From the point of view of a Jew’s own canon – Psalm 137 – the proper functioning of his hands is intimately linked to an unfailing memory of Jerusalem, to the diasporic experience of exile. A Jew’s hand will never work properly if he forgets his history, betrays his origins. How shall a Jewish poet sing in a foreign land? What is an Anglo-Jewish poet to make of his hands?
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 in untutored messages
among Latin-reading rugby-playing militarists
in an elite 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. (BB 8)
Here is a remarkable poem, a beautiful poem by Richard Berengarten, which supplies the answer. What makes the first line so striking is obvious. It is the word ‘Jew’. The poem could have said: ‘On my hand, born out of ghettos and shtetls’, then it would have been a quiet poem. Instead it sounds the word “Jew” loudly, non-pejoratively, as if it were a church bell in a Christian land. This is clearly a reclamation job. In the Anglophone world the word “Jew”, or “Jew’s”, is almost universally associated with something nasty or offensive – to jew someone, to swindle or cheat; Jewy, mingy, tight; Jewish lightning, deliberate arson for insurance fraud; Jew-boy, The Jew-Pork Times; Jew’s Ear, an ugly rubbery fungus; Jew’s Piano, a cash register; Jew Canoe, used derogatorily to refer to a Jaguar car; a jew nail, a corrugated or crooked nail used by carpenters (Green: 1986: 12,19, 93, 116.) But this poem, written in English, declares itself immediately, boldly, as the work of a Jew. It is rising from the ‘unmarked graves’ of the narrator’s ‘obliterated’ people in order to make a mark.
The poem harks back to the origin of the hand in ‘ghettos and shtetls’, in the closed Jewish communities of medieval Christian Europe, nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, twentieth-century Nazi Europe. But it is not born in these communities it is born out of them, borne away from them. It has been saved, conveyed across the English Channel by a refugee and her daughter into the safety of ‘suburban England’. The suburbs – places so safe that the aging Ezra Pound chose to locate his anti-Semitism there, neutralised and scaled down to the form of a ‘stupid suburban prejudice’ (Carpenter 1988: 899). In fact, the lesson many English Jews learnt from the genocide of their European brethren was that ‘no place is safe’, no degree of assimilation a protection against murderous anti-Semitism.
This hand ‘first opened in blitzed London’, with all its connotations of camaraderie, Londoners sleeping in the Underground joined together against a common enemy. But it also first opened at a time when Jews all over Europe were being gassed. English Jews, it became clear, could not rest easy in their liberalised nineteenth century identity as ‘Englishmen of the Mosaic Persuasion’. The consequence of dispersion was, as it had been, that the land of a Jew’s birth, a Jew’s native language, would always be ‘foreign’.
As Jon Silkin puts it in Shaping a Republic:
You can stay, the Home Office admits.
What’s it like, Alien? In
Japan, my agit was for, not England – it was: for
a suburb’s mildness in bronchial evenings;
but I missed English, being my speech,
what else for a Jew, but another’s language? (2002: 72)
The advantage of dispersion (pitifully costly), was that a Diaspora Jew was immunised against the excesses of nationalism.
The third, fourth and fifth stanzas of “The blue butterfly” deliver their explicitly ironised message concerning the status of the narrator’s hand, as if it were being seen through the cultural spectacles of “the other” or the “internalised other”. It is undoubtedly an “Anglo-Jewish hand”. It is a ‘pink’ hand, at first a baby’s hand, maybe a little piggy, a pinkie, a feeble hand. Certainly not a rough hand or heavy hand; but it grows into a left hand, perhaps a sinister hand; an elite, educated hand which is the ‘writing hand’ of the author, but an upstart hand, an out of place hand, a pseudo-gentleman’s hand. It feels itself to be anomic, unaffiliated. It is non-militaristic in a society where militarism is a sign of superior status and self-confidence, where it is de rigueur for Kings, Queens and Princes to be in the armed forces. It is not the hand of a forward in the rugby scrum.1 It is cloistered in Cambridge rather than immured in Warsaw, yet it does not feel comfortable.
But then something unexpected happens, something uplifting, and it seems that the hand has to be in Serbia, in Eastern Europe rather than England, for this to happen. Suddenly it is spring and the hand is enlivened, bathed in sunlight. It recovers its will, it stretches ‘willingly’ before the narrator, it almost stretches forth Biblically, it is ‘firm’ rather than attenuated, ‘virginal’, unsullied, and appears to have recovered from some deep diasporic malaise.
