Initially, what attracted me to Black Light, the collection of Poems in Memory of George Seferis, in the bilingual English and Greek edition that introduced me to the work of Richard Berengarten,2 was, I suppose, what would attract any literary academic to a work rich in dealings with foreign cultures and poetries. This was a work which clearly entered into conversation with canons and people from outwith its own native traditions, a work growing by ceding its voice to that of others, from other places and times. Its ability to acknowledge the poetic fruits of other sensibilities without cancelling them out by appropriating them would be appealing to any student of literature, especially this particular one, trained in literary translation and criticism, keen on types of writing that surpass the national. A bilingual myself in Greek and English, with French as my third language, academically primed to read national literature through the lenses of its influence on or reception by others, I eventually came to focus on translation as the means by which to best explore and understand literature and poetry. I was particularly interested in this collection because it seemed to be a prime example of translation as creation, thriving in reflections of individual affinities, and perceptions of each interlocutor’s origins.
In the context of Berengarten’s oeuvre, Black Light was all the more intriguing for me not only because it was written in honour of Greek poet laureate George Seferis, but also because it carried its own afterlife in its translation by Ilias Layios and Nasos Vayenas – who by the very act of translating these poems were themselves honouring both Berengarten and Seferis. This bilingual edition’s main metaphor, translation, facilitated by the ease of comparing versions on facing pages, made the entire project endlessly fascinating. This book was, surely, a striking record of a self-perpetuating pleasure drawn from the poetry of the Other, a pleasure so uncontainable that it had to go back to the original source of attraction and address it, producing ripples and reflections in constantly changing combinations.
The writing of this present essay, from note-taking for it, to further readings of it, and thence to alternate and/or cancelled drafts, occurred between two deaths3 and the birth of my daughter. Death and birth, when they concern you and your (extended) family, put you irrevocably, and at one stroke, in the ranks of the grown-ups – ranks which until then you might have felt free to join or leave at will. No matter how oblique or imperfect, the slant these events gave to my reading of Berengarten’s poetry was inescapable. By that time, I had to admit to myself that the largely unanticipated emotion that it burnt into me had more to do with loss than with the celebratory effects of its tapestry of poetic voices. Both the theme of loss and the concomitant elegiac motif are part of the core of Black Light itself, since the thrust and intention of Berengarten’s book constitute memorial homage to Seferis.4
Admittedly, the excitement generated in this edition of Black Light for a bilingual reader, by the multifaceted encounter with its facing presences in both languages, gains body with every reading through its textual layering. This effect results not only from the accumulated work of the men who, in retrospect, can clearly be seen to have played a part in the making of this volume – that is, Berengarten and his Greek translators Layios and Vayenas; and Seferis and his English translators Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard – but also the source of both Seferis’ and Berengarten’s attraction, the ‘black light’ itself:
[…] if the original of this book is not [only] Seferis’ poem ‘Kichli’ [Thrush], but the black light of the Greek landscape, whose experience is shared with equal exaltation and dread by all those men […], then it is an original and originating/generative experience, fractured in the poetic testimonies carried forth by all the texts, and textual fragments quoted, glimpsed at, translated, back-translated, or glossed in this book: namely prefaces, explicit and implicit quotations, translations of epigraphs, verbatim quotation, and postscript. The interlingual translation by Vayenas and Layios is only one of these convoluted chains of identification with, say, Seferis’ “Kichli”. (Filippakopoulou 2005: 47-48)
There is an unyielding power in the central metaphor of the black light, whether in its linguistic, referential, existential, or poetic guise. I believe that the source of infatuation it represents to each one of these poets and translators as well as, through their skilful mediation, to readers such as myself, is its power to reflect. Furthermore, what it reflects, paradoxically, it reflects in distortion or, rather, in a series of distortions: it is black, the opposite of clarity and luminosity. That the coined phrase is a combination of two words which lend themselves easily to translation – black, light – does not detract from the fact that this mesmerising, twisted phrase acts upon Berengarten’s poetry in ways not always foreseen: perception of agency, poetic will in this case, is, therefore, changed in a manner that I shall examine shortly. For the moment, let me simply say that to accept this premise – ‘black light’ intimated by Seferis, reiterated in English by Berengarten, back-translated by Layios and Vayenas – is to see Berengarten’s poetry proposing and experiencing a wilful alienation which merges with a process of transformation affecting poet and reader(s). In the course of this discussion, I aim to flesh out these abstract thoughts, for they have helped me reckon not only with the lasting appeal of Berengarten’s poetry but also with editorial manifestations such as the bilingual edition of Black Light. I also aim to show how the effects of Black Light, the different types of distortion it allows (call it, if you will, refraction, alienation, or transformation), can stand as an ethics for the writing of poetry.
In the context of this set of aims and, more particularly, given the ‘overarching’ perspective of a reader responding to both English and Greek texts, I have come to view this bilingual edition primarily as an exercise in reflection. A reflection, by definition, on lost poets and their respective works, is more precisely an effort to counteract the deadening of a language – a deadening which has come to register the fact of death. To make such an attempt is to engage in an open-ended dialogue with the foreign; and here ‘foreign’ is expanded to include the foreign within ourselves (Kristeva 1991), in terms of identity, self-perception, and (native) language. Its key element is the cross-lingual dialogue of poets, whether or not through translation; hence the relevance of looking closely at the bilingual rather than the original monolingual edition.
