The International Literary Quarterly

May 2009

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. The Blue Butterfly Effect by Aleksandar Petrov
Translated by Vera V. Radojević

In the mid-eighties, at the site of the Nazi massacre on the outskirts of Kragujevac in Serbia, a blue butterfly settled on the left hand of the English poet Richard Berengarten, then known as Burns.1 A quarter of a century earlier, Edward Lorenz, an American scientist and meteorologist living in Boston, had discovered a phenomenon that he termed ‘the butterfly effect’. Lorenz showed how changes of small proportions in one set of circumstances or conditions are capable of influencing phenomena elsewhere on a much larger scale. Modern chaos theory is based on this observation, because what is conventionally called chaos originates in minute changes that turn out to have unforeseen consequences. Lorenz illustrated his theory with a picturesque example: a butterfly fluttering its wings in Brazil can influence a hurricane in Texas (Lorenz 1963 & 1965).  

Of course, the concept of chaos in physics is rather different from the usage of the same word, and the notions that go with it, in everyday language. For one thing, the scientific concept highlights how the relationship between cause and effect is considerably more complex than classical physicists believed. For another, it interrogates long-term predictions based on simplistic understandings of the cause-effect relationship.

The fact that, according to the theory, a chaotic system may develop in a manner which is by no means “chaotic” in any conventional sense but, rather, appears to be “smooth and harmonious”, is outstandingly confirmed by ‘the butterfly’ effect in the case of Richard Berengarten. The landing of the blue butterfly on the poet’s finger brought about unpredictable and far-reaching changes in his own life and work. Readers of the short autobiographical essay “Arijana’s Thread” (ITD 73-77) – a piece that might almost be said to have been speckled by the powder of a blue butterfly’s wings – will know that this momentary occurrence was the first in a string of events that eventually led to his spending three years in a turbulent Yugoslavia, between July 1987 and June 1990. During that time, he married a Yugoslav woman, Jasna Mišić, and fathered a daughter, Arijana, his third child. In the early years of the 21st century, Berengarten also published two volumes of poems on Serbian, Yugoslav and Balkan themes, under the name Richard Burns. These are In a Time of Drought published in Serbian in 2004, two years before its English publication, and The Blue Butterfly, also published in 2006, followed by its Serbian version (Plavi leptir) in 2007. These two books not only confirm Berengarten’s reputation as a significant European writer but, in their handling of universal themes, herald his status as a great poet. 

So, on a sunny day in May 1985 – “out of the blue” as the English would say, or “like a lightning bolt out of a cloudless sky”, as the Serbs would have it – a blue butterfly, unexpectedly and unpredictably entered Berengarten’s life, occupied a central role in it and became an integral image and symbol for much of his subsequent poetry. Berengarten and his first daughter, Lara, who at that time was seventeen years old, caught the butterfly’s image for posterity via a camera lens, as the creature perched on the forefinger of the poet’s left hand. As soon as he returned to Cambridge, Berengarten wrote a short poem, quickly followed by another. The focus of the first of these, “The blue butterfly”, was this left ‘writing hand’ of his ‘now of a sudden stretched before me in Serbian spring sunlight’ – which he suddenly saw in an entirely new light: ‘my Jew’s hand, born out of ghettos and shtetls […], my proud firm hand, / miraculously blessed by […] two thousand eight hundred / martyred men, women and children’ (BB 8). The second poem, “Nada: hope or nothing”, explores how that winged being of indeterminate gender actually landed on his hand (BB 9).

In Serbian, the gender of that tiny airborne guest needed to be made explicit. There was a choice between the masculine leptir and the feminine leptirica, which is also a diminutive. Early co-translators of the first of these pieces were the exceptional poet, Ivan V. Lalić, and Danilo Kiš, a novelist ranking among the finest in Europe. In their version, they opted for the masculine variant.2 Actually, when they did so, they could scarcely have envisaged the sheer force of that blue butterfly’s impact – almost that of a blow, I would suggest – let alone how far-reaching its repercussions would be. Still, it is worth mentioning to English-speaking readers that the word for ‘soul’ or ‘psyche’ in Serbian [duša] is feminine, as are those for ‘colour’ [boja] and ‘death’ [smrt].