This hand is no longer defined by others. It is no longer enervated by negative group stereotyping. It has emerged from the stigmatised generality to become ‘unique’. It belongs to its owner, not to the name-callers. It belongs to the person in the poem who has a history of which he is proud, it has become itself. And it has been ‘blessed’ by the victims of a Nazi massacre, one might say enjoined by them to memorialise and celebrate their lives – and life itself. So in my reading, this is a profoundly humanistic life-affirming poem.
The oak tree is often used as a narrowly nationalist symbol of England connoting steadfastness, integrity, courage – ‘Heart of oak are our ships, Jolly tars are our men’ (Garrick 1759: online), but in Berengarten's poem the revitalised hand gains strength from its rootedness on ‘the oldest oak in Europe’. It could not have acquired these characteristics in England because in English usage, heavily inflected with centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, the word “Jew” connotes the opposite – rootlessness, untrustworthiness, cowardice. Arguably the same (or worse) could be said of other European languages. But it seems to me that from the point of view of the voice in the poem, liberation from the constrictions of English nationalism is an essential condition of its freedom. And this is experienced by virtue of returning to Eastern Europe, a home of sorts, albeit the home of a destroyed people.
To become a scion of the oldest oak in Europe, is to throw off the spoiled identity of an English Diaspora Jew, a non-English-Englishman, and transform it via supranational identifications into a positive universal form of being, a fully human being. The process is inspired by the experience of having the blue butterfly settle on the forefinger of the poet’s hand. It is an honour, a privilege, rather like D.H. Lawrence’s encounter with a snake at his water-trough – ‘Was it humility, to feel so honoured? / I felt so honoured’ (Lawrence 1957: 77). Or Jon Silkin’s:
blue flies, before the weight of summer gets pushed
by spring to melt into winter, come
one day, and die that same one.
Which means snow soon,
suffocating all smells
but its own scent.
‘I was honoured by their coming upon me,’ your
son, his maiden companions. (2002: 72)
The blue butterfly alights on the poet’s finger like a sword placed upon the shoulder by a reigning monarch, like manna falling from heaven, like the quality of mercy. It ennobles him, it ordains him and he becomes a spiritual aristocrat. I am reminded of Disraeli’s alleged rejoinder to Daniel O’Connell, who had referred disparagingly to his Jewish ancestry in the House of Commons: ‘Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon’ (Disraeli 1835: online).
Constant repetition of the words ‘on my’ in Berengarten's poem has the anaphoric character of a chant or prayer which builds up a tension, an expectation concerning the next ‘on my’, reaching a climax in the penultimate stanza. Then in the final one we are released. In place of the expected ‘on my’ we have an explosion of rhyme – butterfly, sky. It is as if an identity slowly grows through the deposition of qualities, one layer after another; and then undergoes a sudden change, an epiphany sparked by the landing of the blue butterfly. Berengarten has succeeded in crafting a form which exactly matches the content of his poem.
I want to compare Richard Berengarten's butterfly with the butterflies of another Anglo-Jewish poet, the late Michael Hamburger:
WHEN THE sun breaks through,
From hiding-places unnoticed
Comes a flutter, a spreading of wings,
The small blue butterflies
Out again, reprieved,
On the apple-mint flowers
Together with copper, meadow brown
And grey-buff mottled day-moth.
A redolence rises, phlox,
Offers to waft me back
Into a childhood garden,
Hopes fulfilled, discarded.
And I refuse the offer,
Let a fir’s harsher breath
Propose to take me farther,
Beyond birth, beyond
Any garden I have known,
Played in, laboured in, lost;
To the wilderness rather
In which the grand fir grew
Before those whose guest I was
Made it theirs, called it theirs,
The continent never mine. (Hamburger 1997: 42)
Hamburger’s long elegiac poem, ‘Late’, from which this section is taken, is clearly the work of an older man preparing himself for death. He ‘refuses’ the offer of ‘redolence’ conveyed by the blue butterflies and chooses instead a ‘harsher’ more stringent experience that will carry him beyond anything he has known, beyond life itself. Like the opening of Berengarten's “The blue butterfly”, “Late” gives poignant expression to a refugee status, which is written into the sensibility of all English Jews, whether or not they were born, like Hamburger, in another land:
IF NOW, a guest, I go back
To my native city,
What I see is not what I know
Who from certain death in childhood
Was removed for a second birth
In another city, another country, (ibid.: 25).