The alienation brought on by death, whether remote or intimate, makes visible the manner in which one’s relation with one’s mother tongue has become stilted, blunt and merely ‘communicative’. In this respect, the loss of childhood that I hinted at earlier is simultaneously the inability to keep language alive by speaking it with those one loves; as Seferis himself put it, “as the years go by and you converse with fewer voices, / you see the sun with different eyes” (Seferis 1982: 168). What is lost by growing old(er), by accepting changes, by continuing to live after loved ones are gone, amounts to a withering away of language, especially ‘the native tongue’. Hugo von Hofmannsthal in The Lord Chandos Letter spoke eloquently about this deadened language and the ensuing self-estrangement, the reduction in the sharpness with which the world used to present itself when language seemed to be organically linked to the sensations conveyed by the world (Hofmannsthal 1995: 19, 20).
* * *
I can recollect with some effort the roughness of the grey woolly blanket my brother and sister and I used to cover ourselves with, when we slept outside on the veranda on hot summer nights, how pleasant its warmth became when we finally fell asleep in the gathering dark, and how oppressive when dawn finally came, bringing with it the growing heat of the morning. Is the recollection of the peach juices running down my chin as I lay on warm pebbles after a long swim, as the light was fading, imagined? Real or constructed memories, the sensuality of the images, their very presentness, all stand, nonetheless, for a reality that language now can neither hold nor capture any longer; and recollections such as all of these point to a clarity of emotion inseparable from a language quick to catch at the core of emotions that surfaced at the time, but have now become evasive. It is a mixed blessing that Berengarten has come up with the very definition of the kind of language-as-lost-happiness that I have in mind. It is found in the poem called ‘Salt’:
[…] for here desire and fulfilment are stitched in one weft of light,
cross-woven, stilled and impossible to unravel
from this seamless tide of days which flow in one movement together
(Berengarten : 164)5
But it would be ill-advised to point too quickly to a success, as there is nothing neat about what is beneath this project. I would rather speak about the mechanics of how the tribute to a lost poet is paid, how the act of preserving life in the face of its cessation is carried out. For it is necessary for poetic composition to enact the alienation referred to, before it can bring back traces of the enchanted ‘place’ where death was not yet a factual reality. I would like, therefore, to structure this discussion on the basis of themes and tropes, especially those found in Black Light. I will try to recover evidence of the book’s main (emerging) themes: distortion, transformation, loss, sensuality, and celebration. Simultaneously, I will be looking for the tropes which are largely responsible for what I would call the undeadening effects of Richard Berengarten’s poetry. Foremost among them are immediacy, landscape, the undoing of clichés and, last but not least, translation.
* * *
‘Distortion’ leads the series of underlying themes in Berengarten’s poetry. The word itself has risen to my consciousness largely thanks to the foreword by the two Greek poets/translators, in which they refer to the way in which Seferis’ voice is “deflected” in the voice of Richard Berengarten. The distortion of de- makes one wonder why Berengarten’s voice should be deflected rather than reflected. Do we consider it normal for voices to be deflected as they cross geo-linguistic borders? If so, should we be at all concerned with or about this change? Part of the change certainly involves the decontextualisation of, say, Seferis’ poetry, seen through the lenses of Berengarten’s English. That alone brings out the potential of a re-reading, whereby Seferis’ poetry is purged from the inevitable baggage of its own historical genesis, and in particular his use of T.S. Eliot’s high modernistic idiom to re-energise Greek letters.6 Already, unexamined notions of native perception, supposedly self-sufficient – what is commonly referred to as the ‘self-same’ – are put into question, as deflection is seen to have already acted on the Greek original, which came into being by its very will to reflect the foreign.
To broaden the picture, the deflection at work can also be seen in Berengarten’s stated amazement at the way in which the new becomes familiar while at the same time being an engine for productive self-distancing – i.e., self-alienation. Significant, in this respect, is a compact note in his ‘Postscript’ to In a Time of Drought, which, interestingly, like Black Light, is another work by Berengarten that involves ‘multiple acts of translation’, this time from south-Slavonic and other Balkan languages:
When I started working on In a Time of Drought, an idea had come to me, a hunch, a theme, accompanied by a little (too little) knowledge. So, during the composition of the poem’s first drafts, I set about finding as much as I could about the rainmaking practices and songs. Their occurrence in cultures of which I had shallow or scant experience, and their location in languages I understood either imperfectly or not at all, added to their attraction. But as soon as I started exploring, I found myself entering areas not only so new but also, simultaneously, so wholly recognizable and so warmly hospitable that my set of enquiries began to turn into an activity with its own separate direction and momentum. More than once I was astonished to find that images which had been cropping up spontaneously in my own mind during composition turned out to belong to the sources themselves, and even to be part of their stuff or grain. […]
Given the nature of the material that has gone into the making of In a Time of Drought and my involvement in it – whether as fascinated guest, baffled foreigner, or both – I believe in retrospect that this plaiting or weaving together was a necessary and inherent part of its composition. But as I began to have inklings from my first notes and rough drafts of what was going on, when it came to working on them, and at the same time taking the poem forward, I found myself wanting to turn subliminal process into willed procedure, and so gradually watched myself aiming to embed as complex a web of associations in the writing as possible. And this self-watching got caught up in the poem's making too, formulating itself, as I see now, as an attempt to eliminate any remnants of my own voice. (Burns 2006: 33-34; Berengarten : 77)
As Berengarten proceeds from observing all things foreign to manipulating them as poetic sources by following a willed procedure, he clears his voice of what has been his own. Once again, as with the ‘deflection’ operating in this open dialogue, the poetic route seems to pass through something of a distorting channel before the final composition is offered.