The “arrival” of these two “core” poems prompted Berengarten to build up a fuller context for them that involved historical, cultural, literary and even entomological information; so that, gradually, an entire superstructure was built up around them. The poet started by studying historical material on the massacre of October 1941 itself. He focused on establishing reliable figures for the number of victims which, he discovered, was just under 2,800, rather than 7,000.3  He also set out to find out more details about those killed, in terms of age, ethnicity and social background. They included Serbs, Jews and Roma; members of the intelligentsia, workers and peasants; and a large group of schoolboys of high school age (BB  133-134). Berengarten also explored information about the perpetrators of the massacre and their own subsequent trials and sentences at Nuremburg, which turned out to be disproportionately lenient (BB 128-133 and 141-142). He took pains to find out more about the poets who had already written about the massacre, especially Desanka Maksimović (BB 135); and he worked tirelessly to establish the exact species of the fleeting visitant itself (BB 124-5). Inevitably, out of this research, new poems emerged, and these resulted in a sequence of seven poems that included the first two. Six further sequences were developed, each also containing seven poems.

The result of this undertaking is The Blue Butterfly, first published in Cambridge in 2006 under the name Burns. In addition to its forty-nine poems, the book contains poignant photographs, plus several of the victims’ last messages (BB 114-121), followed by a “Postscript” and notes which, together, amount to a genuinely scholarly study of the Kragujevac massacre (BB 123-139). The book also incorporates a good deal of valuable information about the making of the poems themselves and their historical and biographical backgrounds (BB 141-148).

This is an exceptionally complex book in a number of ways. The first section is built around the “core” of the first two poems mentioned above – “The Blue Butterfly” and “Nada: hope or nothing” – which are still the best known of Berengarten’s “Kragujevac poems”. This part also contains two pieces directly based on documentary material: “Two documents” (BB 4-5) and “Don’t send bread tomorrow” (BB 6-7). Even at the slightest assessment, it has to be acknowledged that the long making of this book took considerable poetic stamina, and, as the highest endorsement, it resonates with love for justice and for humanity. The butterfly, in the guise of psyche, crowns the whole endeavour as a symbol of rebirth – since the butterfly emerges from its cocoon as from a grave.

In 2007, The Blue Butterfly appeared in Serbian in an outstanding translation by Vera V. Radojević. This edition benefited from a pair of essays that served as commentaries and epilogues, by the distinguished poets and essayists Slobodan Rakitić and Srba Ignjatović: the former a one-time President of the Serbian Writers’ Association and the latter its incumbent at that time. Both writers praise the book for its high quality and rank Berengarten’s work as among the finest in contemporary European poetry. They focus, too, on his other “Balkan” book, In a Time of Drought (2006), into which the poet adds detailed commentaries on folklore and mythology. As far as symbolic interpretations are concerned, however – of the butterfly itself, the colour blue, the number seven and aspects such as “the forefinger” in the culture of the Serbs and other peoples – the poet seems to have left these matters to his critics. This challenge has been taken up most effectively by Slobodan Rakitić (Burns 2007: 151-156).

Among other things, Rakitić points to a key “butterfly” connection between the two books, partly because one of the names for the girls who take part in the Balkan rainmaking ceremonies is “butterflies”. This leads him to conclude that, ‘[i]n a way […] the blue butterfly configures the true meaning’ of both books and also that ‘[i]t is as if the poet’s own identity had merged with that of the blue butterfly’; that is to say, the poet ‘invoked his butterfly and “fell into” its power’. Significantly, Rakitić also notes that their material involves ‘a whole range of associations, objects, meanings, references, denotations, sounds, quotations and documentary details’, and that in the handling of this material, the poet ‘display[s] a veritably encyclopaedic command of poetic forms’ (ibid.: 151). Critics should also be grateful to Rakitić for comparing The Blue Butterfly to the ‘once famous’ symbolist drama, Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird, which ‘points not only to the mythical and religious meanings of the colour blue but also to its poetic and philosophical ones’ (ibid.: 155).

It is helpful, too, to compare these books with other literary works. Srba Ignjatović calls The Blue Butterfly a ‘canto’ [spev] (ibid.: 157) and ‘a great and impressive memorial’ (ibid.: 159); George Szirtes calls it ‘epic’: ‘Epic poems are rare. This is one.’ (BB back cover, first edition).