Here the Jewish experience of exile, of being at best a guest (at worst a reviled alien), is universalised into the human condition. We are all existentially transient, all passing guests in the natural world, all Jews who must look beyond the false comforts provided by national allegiance. To face this stark reality, without the comforts of group solidarity, without the temptations offered by the strength of the ‘fasces’, the gratifications of social bonding, is a difficult thing to do.
In a now famous interview published in The Paris Review, Ted Hughes says: ‘Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say, but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of ’ (Hughes 1995:1). Consider the final stanza of “The blue butterfly” with its deceptively simple content but highly complicated prosody – rhymes, half-rhymes, visual rhymes, suggested rhymes, imperfect rhymes, weaving an intricate pattern of associative links, a wonderful structure of poetic ambiguity. Is the blue butterfly actually a Jew-butterfly? The colour blue, with its association to Heaven, is a symbolic reminder of the presence of God in Jewish tradition. The Hebrew Bible commands Jews to make fringes in the corners of their garments in which a thread of blue should be present, ‘that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them’ (Numbers 15, 39).
That a blue butterfly is a suitable metaphor for God is nicely confirmed in Rodney Pybus’s poem, “Holly Blues”, written in memory of the Tiananmen Square dead, June 1989. Here, in the beginning of the poem, the absence of the butterfly is equivalent to the loss of hope, the loss of peace, the loss of life:
Look friends, when ever-
green lustrous leaves turn brown
and fall on dying soil
you know there can be
no unfurling of amazement –
you are not going to see, after all,
hope’s double parings of sky
become shy, pacific[;]
but as in Berengarten's poem, there is a development. The Holly Blue reappears and the metaphor is extended in a brilliant poetic coup. Now the oscillations of the butterfly’s wings presenting blue when open, grey when closed, are made to represent the constant intermingling of life and death, once more in similar vein to Berengarten. But this seems to me a peculiarly Christian expression of the idea, especially since the butterfly is ‘Holly’ and putting her ‘Sunday / morning’ wings together in obvious reference to a Church Service:
the year’s earlier young
are tolled and gone.
Watch how that Holly Blue –
there in front of
your eyes – puts her Sunday
morning wings together.
Let us praise her!
They close, and she turns to
the world not blue, but almost
its sheen lightly
spotted with full-stops. (Pybus 1994: 31)
To return to Richard Berengarten's work, the Greek word for butterfly, psyche, also means soul, and the metamorphosis characteristic of a butterfly’s development corresponds to the soul’s condition, its immortality. According to Bulfinch’s Mythology, ‘Psyche, then, is the human soul, which is purified by sufferings and misfortunes, and is thus prepared for the enjoyment of true and pure happiness’ (online). So, in this case, we could see the Hebrew ‘blue’, fused with the Greek ‘butterfly’, in the central image of the poem.
This fits well with the poem’s transcendental movement, its revelation. I remarked earlier that the poet sang out ‘Jew’ like a church bell. And it seems to me that further evidence for the unconscious rhetorical fusion of Jewish self with Christian homeland, England, mediated via the image of the butterfly, is to be found in line three of the second stanza of Berengarten's poem “The Shadow Well”, where he introduces his own name in close juxtaposition to the insect:
Climb up, Deacon, to the tower,
pull the rope and ring the bell.
The butterfly burns2 on its flower.
Gunner, you will die as well. (BB 39)
“The blue butterfly” processes deep diasporic emotions in a transformative sequence of images – a weak hand becomes a proud firm hand. In this way feelings of persecution associated with membership of a reviled minority are magicked into feelings of security associated with membership of a privileged oligarchy. This is what the poet ‘doesn’t actually want to say. ‘Sussex’s green downs’, the precious stone set in the silver sea, from which the poet feels unwillingly estranged, are superseded by the blue butterfly’s landing in Serbia. It creates perhaps a precious European Jew-el, perhaps a ring on the finger in which the “Jew” himself is linguistically set, a place where he can feel at home. Berengarten's visionary Blakeian poem, “The Rose of Sharon”, reinforces the point:
Moses on the mountain saw
Jewels blazing at his throat,
Ornaments without a flaw
And upon the tablets wrote: (FL 57).
Is the ‘international bloody human hand’, by virtue of its association with the blue butterfly, a blue-blooded hand, an international aristocrat rather than an international conspirator? Has it been dignified by royalty, as were the Jews of Denmark when in legend, their King donned a yellow star? A hand raised high rather than ‘lower than the wharf rat dives’? 3 (Eliot 1971: 119).