Similar unlikely pairs are found in ‘Poem at the Autumn Equinox’ in Against Perfection:
and the one [dream] containing a word
clearly heard and recognised
from a language unknown,
which I can never pronounce.
(Burns 1999: 20; Berengarten : 35)
The mystery of a word in a dream is conflated by sets of unknown and unknowable elements: though mutually exclusive in normal usage, the two adjectives, “recognised” and “unknown”, qualify the same noun, “word”. Equally significant, the “word” is “heard” – and therefore must have been spoken – but it is impossible for the poet to repeat it: he can “never pronounce” it. The realm in which the recognition of the “unknown” word occurs is, surely, very different from that of logos, the Greek word that means ‘rationality’ and ‘speech’. Rather, a process of physical and imaginative dislocation is in process here. The scenario is one of teasing or torment depending on where and how you look at it. It hints at language as hindrance, even lack, thus presenting readers with two nearly impossible puzzles: one is the source of seduction (a word), that is unattainable; the other is the need to access it by language even when language is not forthcoming.
One even wonders here whether English, or indeed any other single language, is capable of fully illustrating the obvious truth of the poet’s insight. Might then a cross-lingual dialogue not be more suited to the task? In ‘Only the Common Miracle’, the realisation of failure takes a dramatic turn when, “at passion’s crest”, one lover opens her/his eyes: the realisation becomes a material tear on the page, when “a gap opens for a voice” (Berengarten :161). The split is there for both lovers to be-hold, causing a nagging sensation because this voice is one that “isn’t yours or mine, but we both hear quite clearly, and recognise”. The phrasing here is very similar in lexical choice to ‘Poem at the Autumn Equinox’, thus suggesting a deeper affinity between the two poems. But further on in ‘Only the Common Miracle’, we read that this is a voice [which we both] “understand, and adore, because you know as well as I do, my love, that its your voice, not mine” (ibid: 161). The gap seems to be bridged here, albeit briefly, as the poet’s persona reaches over to her/his lover. However, the disconcerting spectre of alienation even on one’s own native ground remains, and, with it, the threat of not mastering “the language of love”, as the next, and last, stanza illustrates:
[…] but people like
you and me have been travelling
like this for years, along the same dirt track through the
same city streets the same weary beds,
foreign in our own country, no longer recognising the
speech of men or women we know, of our own flesh,
so how then can we be expected to converse with angels
or even with old friends, long dead,
let alone speak the language of love, let alone the
language of love? (ibid 161; emphasis added, MF)
‘Cicadas (I)’ singles out, I believe, the moment in which “a gap opens for a voice”, and enlarges that moment to a whole poem. The first stanza reads as follows:
The men play távli and drink tsípouro or coffee,
skéto, métrio, glykí vrastó. Above our heads
the nichterídhes flitter among the plane trees
and every table but mine in the square is full.
Through voices’ thrum, laughter, clatter of board
and counter, clink of glasses, and fork against plate,
where the bald, bullied waiter runs, scurrying, sweating,
tonight I sit alone, trying to write a letter
home to my son and daughter: Dearest Children… (ibid: 159)
There is a cacophony of voices here, which could stand for an attempt to alert us to the gap as discussed earlier, as a representation of language’s eventual failure to communicate – or rather, failure because language, a mundane instrument, primarily communicates. First, there is a series of transcriptions of Greek words, which, although ordinary, would mean very little to an English reader: távli, tsípouro, skéto, métrio, glykí vrastó, nichterídhes.7 Repetition of the ‘t’ sound, which is probably the single most overwhelming sound heard when a Briton overhears two Greek people chatting, together with their sheer accumulation in the first three lines, helps to impress the point of alienation by direct illustration. Then the level of foreignness/estrangement drops from actual human (foreign) speech, through “voices’ thrum and laughter”, to the inanimate noise in the café: “clatter of board and counter”, “clink of glasses”, “fork against plate”. There are, of course, human beings behind these noises, but crucially the imagery reduces them to simple auditory effects. The non-human movement seems to have engulfed even the emergence in the poem of the waiter in the form of two sets of alliteration, “bald, bullied” and “scurrying, sweating” – to the extent that he is entirely made up of sensory signals. Against this background, it would be very difficult not to take the last sample of speech – the form of address in the narrator’s letter to his children, “Dearest Children…” – as yet another expression of inane human language, blunt with overuse. Of note also is the corroborating caesura splitting “letter” and “home”, exposing their uneasy cohabitation. Symmetry alone in the stanza structure means that the italicisation of the Greek loan words mentioned above, on the one hand, and the typographical relief of this standard phrase, on the other, link them to each other as illustrations of spoken language which has ceased to effectively signify, or authentically affect.