Among the makers of such contemporary cantos and poems, a special place belongs to the great Serbian poet Vasko Popa. The vast majority of Popa’s oeuvre has been translated into English (see, for example, 1998); and the epic scope of his books has been extensively explored, especially vis-à-vis their cyclic structure, by critics and commentators such as Miodrag Pavlović (1964: 139-140), Ivan V. Lalić (1971: 7-28), Aleksandar Petrov (2000: 403-417) and Ronelle Alexander (1985: 26-169). Moreover, two of Popa’s best known books in this genre, Sporedno nebo (Secondary Heaven) and Vučja so (Wolf Salt) have a cyclic structure identical to In a Time of Drought and The Blue Butterfly: seven cycles of seven poems. Of course, there are both similarities and differences between these two works of Popa’s, just as there are between the two by Berengarten; but comparison of all four books would certainly provide a fascinating and worthwhile study. Berengarten himself mentions Popa, who was his personal friend, among the authors who influenced The Blue Butterfly (BB “Acknowledgements”). The second cycle of poems of In a Time of Drought, “For the Green Rider”, is dedicated to Popa (ITD 13-19).

Here, I should like to explore a particular detail in Popa relating to the number seven, that is, the number both of sets of poems and of poems in each set. Between 1962 and 1968, while Popa was working on Sporedno nebo, he also compiled an anthology of medieval Serbian poetry, entitled Jutro misleno [Spiritual Morning, 2008]. In 1963, he also published a selection of the writings of Domentijan, an important Serbian poet of the 13th century. In Popa’s afterword to Domentijan, I noticed an interesting parallel between his own writing and the ‘unsilenceable poetry of the medieval Serbian “goldwinged hymn-writers”‘, as he called his distant predecessors (Domentijan 1963: 139). As noted by Đorđe Trifunović in his preface to a book of Domentijan’s writing, one of this Serbian writer’s favourite readings was “Šestodnev” [The Six Days], compiled by the eleventh century Bulgarian scholar John Exarch (ibid. 1963: 17). This text tells us not only that there are seven heavens in the sky but that these are like ‘seven circles, over each of which seven stars are distributed […] conjoined in such a way that one [circle] leans against the other’ (ibid.1963: 25). Popa’s Wayside Heaven is an absurd comedy, because it depicts the cosmos being devoid of divine presence, despite the fact that, even in our “secondary” condition, there exists a yearning for the “primal” paradise, that is to say, for an earthly version of paradise that is anterior to the Fall – or, as it is described in Serbian, “primal flaw” or “primal mistake”. And in this version of his own Creation myth, Popa writes that this “mistake” was rather small in the beginning – comparable almost to the light strokes of a butterfly’s wings: "Once upon a time there was a mistake / So silly so small / That no one would even have noticed it" (Popa 1977: 68).

Apart from Popa’s modern (and hence absurd) vision of the underworld and upper world, contextual and structural comparisons of Berengarten’s The Blue Butterfly can be pursued in other directions too, especially vis-à-vis Dante. One of Berengarten’s poems, “Diagonal’ (BB 70-72), adapts the terza rima form of the Divine Comedy. In this poem, a female figure appears who is comparable to Beatrice. It should also be borne in mind that, besides the numbers three and nine, the number seven is quite significant in Dante’s work, particularly in the Purgatory – with its seven terraces, and the Angelic guardian at the gate, who writes the letter P (standing for Peccati, ‘Sins’) seven times on the poet’s forehead, with the point of a sword.4 Furthermore, one of the many symbolic configurations of the butterfly in Berengarten’s long poem is that the creature appears as guardian to ‘one of the entrances to the Underworld’ (BB 89-98). Thus, at this point the butterfly takes on the role both of interpreter of the language of the dead and of the Dantesque and Berengartenian ‘Beyonds’ (BB 93), that lie on ‘the Far Side’ of silence (BB 79).

Of course, the vision of the other world in the work of a modern poet like Richard Berengarten is very different from that of Dante’s Divine Comedy – in both “positive” and “negative” senses. Berengarten’s vision never attains paradise; but neither do we find the warning ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’5 inscribed over the gates of the hell-on-earth that he explores. Furthermore, Berengarten’s blue butterfly is as much the angel and harbinger of death and nothingness as herald of hope and forerunner of love. Berengarten’s poetic world is framed within space-time between hope and nothing. The blue butterfly is a being that inhabits both poles of this world, because, in the poet’s hand, it paints the most horrifying landscapes of death; but it also takes that hand and ‘writes / in invisible ink across its page of air / Nada, Elphida, Nadezhda, Esperanza, Hoffnung’ (“Nada: hope or nothing”, BB 9). These words all spell/signify/mean Hope – in Serbian and Croatian, Greek, Russian, Spanish and last, and perhaps most significantly of all, German.


