And I hear my secret sea flood in, my hushed inner sea
(‘Cicadas’, FL 171)
a Homage to Agnostos Nomolos
The Mediterranean contains many ghosts under the ceaseless to-ing and fro-ing of its green-blue waves. The ghost of Jaufré Rudel who crossed it to reach Tripoli and die. The ghost of Percy Bysshe Shelley who drowned off the coast of Lerici; the sea gave back his body but not his soul, which perhaps still screams during storms, or warbles sweetly, like a skylark, among the olive groves of Liguria.
The Mediterranean itself is a ghost, the ghost of a god that wiped out a civilisation by calling up the fury of the volcano of Santorini, even though I believe, with Pierre Vidal-Naquet, that Atlantis was ‘just’ an Athenian myth. But it was the Mediterranean that swallowed the bodies of the Persians at Salamis and later those of Turks and Christians alike at Lepanto.
The Mediterranean, moreover, is the ghost of many of the civilisations born out of its briny coitus. It is the sea of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. It is the purple sea of Odysseus and of Rubaldo Merello. It is the crescent moon-tipped green sea of the pirate Admiral Khaireddin, who defeated Andrea Doria at Preveza (and of the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis, our contemporary), and it is the almost stagnating sea of the Venetian lagoon, where Richard Berengarten wrote ‘Actaeon’.
And how many people have been killed, gutted and slaughtered, and tossed into the huge cleansing bowl that all seas are, but especially this sea, so vast, yet at the same time so closed in on itself? A sea that continues to hone down and eventually scatter millions of skulls and bones, century after century.
Yes, the Mediterranean is the ghost of a god, a god more powerful than Pan or Dionysos, a god who swallows and shuts up, and who shudders and quakes the lands that he himself has fathered and nourished: the lands of Greece, the lands of Italy, and also the lands on the other side, to the east.
Richard Berengarten is the latest in a long line of English poets who have ardently sung the Mediterranean and its terra par excellence, Greece: the Hellas that Shelley dreamed against the ‘Persians’. But while other English nomads, Forster and Durrell, have sung it through the Alexandrian poet, Cavafy, Berengarten has sung it with the Ionian poet, George Seferis, who wrote in demotic Greek, just as did the bard of Alexandria.
As we read Richard Berengarten’s poems, they interweave with those of Seferis. It is as though they echo Seferis, like “waves / expanding, re-echoing” (‘Avebury’, FL 50). Berengarten was living in Greece at the time when a military junta (the Colonels) ousted the legitimate government, in the coup d’état of April 1967. Berengarten’s poem “The Easter Rising” (FL 1-14), written in Thebes that year, had to be smuggled out of Greece and published under the pseudonym of Agnostos Nomolos, to whom I have dedicated this brief statement. George Seferis died four years later, in 1971. Three years after that, in 1974, the military dictatorship was overthrown.
The poems which I have chosen to comment on first span the years 1965 to 2000 and are included in For the Living, Selected Writings 1. And I shall speak of only one facet of Berengarten’s poetic opus: his connection with Mediterranean culture, a connection that much great English poetry has maintained.
There are poets of the sea and poets of the land. Sea poets love waves and clouds, whatever is constantly changing yet perennial. Land poets love what is stable but subject to ruin. Berengarten is a land poet. His heraldic symbol is the tree, that which roots itself into the ground and reaches for the sky, that which dares the lightning:
under storm clouds
of high skies
and birds returning (FL 119-120)
Berengarten’s Greece is not only the Greece of the sea, but also the Greece of the land-dwellers: he often sings Greece with his back towards the sea and his eyes toward the land, while in his ears the constant basso of the waves rumbles on “in the sea’s secret speech” (‘Shell’, FL 170). So too the “blue island” in ‘Song, for Petro’ (FL 168) is seen as a land risen from the sea. Berengarten observes people, their toil, their songs and their laughter. In the evening, he walks along the shore, where the night fishermen are preparing their boats, with “motors chugging, paraffin lamps in the bows”, and the lovers stroll, arm in arm (‘Volta’, FL 157). He listens to the summer landscape, thick with cicadas:
where, in high pitched voices, they argue my destiny
till their whole assembly has reached its decision
and I can smell them, out there in the darkness. (FL 171)
And he recounts combatants in the modern-day Greek struggle: Theodorakis, Papandreou, Kanellopoulos, Glezos (‘The Easter Rising’, FL 8).