* * *
The next question should be whether the actual translation, between English and Greek, is to be considered a mere aspect of the project that the Black Light is, whose efficiency is mediated on its very heterogeneity, its over-inscribed fabric. The brief answer is that, if the volume’s boldness consists in the fact that it actively complicates notions of belonging by multiplying the available options of reading – that is, reading in English, reading in Greek, and reading the different originals of these metapoems and translations, not to mention all the misreadings that such readings entail – then there should be nothing straightforward about the translation that forms the core of the work. And sure enough, my reading of it has shown that its impact exceeds notions of equivalence or accuracy, the usual angles of viewing translations in print.
Rather arbitrarily, I have chosen to focus on the translations by Ilias Layios. My decision to discuss his translations has been more a response to the particularly strong effect their language has had on me than to any criteria of accuracy, maybe even despite such criteria. One particular instance of translation has proven to offer an ideal and delightful illustration: the “fledgling [soul]” in the poem ‘Soulmonger’ (Berengarten : 155) is unexpectedly rendered by Layios with the Greek word ksepetaroúdi (Burns 2005: 19). The unforeseen little word gave me a jolt of happiness. I pondered for a while on the funny musicality of the noun, maybe slightly shocked to find such a cockily improper choice written down. It is a quirky, idiolectical choice that speaks conspiratorially into the ear of the child in me, giving disproportionate pleasure with its shape, intonation, and timbre. On a philological level, it is strikingly evocative of the diction of Dionysius Solomos, who, as Seferis famously put it, was “our other great poet who did not speak good Greek” (the other being Cavafy). What is splendid about it is that the little word has enlarged its preordained spot on the page by exceeding what the original requires semantically; thus, it creates a pocket of meaning, emotions, images and memories that more or less bring the reading process to a halt, all within the space of its four syllables. In the indefinable period of time elapsed between the English and the Greek texts, the English adjective has evolved to become, in the Greek translation, a fully grown up, a syntactically independent noun.
There is something of a hijacking at work here, as the show is momentarily stolen by the word ksepetaroúdi, the cameo equivalent, which is equivalent to none, because it belongs to the Greek poet-translator’s own lived-in language, which is intertextually linked – and, clearly, without any mediation from English – to Greek literature. Which brings us, without fail, to Layios’s unique signature as a poet: his inability simply to translate, his lack, if you wish, of a translation ‘strategy’ unless there might be some way of appropriately defining the manner in which he has breathed a soul into the words he chooses. His is such a strong voice in Greek that it ends up straying from the inevitable linearity of the translation process, cancelling even the factuality of translation. His odd ‘appropriation’ of the source poem is evident, in that here, as elsewhere, he draws the attention of the reader away from the original. I cannot imagine any bilingual reader of this collection who would not be drawn to his translations to the detriment of the English poems. Having said that, I would add that such is the fervour of his linguistic choices that one has to go back to the original to make sure that one has read it ‘correctly’ the first time. So, in effect, Layios encourages the reader to revisit the English poem, which has been brushed aside too quickly in the previous readings, in the hope of finding in it some enlightening cues or clues for a word, or a turn of phrase, in the Greek poem – which, thanks to its authority and power, one can hardly call merely a ‘version’. In plain words, Layios’s translations have sharpened the reader’s focus on the ‘original’ English poem – but in an oblique and very unexpected manner.8 For in the reading experience I am describing, this ‘original’ emerges re-energised, transformed: and so much so that the “fledgling [soul]” of Berengarten becomes in effect the ‘translation’ of Layios’s “ksepetaroúdi”, rather than vice-versa, because it is assumed, on the basis of their de facto equivalence, that the English now illuminates the meaning of the Greek. Whether or not this is actually the case, it certainly pushes the source poem back to the centre stage, thanks to a newly discovered affinity – the result of Layios’s eccentric insistence on acting with the interests of the Greek language close at heart.
Other examples of this highly individual approach to translating are Layios’s transformations of existing words in accordance both with their colloquial or dialectical pronunciation, and with his own preference for longer particles and pronouns, as though he wished to augment their sensory effect. The orality is unmistakable. Layios did speak like that himself, and probably it is because now we will never get to hear his voice again that lexical features such as these, minor but striking in their overall impact, become so elementary. Deploringly for a language rendered orphan after his death, the pacing and intonation of his lines betray something of the vibration, the pitch (even drunkenness at times) of his own voice, that moved his friends and audience when he recited verses by heart, or when he merely told a story about a friend or foe. Nor is his vocabulary or choice of register contained. From Biblical to demotic and then back to a purist Greek, his poetic language does not miss a note: on the one hand, the mundane crudeness of mpisna [business] (Burns 2005: 47) coexists with the Socratic en oida [one thing I know] (ibid.: 41); and on the other, the Palamas-inspired skoteinagra [gloom] joins the bowdlerised, and thus more effective, ntantella [lace] (ibid.: 49). In the vernacular delicacy of similar choices, vulgarity and mellowness are effectively juxtaposed and counterpointed, in such a way that their depth of reach bestows a kind of multilayered relief on the language of the translations. Nor are these choices dictated solely by the wording of the original poems or by the rhyme scheme of the translations. Although both these factors come into play, neither of them serves even in the slightest way to exhaust the reading pleasure, simply because the pleasure itself derives from the quirky illumination the Greek ‘versions’ throw onto the ‘original’ English poems. That is to say, the feeling of elation does not come from where you would normally expect it; it arises from the novel relationship between source and target poems.