* * *

I would like to see a future edition of The Blue Butterfly published with illustrations from Peter Lubarda’s cycle of paintings entitled Kragujevac 1941. One of the greatest, if not the greatest of all Yugoslav painters in the second half of the 20th century, Lubarda commenced work on this cycle of twenty-six paintings in 1966 and completed them for his 1968 exhibition in Kragujevac. At that time he had already received several international awards, and distinguished artists, art critics and historians had written in praise of his work. When he donated these paintings to the Memorial Park in Kragujevac, he wrote:

These paintings are done in various techniques and represent a single unique set and a single indivisible entity, as can be seen from their titles, starting with Sećanja na 1941 [Remembering 1941] and ending with Šuplji šlem [Hollow Helmet]. Altogether, they represent a sort of novel in paint, whose subject is the inconceivable suffering caused to a town and its proud citizens.6

And in the catalogue for that exhibition, Miodrag B. Protić writes of this set of paintings by Lubarda:

The 1941 massacre in Kragujevac is a tragic subject that has generated innumerable treatments, both poetic and metaphysical. By confronting a real event, Lubarda pronounces his clear verdict on the gigantic destructive power that evil and terror have wrought throughout history. However, in addition to this verdict, within each painting and throughout the exhibition as a whole we trace secondary and tertiary dimensions; and through these, we are offered the chance to think about even broader and deeper themes: the meaning of life, the peculiar marks that life tracks across eternity, the inevitability of all processes, and cosmic movements and transformations. In this way, his treatment of an event of national significance takes on layers of poetic meaning that are both transcendental and universal. (Protić 1968: 1)

Taken together with the words the great painter himself wrote about Kragujevac 1941, this commentary on Lubarda’s paintings is highly applicable to Berengarten’s poetic treatment of the enormity of evil in the world and condemnation of atrocities throughout history in The Blue Butterfly. Indeed, Berengarten submits the multiple layerings and variations of evil and atrocity to identical treatment – in the precise sense that the work’s multi-dimensional poetic and metaphysical themes ramify and overarch the poem’s primary “trunk”. And although obviously Berengarten’s poems have a good deal to tell us about the poet himself, they at once also involve a ‘telling’ (see BB 10-15) of human destiny – and of the sense that humans make of destiny within the transformations of earthly and cosmic processes. Moreover, like Lubarda, Berengarten deploys various techniques – poetic ones, in his case, of course – not only in the book’s overall design but also within the framework of each of its particular cycles or, rather, circles. The complexity of these techniques and the masterly skill with which they are applied and put into practice deserves a separate study in itself. One almost has the impression that there is no verse or stanza form, whether classical or modern, that Berengarten does not deploy in The Blue Butterfly. All the same, his book works as a unique, indivisible, unrepeatable unity. Its themes widen and intermingle in concentric rings; and, all the while, the blue butterfly seems to flutter over the various fleurs du mal sown by human hand across the twentieth century, perching here and there for an instant, not only in Kragujevac, Srebrenica or Kosovo, but in the concentration camp of Mauthausen, in the pit dug out of Manhattan on 9/11, and on the gallows of Rwanda – as well as in places where “accidents happen”, for example, in the Paris tunnel where the “authors” of one such particular “accident” were a bunch of paparazzi and a drugged driver (see BB 78). Into the air that floats above such sites of accident and evil, the blue butterfly carves words of condemnation and disgust, inscribes question marks and exclamation marks, utters lamentations for victims and intones elegies among those who have somehow, miraculously, survived. The blue butterfly enters into dialogue with those who are dead and those who are sentenced to death; and that means with us all in general and each and every one of us in particular. The winged creature weaves metaphorical wreaths above individual graves and mass graves; but it also heralds the mercy of blessing and awakens the hope of resurrection.

The final lines of the book are genuinely symbolic and embed a multitude of meanings: ‘Red tulip petals / scatter. A blue / butterfly hovers’ (BB 111). Red and blue. A dead tulip and a blue butterfly hovering above it. Neither hell without hope, nor paradise without suffering and doubt.





