe, probably built at around the same time), West Kennett Long Barrow (a chamber tomb from the fourth millennium BC) and Windmill Hill (a causewayed enclosure from the fifth millennium BC). Given Berengarten’s comment (‘Notes on Avebury’, 2008) that “we made a point of stopping off at Avebury for a break from the driving” (en route from Cambridge to Devon, in Summer 1971), and the imagery of the poem itself, it appears that the stone circle that surrounds the village of Avebury was the inspirational trigger. Other poets (e.g. Jope 1996: 76, 82–86), have written about this complex of sites from a more ‘place-specific’ perspective.

[5] Berengarten, ‘Notes on Avebury’, 2008. Other comments by Berengarten in this paragraph and the next are taken from the same source.

[6] The same figure appears in ‘Male Figure Playing a Double Flute’ in R. Burns, Against Perfection (1999: 43).

[7] Berengarten, ‘Notes on Avebury’, 2008.

[8] Berengarten’s ‘Croft Woods’ (For the Living 198–2009) revisits many of the themes of ‘Avebury’. The slipperiness of language, the seductive charms of music, the journey downwards into Self and even the gates of ivory and horn reappear in this later work. The journey in the latter poem, however, seems more lateral than circular. The light is a “slanted source” and “hangs diagonally down” (For the Living 199).

[9] Garber and Vickers’ book, Medusa Reader (2003), the fascination writers and thinkers have had with the Medusa myth from Homer to Versace. Tobin Siebers’ essay, ‘Medusa as Double’, from his book The Mirror of Medusa(University of California Press, 1983) reprinted in the Medusa Reader, is of particular interest for its study of Medusa and Athena, and Medusa and Perseus, as doubles. One of countless poems about Medusa is Shelley’s ‘On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci’ (Shelley 1901: 369) Berengarten might have been thinking of Shelley’s poem when he wrote these lines. Here, Shelley confronts the dual nature of Medusa as seductress and destroyer: “Yet it is less the horror than the grace / Which turns the gazer’s spirit into stone; / Whereon the lineaments of that dead face / Are graven, till the characters be grown / Into itself, and thought no more can trace; / ‘Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown / Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain, / Which humanize and harmonize the strain.”

[10] Berengarten, ‘Notes on Avebury’, 2008.

[11] Berengarten, ‘Notes on Avebury’, 2008.

[12] Interestingly, the name “Maplan” recurs 28 years later in Berengarten’s long poem The Manager where, as the company that employs the protagonist, Jordan Bruno, it is an ironic acronym: “Market Advice Planning for Living And Necessity” (MAPLAN)” (The Manager 145).

[13] Paz’s intriguing and well-informed essay, Labyrinth of Solitude, delves deeply into the roots of Mexican identity, in particular, the tension between the public and the private self, the isolated individual and the need for community: themes Berengarten also explores in ‘Avebury’. First published in Spanish in 1950, and in English in 1961, and written in a prose both poetic and scholarly, Labyrinth crosses the boundaries between disciplines. Part history, part sociological study, part economic analysis, part political commentary, Paz’s message is as relevant today as it was half a century ago. It would seem that ‘Avebury’ strives to express this same all-encompassing view of humanity and history.

[14] RB, ‘Notes on Avebury’, 2008.

Neli Moody

Neli Moody

Neli Moody is a poet and a lecturer at San Jose State University, where she teaches composition and creative writing. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from SJSU. She has received numerous awards for her work, including the Phelan Award and the Virginia Araujo Award sponsored by the American Academy of Poetry. After Altamira, published by Ishmael Reed Publishing Company in 2006, was nominated for a National Book Award. She is currently working on four more collections. Her work has appeared in such publications as Brick and Mortar Review, Konch Magazine,Appalachian Times, and Reed Magazine. Her multicultural background and lifelong studies in dance, music, and art have informed her poetry.

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