I have quite deliberately elaborated, and perhaps downright exaggerated, my commentary on these rather flimsy instances of translating. My purpose has been to illustrate how the predominant trope of translation here accounts for an exhilarating reading process, in which concepts of deflection and, by extension, self-identity, need to be rethought. The logical consequences of comments such as the above are that, first, any straying of criticism from trying to make sense of, say, cross-lingual dialogue is unavoidable; secondly, following an essentially straying memory renders systematicity, and even its desire, irrelevant; and, thirdly, the joy of recognition from poetry of this kind is not to be retrieved by communication between the two ‘audiences’, but by plainly, obstinately, going back to the site of one’s own origins.
But the difficulty is: there are no roots.9 The only way to ‘return’ to a place of origin is to recreate the sensation that language gave us in a remote past or pasts, to pick out and relish the particular flavours of the registers, dialects and idiolects accreted by those pasts and heaped by them into presence, by reconstructing the moment of untainted pleasure upon hearing that elusive word - trace of a language which can best be qualified as a spent resource.
* * *
Not everyone would agree with the slant I have given to Berengarten’s poetry, a hemmed-in reading that insists on the dark part of the ‘dark light’. It is, however, a matter of emphasis; and emphasis is necessary if the existential reading I am offering is to balance itself out. The fraught moments of realising what is lost, of observing the Seferian moment that ‘cuts through time’, of contemplating memories as mere fossils of bygone times, of desiring the faces of “our own flesh” (i.e. our own kin) to the point of thinking we heard their voices in an unlikely place – all these are moments that would eventually put an end to all dialogue if no actual transformation were to follow. The climax of Black Light, the proof, if you prefer, of its thorny fertility is, for me, ‘Volta’, a poem about falling in love again, or being able to (Berengarten : 157-8). Transformation is required to achieve a language defying loss, evident in this poem when the narrator becomes “porous”, to receive the light of a radiant evening. The tone of the poem is rightly elegiac, and its pivotal position in the collection is evident if we consider that it is a comment on a very un-striking line by Seferis: now that dusk falls… (ibid: 157). I would like to risk the argument that a nondescript epigraph for, in effect, a sublime poem should surely lead us to a moment of intense dialogue between poets, which is also the moment when Berengarten’s creativity is sharply ignited by the Greek light – a light he refers to in a filigree of images such as “[k]ing sun”, “sweet evening skyglow”, “shimmering light”, “darling evening”, “light thousands of years old”, “clear throated singer”,
“a mould that sculptures all it touches”. The understatement of the Greek epigraph – strategically designed to have this effect10 - has led to an excess of emotion in Berengarten’s response to the light, a response in turn to the effects of light on people before him and his time: the accumulative effect is such that the observer/recipient of light becomes a web of exposed senses. His realisation is expressed in the lucid, composed language of a well-rounded citizen of the city in question, and one cannot help but think of another famous citizen, no other than Constantine Cavafy, and Alexandria.
The unashamed rawness of emotions – impacted and reflected – is on a par with the fundamental rawness of senses rendered naked, their very functionality. Looking closer, one notices how the internal rhyming through the repetition of the ‘o’ sound, climaxing at ‘the pool of gold you pour’, uncovers the porous quality of the poet’s transformation:
King sun, rosy-cheeked, day’s sovereign coin,
you touch me, and my skin becomes a cornea,
my spine an optic nerve, and my body trembles
half dazzled by the pool of gold you pour
over this sea and city, and I’m blinded. (Berengarten : 157)
In my initial reading of this poem, I considered it significant that there was a semi-obscure female presence acting as a catalyst on what women readers would undoubtedly perceive as ‘an encounter of male poets’ in the context of Greek history (Filippakopoulou 2005: 48). But now I am convinced that, although this remains true,11 the sensuality of these stanzas far exceeds sexuality, especially in terms of heterosexual desire and lust. In this respect, the language of the poem is exuberant in its impact for it can bring both female and male readers back to the way life used to be experienced, through the senses, to the point that the senses themselves become a synonym for outer reality. The narrator’s ecstatic exclamation: “I drink you, shimmering light” (ibid: 158) sums up the celebration of senses that is the poem; it concludes a few lines further on: “And, thirsting to drink you wholly, I would fill / every pore with your radiance […]” (ibid: 158). It might be that Berengarten has discovered, in this “porous” condition, the appropriate state and a new means of honestly and creatively translating another culture and literature, in the dual sense of both “honouring” and “giving back”.
The theory of translation is historically grounded on a discourse that sexualises the translating and translated sites in the image of unequal sexual pairs. Metaphors in use, such as les belles infidèles, illustrate that “western culture enforces [the] secondariness [of translation] with a vengeance, insisting on the feminized status of translation” (Chamberlain 1988: 477). Understanding the role of such metaphorics does not, however, mean that it can be easily transgressed, especially in the case of a male author. But here we have an instance of translating a trademark trope – Seferis’ “black light” – in such a way that there is neither invader nor invaded. The transformation of Berengarten’s narrator into a porous being who has willed his body and senses to take in the universe cast by the Mediterranean light, to become its “slave, if not [its] citizen”, is a valid, robust proposition out of the deeply ingrained sexism found in translation practice (Berengarten : 158).
