[Abstract] In May 1985, I visited Serbia from my home in Cambridge, England, to run a series of poetry writing workshops for pupils in Serbian schools, mostly in their early teens. With my daughter Lara, who was then seventeen years old, I travelled to Belgrade and some smaller towns and villages in the central and western region of the republic, known as Šumadija. As I didn’t know Serbian at that time, when conducting these workshops, I spoke in English and the teachers translated for me. The boys and girls wrote their poems in Serbian. Our group travelled from town to town in a minibus.
One of these poetry workshops took place on a sunny morning on May 25 in a school in the city of Kragujevac. Afterwards I visited the city’s memorial museum in Šumarice, a hilly park just outside the town.
Nothing could have contrasted more strongly with the mood of these poetry workshops than the history of Šumarice. Here, on October 21, 1941, 2,272 people were massacred. Most of these victims were male Serbs, including boys pulled directly out of classes from one of the main schools. Victims included forty local Jews, an unregistered number of Roma, as well as prisoners from local jails, and some Serbian women and girls.
Our friends had told us after the workshops that we really ought to visit the museum built on the site of the massacre. As we arrived, the memorial park presented a curious and completely unexpected scene. The place was thronging with people on special outings. Hundreds of people milled around us, and in the queue outside the museum there was a good deal of noisy chatter and friendly jostling.
Eventually, we found ourselves in a queue of people waiting to get into the museum. In terms of clock-time, although all this must have happened in a few seconds, I remember it as a moment in and through which the here-and-now expanded into a kind of timelessness, and time and space either stopped, or stopped being relevant. Time itself seemed to expand (disperse) and collapse (implode) simultaneously, and while ‘things’ were transformed because of this – somehow (and paradoxically) they also remained entirely ‘normal’: that is, exactly as they had been previously. I’ve captured, or at least suggested, some of these complexities of response in ‘The telling, first attempt’, although the word attempt in the title clearly indicates my sense at that time that language itself – even language, the richest, finest, clearest of our communicative gifts – wasn’t adequate to expressing the fulness and subtlety (essence?) of such an experience, which leaks away, as it were, through minute cracks in language’s jar.
Our tour of Serbia continued and we moved on to other towns. As soon as Lara and I returned home to Cambridge, I had both our photos developed. Although these were of nowhere-near-professional standard, especially by comparison with the extraordinarily fine detail of modern digital photography, the first shot that Lara had snapped and the second that I had taken both yielded quite clear images of a little blue creature astride my finger, almost as if it had been posing there, sunning itself, waiting – even somehow wanting (?) – to be photographed. Our camera had contained a colour film, so the butterfly’s delicate blueness came out clearly enough: wings edged in lacy whiteness, and a black contoured band, a kind of wavering border, between wingtips and the inner dominant blue.
Around that time, I wrote two poems to record the experience. They arrived spontaneously and effortlessly: first, ‘The blue butterfly’ followed by ‘Nada: hope or nothing’. The second poem contains two lines (“A blue butterfly takes my hand and writes / in invisible ink across its page of air…”), which express my acute sense at that time that, rather than my writing them, both of these poems were being written through and out of me. That is to say, rather than my own will, intention (ego) being in control, the butterfly had somehow entered my imagination (psyche), and was guiding and guarding my hand in, through and along the entire compositional pathway.
It was hardly surprising that after the arrival (delivery) of these two poems, I realised that there was considerably more to be said – and done. As it turned out, these two poems eventually became the core of a book, entitled The Blue Butterfly
The full text of this essay can be read here: Richard Berengarten – ‘A Synchronistic Experience in Serbia’
The poems mentioned in the text are here: Richard Berengarten – Three poems from The Blue Butterfly. ‘The Blue Butterfly’ was translated into Serbian by Vera V. Radojević, Danilo Kiš and Ivan V. Lalić: Richard Berengarten – Plavi leptir; 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.