The book-length sequence of poems entitled The Blue Butterfly was conceived when Richard Berengarten took the photo below on 25 May 1985, outside the Memorial Museum at Šumarice, on the outskirts of the city of Kragujevac in central Serbia. The museum commemorates a Nazi massacre perpetrated during the Second World War. Between 19 and 21 October 1942, nearly 2,800 men, women and children from this town and its surrounding villages were shot, at several locations.
Forty-two years later, as the poet was queuing to enter the Memorial Museum, a small blue butterfly suddenly landed on the forefinger of his left (writing) hand. This event was the inspiration for The Blue Butterfly. The book, which was a long time in the making, is the first part of Berengarten’s Balkan Trilogy, now published together with In a Time of Drought and Under Balkan Light.
In October 2007, the book was selected to provide the oratorio for the annual commemoration of the massacre at Šumarice, in the Serbian translation by Vera V. Radojević, Danilo Kiš and Ivan V. Lalić (Richard Berengarten – Plavi leptir).
Three poems from the book are published here: the title-poem, ‘The blue butterfly’, ‘Nada: hope or nothing’, and ‘The telling (first attempt)’. Their full background story is told in the essay ‘Richard Berengarten – ‘A Synchronistic Experience in Serbia’.
On my Jew’s hand, born out of ghettos and shtetls,
raised from unmarked graves of my obliterated people
in Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia,
on my hand mothered by a refugee’s daughter,
first opened in blitzed London, grown big
through post-war years safe in suburban England,
on my pink, educated, ironical left hand
of a parvenu not quite British pseudo gentleman
which first learned to scrawl its untutored messages
among Latin-reading rugby-playing militarists
in an élite boarding school on Sussex’s green downs
and against the cloister walls of puritan Cambridge,
on my hand weakened by anomie, on my
writing hand, now of a sudden willingly
stretched before me in Serbian spring sunlight,
on my unique living hand, trembling and troubled
by this May visitation, like a virginal
leaf new sprung on the oldest oak in Europe,
on my proud firm hand, miraculously blessed
by the two thousand eight hundred martyred
men, women and children fallen at Kragujevac,
a blue butterfly simply fell out of the sky
and settled on the forefinger
of my international bloody human hand.
Nada : hope or nothing
Like a windblown seed, not yet rooted
or petal from an impossible moonflower, shimmering,
unplucked, perfect, in a clear night sky,
like a rainbow without rain, like the invisible
hand of a god stretching out of nowhere
to shower joy brimful from Plenty’s horn,
like a greeting from a child, unborn, unconceived,
like an angel, bearing a gift, a ring, a promise,
like a visitation from a twice redeemed soul,
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.
(Note: In Serbian, the word nada means ‘hope’. In Spanish, it means ‘nothing’.)
The telling (first attempt)
In that moment, I remembered nothing
but became memory. I was being.
And as for before? Before – a mouthing
of half-dumb shadows had been my hearing
and tunnels sculpted and bored through fearing
the whole bolstered scope of my seeing.
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.
And I saw the May morning sun shoot fire
on the hillsides, which still glowed green, intact,
and those massed children, I heard as a choir,
although still only schoolkids, who chattered.
Nothing was marred or maimed. Everything mattered.
Matter was miracle. Miracle was fact.
As though an index to the infinite
library of nature and history
had tumbled into me, and a fortunate
finding of buried keys, of forgotten
reference and disappeared quotation
had filled my sight, as gift, as mystery,
all was ordinary, still – and, yet, otherness
without seam. The world did not sheer away
but was its very self, no more nor less
than ever, but tuned now to its own being,
and the heard and seen were hearing, seeing,
spirit within spiral, wave within way.
The pdf file of the poems with an introduction by the author can be found here: Richard Berengarten – Three poems from The Blue Butterfly
The three poems have been translated into French by Sabine Huynh: Richard Berengarten, trois poèmes de ‘Le papillon bleu’, traduction en francais, Sabine Huynh, and into Italian by Silvia Pio: Richard Berengarten, tre poesie da ‘La farfalla blu’, traduzione in italiano, Silvia Pio.