The light that the narrator cannot help but adore is what “liquefies stone” in ‘Salt’: it is “as if the statue’s marble body were dancing” (ibid: 162), an additional intimation of the miraculous capacity of light to do and undo what death fixes forever, matter. The function of the statue in Berengarten’s poetry is quite strategic in that it suggests a notion of perfection in gestation. Statues – the effects of light – are simultaneously fixed and liquid, and in this capacity they help avoid a cliché in their imagery in relation to the representation of Greek literature and culture. In this he takes his cue from Seferis himself, who famously undid the fixity of statues, that is to say, the rigidity of the Greek ancient past, by giving statues human attributes, especially in section II of the ‘Thrush’ (Seferis 1982: 163).12 The entire landscape of ‘Volta’, both human and inanimate, is defined and signified by the effects of light, and the poet’s willingness fully to acknowledge these effects results in the poetic expression of a perfect day on a fishing boat. ‘Salt’ might commence and finish with the phrase “all I know” (Berengarten : 162, 164), but it embodies a type of knowledge that is beyond cognition; it is rather the wisdom, imparted by the senses, to receive the world rendered naked by light’s miracle. Earlier, I suggested that Berengarten offers nothing less than a definition of happiness as experienced by a long-lost internalised child of five, savouring a ripe fruit in front of the sea; we read in ‘Salt’:
[…] and all I know is, I’m helplessly
in love with this mountain and this sea,
for here desire and fulfilment are stitched in one weft of
light, cross-woven, stilled and impossible to unravel
from this seamless tide of days which flow in one
movement together, its whole fabric soaked and doubly
strengthened in salt,
and mine is its crusted harvest with the perfect inner sheen,
although I have gnawed summer down to its black core.
Naivety aside, I would like to argue that Berengarten forces his language to recreate the core of the world as uncovered by light in a superb description – its fabric being not ethereal, but heavy with the crust of salt, the lived-in experience, a tactile memory of summer. Because tactile, virtually epidermal, it has to be talked about in the first person: the narrator is obliged to exclaim, with a child-like reversal of the proper word order, “mine is its crusted harvest with the perfect inner sheen” (ibid: 164, emphasis added, MF), transformed because transported to a near-orgasmic state, recalling the wild joy of once savouring the moment while registering the consuming desire to regain it.
Paramount among such perspectives, Black Light is also a collection of poems that has attracted its translation by the two Greek poets. The series of moving mirrors, no matter how “tarnished” they might be (‘Shell’, ibid: 174), help to strengthen Berengarten’s essential virtue: of mastering a language enchanted enough by the foreign and surrendering enough to the foreign to invite its own deflections. The project has enabled difference – the mark of the foreign – to bring on a transformation, unexpected in its results, that owes a lot to the multiplication of lines of attraction and intersection between the native/self and the foreign. My argument has been that the transformation depends on assuming a problematic affinity between childhood (and the native tongue it is grounded upon) and the remote foreign landscape (spatial and human): as suggested in my introductory comments, the alienation that primarily marks adulthood can be accentuated by a plunge into a foreign landscape – here “black light” as a metaphor from/for Greek poetry. An ideal illustration of this is the first stanza of ‘Song, for Petro’:
What moves, though still, yet sounds,
what, breathing, blows mysterious,
perfuming this whole valley
channelling mountain waters
to race and tumble, child-like,
down to your beach, through memory,
and plunge into the sea – this gift,
old friend, is yours:
let nobody take it from you. (ibid: 168)
Every time the poem is read, its meticulous language puts together an already existing landscape and seascape for the first time; the quickening fluidity of the description helps keep at bay complacency, the banality of a picturesque holiday destination. To turn the familiar into the unfamiliar is a fine achievement. Here, senses co-operate with movement to build a specific emotion in the brain and the heart, which would then recognise the flow of the water as it comes down from secret mountains to reach you. Readers are, at one stroke, transformed into small children who, wobbly feet and all, run to join floísvos [the sea’s edge]. The encounter should be child-like for a good reason: the ancient elements become recognisable only to a sensitivity susceptible to enchantment and enamoured with the matter as it finds it; this must be the metaphor par excellence of unadulterated perception.
Besides the invocation of the landscape, another aspect of translation in its extended sense is the illuminating dialogue between poem and epigram, of which ‘Cicadas (I)’ and ‘Cicadas (II)’ represent a case in point (ibid: 159 & 171-172). The figure of the cicada itself as an allegory is rather ambiguous. In both ‘Cicadas (I)’ and ‘Cicadas (II)’, the incessant, inane singing of the cicadas can function either as a metaphor for the annihilation of human language against which poetry struggles,13 or as the very essence of poeisis [creation].14 Although these are plausible interpretations, one should, more importantly, account for the fact that the two poems offer a commentary on Seferis’ line “… the way the cicadas stop suddenly and all together” – the poem’s epigraph (Seferis 1982: 338-339). The issue here, then, is not the allegorical figure of the cicadas but the question of what it is that the exploding silence, the momentary cessation of Nature’s ‘voice’, means – and, most importantly of all, where this leaves the poet. His is a miraculous position, to create on the basis of the exposed, artificial silence as a site both vacant and full: vacant through the absence of meaningful human language, and filled with what human language is not, be that nature, musicality of sounds, or dreams. Berengarten gestures towards both possibilities while at the same time illustating how the potential of translation can be fruitfully, suggestively exploited here too.