Like a wandering singer, he gathers their voices, their joy and their desperation. And we sense that Richard Berengarten, who now lives in Cambridge, is one of us: a child of our fateful sea, the Mediterranean.
Further up the coast of Greece, past the Strait of Otranto, the Mediterranean narrows into a deep, long gulf, the Adriatic. Here, as one sails north towards Trieste, one finds on the left the coastlines of Italy, which are almost always low and sandy, while on the right the shore is rocky and battered by high waves, suddenly announcing the mountains of Albania – and then those of Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia, and Serbia and Bosnia inland: countries that all, until a few years ago, went under the name of Yugoslavia. A rugged, tormented land, repeatedly invaded and bathed in blood. How right Berengarten was when he wrote in 1991, “Watch where you walk. You think you tread on stones? / You’re wrong, my friend. It is your brother’s bones.” (BB 16).
Berengarten belongs to all of us: he is Greek, Italian, Yugoslav; in short he is Mediterranean. The blue butterfly that rests for a moment on the hand of the English poet in Šumarice (BB 8) reminds him of the blood that was spilled, the mass murders perpetrated by the soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the SS in the Balkans (and after 1943 in Italy, just as all over Europe).
This blue butterfly, blue and sad at once, both in its colour and in its double meaning, is the seal that the spirit of the age has stamped on the poet: but with the lightest, slightest touch, that awakens him to the horror of human history, because sometimes a caress can affect one more than a punch or a blow.
…The glimpse, the graze, the grasp,
the only true synchronicities, of the inner and outer combining.
To know them, to know one knows, and then to let go
of knowing, like this blue butterfly’s flight
here in Šumarice, over these hills, this Maytime:
dance of the imago… (BB 101)
Beauty and goodness express themselves quietly, in an undertone, as Berengarten does in these lines, which are more often than not played pianissimo. I would almost go so far as to say that ‘blue’ is the colour of his tone and of his memory: the colour of his verse, of these lines.
Berengarten is not a politicised poet, but he is a poet of the polis, a poeta civilis, as was Primo Levi, who appears in one of the book’s epigraphs, along with Rebecca West and Zhuang Zhou, the latter in the celebrated fable of the butterfly much loved by Borges. Berengarten’s poetry immediately and naturally takes the path of denunciation and defence: denunciation of the crime and defence of the oppressed, of the humiliated, of the victimised. Yet there is no overstatement. Berengarten enters the mind of the victim; his voice becomes the victim’s voice:
Straining to gaze upwards, I heard another burst
Of gunfire wash over me, as from some distant hill.
So my world ended. My eyes rolled open, still. (BB 44)
…And you’ll not find me
nor you nor you, till the almond tree flowers
on the mountain, and there is no more sea. (FL 56)
I can understand why Berengarten has translated Cesare Pavese (1969) and Umberto Saba (in Lopez 1971), Italian authors who spoke quietly and whose work echoes more loudly for precisely this reason.
Sometimes it is enough to list numbers, as Berengarten does in ‘Two documents’: 19,545 Serbs imprisoned in the camp at Šabac, 405 hostages killed in Belgrade, and so on (BB 5). Stark facts for stark verse-in-prose. Or to report messages, as in the words: “Tell the comrades to fight till they crush the enemy” (‘Don’t send bread tomorrow’, BB 6). Words of hope, words that the butterfly writes “in invisible ink across its page of air”, where the word nada, which in Spanish means ‘nothing’, means and will always mean, no more and no less: ‘hope’ (BB 9).
Abbreviations and References
BB Richard Berengarten, The Blue Butterfly, Shearsman Books, Exeter, 2011.
FL Richard Berengarten, For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965-2000, Shearsman Books, Exeter, 2011.
Lopez, Guido. 1971. ‘Trieste’s Umberto Saba’, European Judaism 5(2): 38-37.
Pavese, Cesare 1969. (tr. Richard Burns). Three poems in Southern Review 5(1): 98-103.
This essay, translated from Italian by Gabriele Poole and Vladimir Scott, was first published in The Salt Critical Companion to Richard Berengarten, eds. Norman Jope, Paul Scott. Derrick and Catherine E. Byfield, 2011, pp. 43-47 (Salt Publishing, Cambridge).
(photographs by Bruna Bonino)