References with Abbreviations


BB       Richard Berengarten, 2008. The Blue Butterfly. Second edition, Cambridge: Salt Publishing, edition. References in this essay are to this second edition. The first edition was published under the name Richard Burns. 2004. Cambridge: Salt Publishing.


ITD     Richard Burns, 2008. In a Time of Drought. Cambridge: Salt Publishing. References in this essay are to this second edition. Page references in the text are to this first edition. The first edition was published under the name Richard Burns. 2006. Nottingham: Shoestring Press.


Other Works Cited


Alexander, Ronelle. 1985. The Structure of Vasko Popa’s Poetry. Columbus, Slavica.

Burns Richard. 2004. U vreme suše (tr. Vera V. Radojević). Belgrade: RAD.

- - . 2007. Plavi leptir (tr. Vera V. Radojević, with two poems translated by Ivan V. Lalić and Danilo Kiš). Belgrade and Kragujevac: Plava tačka and Spomen-Park, Kragujevački oktobar [Kragujevac October Memorial Park].

Brkić, Staniša. 2007. Ime i broj: Kragujevačka tragedija 1941 [Name and Number: the Kragujevac Tragedy 1941]. Kragujevac: Spomen-Park, Kragujevački oktobar [Kragujevac October Memorial Park].

Domentijan. 1963. Domentijan (ed. Đorđe Trifunović). Belgrade:  Nolit.

Ibler, Reinhard (ed). 2000. Zyklusdichtung in den slavischen Literaturen. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Ignjatović, Srba. 2007. “Neuništivi spomenik” [Indestructible Monument] in Burns 2007: 157-159.

Lalić, Ivan V. 1971. “Poezija Vaska Pope” [The Poetry of Vasko Popa] in Popa: 1971; 7–28.   

Lorenz, Edward. 1963. “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow” in Journal of Atmospheric Science 20: 131–40.

__. 1965. “A Study of the Predictability of a 28-Variable Atmospheric Model” in Tellus 17: 321–33.

Pavlović, Miodrag. 1964. Osam pesnika [Eight Poets], Belgrade: Prosveta.

Petrov, Aleksandar. 2000. “Cycles in the Po­e­try of Vas­ko Po­pa” in Reinhard Ibler (ed.): 403–417.

Popa, Vasko. 1968. Sporedno nebo (Secondary Heaven). Belgrade: Nolit.

__. 1971. Pesme [Poems]. Novi Sad & Belgrade: Matica Srpska, Srpska književna zadruga [Serbian Literary Association].

__. 1975. Vučja so (Wolf Salt). Belgrade: Nolit.

__.   1977. Collected Poems 1943 – 1976 (tr. Anne Pennington, with an introduction by Ted Hughes). Carcanet: Manchester.

__. 1998.  Collected Poems (tr. Anne Pennington and Francis R. Jones). London: Anvil Press Poetry.

__ (ed.). 2008. Jutro misleno [Spiritual Morning]. Novi Sad: Akademska knjiga [Academic Book].

Protić, Miodrag B. 1968. Petar Lubarda (catalogue for the exhibition “Petar Lubarda, Kragujevac 1941”). Kragujevac: Spomen-Park, Kragujevački oktobar [Kragujevac October Memorial Park].

Rakitić, Slobodan. 2007. “Pesnik u vlasti leptira” in Burns 2007: 151-156.




1. The poet reverted to his ancestral name Berengarten in June 2008.  Henceforward in this essay, the name Berengarten is used retrospectively, except in specific reference to books published under the name Burns.

2. Translator’s note: the very first translators of ‘The blue butterfly’ into Serbian were Moma Dimić and Ivan Gadjanski.

3. Translator’s note:  Burns came to realise that there had been considerable controversy concerning the number of victims. His major acknowledged source was the historian Staniša Brkić, head of the 21st October Memorial Museum in Šumarice.  See BB 125-137 and Brkic 2007.

4. ‘Sette P nella fronte mi descrisse / col punton della spada’ (Purgatory: IX, 111-2).

5. ‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate’ (Inferno: III, 9).

6. Lubarda’s “Letter to The Executive Board of the Kragujevac Memorial Park” was not published, but was included in the exhibition Lubarda 1907 – 2007, held at the Museum of Yugoslav History,  Belgrade, 2008.