* * *
In rare moments of physical and mental clarity, maybe daydreaming or through intense concentration, one can half-imagine, half-reconstruct the sensation of the “seamless tide of days which flow in one movement together” (Berengarten : 162, 164) – the connectedness with nature and people through language encapsulated in these fortunate verses. Trying to recapture this lost order is the constitutive war of adulthood. Since the time of Sappho, armies of people have known that this war is lost, though the manner of losing it makes all the difference. Poetic language partakes of this crucial task, to wage war on líthi, on forgetting. Black Light, not to say Burns/Berengarten’s poetry in its entirety, shows that managing this Promethean task cannot be done through one language, no matter what that language might be.15 If lyrical language is to have any success in bringing about its undeadening effects, it needs a catalyst to rehearse the reality of loss, to enact self-alienation. In the translation by Layios and Vayenas, the enterprise is played out in a format which obliges bilingual readers, at any rate, to first look into the face of the British poet turned towards the Greek poet laureate, before they can contemplate the work of the Greek translators and be struck by its manipulative energies.16 The multiple in effect, zigzag reading is truly illuminating for it is responsible for the joy of recovering, partly at least, native tongue in the very midst of estrangement.
The emotion stirred at the moment of empathy with the poet’s infatuation with light and light’s inflections is not dissimilar to the moment in which one encounters words unnoticeably forgotten in the course of life, words that one will never speak again with people now perished, “outside of being, in that radiance”.17 These spoken words are haunted, as Berengarten very appropriately stresses again and again. Of all the themes and tropes I have discussed here, translation proves to be the most revealing for bilingual readers, a true key to Berengarten’s poetry: in ‘Cicadas’ and ‘Volta’, the respective dialogue between the poems and their epigraphs was conducted across a gaping difference. But it is precisely through the lack of equivalence that an excess of meaning has been uncovered – the breaking of silence and the mystery of language in ‘Cicadas’, understatement and ecstatic recognition in ‘Volta’. Berengarten’s poetry invites readers to glimpse at the mechanics of multivocal, multilingual poetry: its attraction works by bringing one closer not simply to what is not one’s own, but also to what is. It is not simply that what is native – that which belongs unthinkingly to a national literature and language – needs the foreign in order to enrich its traditions and gain in originality. The ethics of this poetry is that a single language/literature should work through another language/literature to let in alienation, in order to chisel new life out of death. Today poetic dialogue with the Other is not simply one literary option or device among many others; it is a bare necessity.
This essay is to be published, in slightly abbreviated form, in Richard Berengarten: A Critical Companion, ed. Norman Jope, Paul S. Derrick and Catherine E. Byfield (forthcoming, Salt Publishing, Cambridge, 2010).
Beaton, Roderick. 1991. George Seferis. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press and New York: Aristide D. Caratzas.
Berengarten, Richard . 2008. For the Living. Selected Writings 1. Longer Poems 1965-2000. Cambridge: Salt
– – . . 2008. The Manager. Selected Writings 2. Cambridge: Salt Publishing
– – . . 2008. The Blue Butterfly. Selected Writings 3. Cambridge: Salt Publishing
– –. . 2008. In a Time of Drought. Selected Writings 4. Cambridge: Salt Publishing
– –. . 2008. Under Balkan Light. Selected Writings 5. Cambridge: Salt Publishing
Burns, Richard. 1980. Learning to Talk. London: Enitharmon Press.
– –. 1983. Black Light: Poems in Memory of George Seferis. Cambridge: Los Poetry Press. 1986, reprinted by the
same publisher. 1995, reprinted, Norwich: The King of Hearts.
– –. 1999. Against Perfection. Norwich: The King of Hearts.
– –. 2003. Book With no Back Cover. London: David Paul.
– –. 2005. Mavro Fos. Poiimata eis mnimin George Seferis (tr. N. Vayenas and Ilias Layios). Athens: Typothito –
– –. 2006. In a Time of Drought. Nottingham: Shoestring Press.
– –. Website: http://www.richardburns.eu/site/From-Notness.html
Chamberlain, Lori. 1988. ‘Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation’ in Signs, 13: 464-72.
Filippakopoulou, Maria. 2005. ‘Common miracle [in In Other Words. The Journal for Literary Translators, 26: 46-51.
Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. 1995. The Lord Chandos Letter (tr. M. Hofmann). London: Syrens.
Jakobson, Roman. 1992. ‘On Linguistic Aspects of Translation’ in Schulte, Rainer and John Biguenet (eds.) Theories of
Translation. An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago
Kristeva, Julia. 1991. Strangers to Ourselves (tr. L. S. Roudiez). New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Seferis, George. 1982. Complete Poems (tr. E. Keeley and Philip Sherrard). London: Anvil Press Poetry.
– –. 1974. A Poet’s Journal. Days of 1945-1951 (tr. A. Anagnostopoulos). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press.
Vayenas, Nasos. 1989. Poiisi kai Metafrasi [Poetry and Translation]. Athens: Stigmi.