Is it ‘bloody’ because its blood has been spilt? Is it ‘bloody’ because it has been subject to a centuries old ‘blood-libel’? Is it ‘bloody’ because it is burdensome? Is it ‘human’ because it has participated in the spilling of others blood? It is all of these things.
But to focus on the hidden psychological metabolism of “The blue butterfly” is to do a disservice to its immensely generous spirit, to what the poet does actually want to say and succeeds so well in saying. In the decades immediately following World War II, critics such as Theodor Adorno and George Steiner, expressed the view that ‘silence’ was the only appropriate response to the Holocaust, that it was somehow obscene for it to be incorporated into the domain of art (Bloch et al. 1980, Steiner 1967), ‘I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, Adorno wrote (1980: 188).
Richard Berengarten's poem, “The Telling”, takes a different view:
Numb silence, though, is no answer to evil.
To remain tacit, to call up no speech on its
repeated occurrences, is to grovel
before it, as to some pre-ordained essence
demanding just as complete acquiescence
as the rotations of seasons and planets,
and that won’t do. Fail or not, I must try
this telling: like a treadmill, mangle, wringer,
or spinning drum squeezing spongy death dry,
let me crush thought, sacrifice-soaked, to drain
oil from slaughter, juice from the fruit of pain
into my blood, along my writing finger (FL 12).
He is offering himself as a conduit for meaning, an interpreter for the dead. Poets must write poems, and have to morph their human experience, whatever it may be, into the best form that language allows. If the strict forms and end rhymes of pre-modern poems often seem “forced” and likely to trivialise, they may also be employed in a post-modern context to powerful effect. As Robert Lowell said in a Paris Review interview in 1961: ‘we (Lowell and the poet Allen Tate) wanted our formal patterns to seem a hardship’ (10). It is as if the very need for the poem to conform to a pattern creates a precarious membrane for the unspeakable emotions, the unspeakable horrors which are all the time threatening to burst out. Berengarten puts it this way in “The corners of the mouth”:
a black ring to bind speech, carved
in jet or onyx, to contain
the unsayable (FL 106).
Take his harrowing villanelle, “The death of children”:
It is the death of children most offends
nature and justice. No use asking why.
What justice is, nobody comprehends.
What punishment can ever make amends?
There’s no pretext, excuse or alibi.
It is the death of children most offends.
Whoever offers arguments pretends
to read fate’s lines. Although we must swear by
what justice is, nobody comprehends
how destiny or chance weaves. Who defends
their motives with fair reasons tells a lie.
It is the death of children most offends.
Death can’t deserve to reap such dividends
from these, who scarcely lived, their parents cry.
What justice is, nobody comprehends.
Bring comfort then, and courage. Strangers, friends,
are we not all parents when children die?
What justice is, nobody comprehends.
It is the death of children most offends. (ibid.: 19)
To paraphrase Adorno, one might almost say, ‘After Auschwitz there can be only lyric poetry’. Berengarten's work is, above all, a testament to two things: just as he doesn’t flinch from the record of human depravity, so he never fails to preserve the spirit of human hope. And it is inclusive – we are all made parents when children die. We are brought together not by the iron bonds of totalitarianism but the compassion inspired by tragedy. “The blue butterfly” has to be read in conjunction with its companion poem, “Nada: hope or nothing”, printed on the opposite page. It is:
like a rainbow without rain, like the invisible
hand of a god stretching out of nowhere
to shower joy brimful from Plenty’s horn, (BB 9)
and the butterfly takes the poet’s hand and writes, ‘in invisible ink across its page of air / Nada, Elpidha, Nadezhda, Esperanza, Hoffnung. Here is poetry’s synecdochic reply to Robert Frost’s mischievous question:
Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue? (Frost 2001: 220)
I suggest that Richard Berengarten's The Blue Butterfly is a quintessentially Anglo-Jewish work; more than anything a twenty-first century Book of Psalms, conveying in modern English idiom traditional Messianic trust, the triumph of hope over despair, enduring faith in the goodness of life.
1. But outside the poem Richard Berengarten played rugby throughout his schooldays. He obtained colours and was prop forward in the First XV at Mill Hill! (Personal Communication).
2. Richard Berengarten formerly wrote under the name Richard Burns.
3. See New York Review of Books, 29.03 and 27 09 1990 .
I should like to thank Kate Wilson and Matthew Francis for comments and Claire Crowther for allowing me sight of Chapter 4, “Blue Horizon” in her MPhil thesis, Blue, 2004, Glamorgan University.
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