1. The title of this essay is taken from ‘Only the Common Miracle’, a poem in Richard Berengarten’s sequence Black Light. For the most recent monolingual English publication of this sequence, see Berengarten  2008. For the first English editions, see Burns: 1983. Some references in this essay are to the bilingual Anglo-Greek edition of Black Light, (Burns 2005), entitled Mavro Fos, translated by Nasos Vayenas and Ilias Layios, both poets in their own right.
2. In June 2008, Richard Burns changed his name to Richard Berengarten. This change was announced in notes in the first five volumes of his Selected Writings (Salt, Cambridge, November 2008), such as the following: ‘Richard Berengarten used to be known as Richard Burns . . . [H]e now repossesses the family name of his father, the cellist and saxophonist, Alexander Berengarten’ (Berengarten : sleeve notes). Henceforward, in references to the poet himself, this essay adheres to the name Berengarten.
3. During the period that intervened between my first and second readings of the bilingual edition of Black Light, Ilias Layios, one of the book’s two translators, died unexpectedly in Athens in 2005. In 2006, I also learned of the death of my close personal family friend, Kyria Christoula.
4. This element in the text itself could, at least partly, account for the affinity I felt with the book at my own time of loss.
5. Hereafter all references to the original Black Light will be made in the format (Berengarten : page number), and will be inserted in the body of the text.
6. In Greek criticism, Seferis’ ‘Kichli’ [‘Thrush’] is considered to be nothing less than “the Greek equivalent of The Waste Land” (Vayenas 1989: 99).
7. However, Berengarten is careful to add the English meaning of these words in his notes to the poem: ‘távli:backgammon; tsípouro: an anis drink, like ouzo; skéto, métno, glykí vrastó: sugarless, medium, sweet-boiled (terms used for coffee): nichterídhes:bats.’ (Berengarten : 224)
8. For further thoughts on the idea of the ‘original’, see Filippakopoulou 2005: 47-48, quoted above.
9. Let us remember that Seferis himself was effectively a Greek living on the mainland after the forced exile from his childhood homeland, Asia Minor (Ionia), in 1922. His poetry is, in a way, a poetry of exile; see the introductory point made by his editors (Seferis1982: xvii).
10. In a personal response to the author (April 3, 2008), Richard Berengarten has noted that if the epigraph taken from Seferis is “understated”, it was chosen to be so, deliberately. And he continues as follows: “because, for my purposes, I needed to highlight the simplest elements of Seferis’ line and so to remove them from their (from my point of view, over-specified) surrounding context. So perhaps the part quoted does appear ‘uninteresting’. But I’ve always thought the whole of this line to be among Seferis’ most wonderful, most fabulous achievements, for its purity of music (with the sibilant sounds of ships’ sirens) and its transparent simplicity, as well as its centred, embodied love of the aural and visual […] I suppose you could even say that my poem, in some respects, attempts to retranslate back (i.e. both ‘honour’ and ‘give back’) the ‘open secret’ of physicality redolent in this epigraph.” The entire line by Seferis reads as follows: “Σφυρίζουν τα καράβια τώρα που βραδιάζει στον Πειραιά,” which is transliterated as “Sfirízoun ta karávia tóra pou vrathiázei ston Pieiraiá” –“The ships hoot now that dusk falls on Piraeus.” (‘In the manner of G. S.’, Seferis 1982: 110-111).
11. This is especially so in the translation, because in Greek all nouns are gender-specific – most either masculine or feminine, with a smaller number that are neuter. Thus, when one is translating out of English, gender differentiation sometimes accounts for unexpected results in terms of meaning: for example, the “[k]ing sun” is male, the city is female, and “darling evening” is female. This means that the narrator’s enamoured adoration of these elements can unexpectedly vary hints of heterosexual or unidirectional attraction. Roman Jakobson, among others, has commented on the poetic implications and mythological connections bound to the gender of inanimate nouns (Jakobson 1992: 149-51).
12. For a discussion of statues in Seferis’ poetry, see Beaton 1991: 46-49.
13. ‘Cicadas (I)’ finishes with the couplet “[t]hey are hollowing a cave out of these night covered hills/ and they will hole us up in it, until we drown in darkness” (Berengarten : 162).
14. ‘Cicadas’ is the grammatical subject of a string of verbs: “they groan like the dead”, “they whine like the unborn outside my window”, “hover over the surrounding hills”, “argue my destiny”, [are] “creaking under the snow”, “breaking up glaciers”, “roped like slaves, heaving slabs of silence into pyramids of music to celebrate a pharaoh across deserts on the ocean’s chilly floor” (ibid: 171-172).
15. In an early poem, ‘Guest’, we read: “He said he had opened himself to the light, / that the light was a poem, was everywhere presence, / a silent language with its grammar of waves and particles / of which our speeches were dialects […]” (Burns 1980: 21).
16. Elsewhere, I have discussed the clear deviation of Nasos Vayenas, who reinstates syntactical order by omitting the comma in the lines “[a]ngelic and black, light…/ Angelic and black, day”, the epigraph of Berengarten’s ‘In Memory of George Seferis (I)’ (Berengarten : 153), as a mark of “a predominantly native experience of the Greek light”, perhaps even of “Seferis’ verses”(Filippakopoulou 2005: 50).