Across history

, Richard Berengarten (Shearsman)

Richard Berengarten has long had a notion of a community of poets, as made explicit in his organisation of the Cambridge Poetry Festivals in the 1970s, events which continued into the 1980s with a variety of directors and locally-based organisers. His vision has been a generous one, embracing variety and difference, yet his notion of poetry as a major artform which can deal with the 'big issues' has often been at odds with a more 'domestic-based' poetry, tamed and toothless, which has prevailed within a 'naturalised' mainstream of British poetry publishing. His own work - whether as Richard Burns or with his recently reclaimed family name - has always been ambitious, though 'awkward' in the sense that while taking on board aspects of modernism and even, 'post-modern' discourse, there has been a continuing interest in traditional form and aspects of narrative which sit uneasily within a contemporary context. His body of work is impressive in its scope, variety and geographical location, based to some extent upon his having a somewhat peripatetic existence in terms of earning an income, though he continues to live in Cambridge.

His latest collection, Manual - an idea neatly encapsulated in the cover artwork, left-hand placed palm-down with fingers splayed on front-cover, right-hand on the back - suggests a relationship between the physical and the intellectual not often explored in poetry, even where the writing includes an element of the 'meta-critical', as Berengarten's work surely does. There's also a Romantic aspect to his poetry which embraces clarity and lucidity - a risky business you might think - in a manner which often comes off, against the odds, and which is often unbearably moving, and I don't say that lightly. Take the final piece in the collection, 'Frame-piece 2', for example, which refers to the dedication to his mother at the front of the collection:

     Frame-piece 2

          Curious how suddenly, Rosalind,
          out of a buried remembering,
          I find you in those gestures
          I used to see you making, which
          now, without my reckoning,

          bloom again out of my own hands,
          as though yours, tenacious roots,
          had grown grains of your own
          ways of doing and achieving things,
          deviously, through and into mine.

Although there is a central concern with the theme of mortality in Berengarten's writing, here as elsewhere, his isn't the usual concern with bereavement or ultimate loss of self (though these topics are inevitably touched on), but a reaching out and across to the dead in a manner which is at times a bit spooky (I'm occasionally reminded of Kubrick's
The Shining, as the visual descriptions are so vivid) yet generous, imaginative and essentially related to the future, via children and the yet-to-be-born. I'm further reminded of Stanley Spencer's strange yet alluring 'resurrection of the dead' paintings, based in Cookham. The spectre of the holocaust remains a presence in these poems, as it is in much of Berengarten's poetry, particularly the powerful masterpiece Angels, which I still think is his finest work:

          Respected fellows and allies of these hands
          have coolly signed death warrants then dined
          inspected slaves in quarries mines foundries
          designed gaols torture rooms extermination chambers
          issued instructions to builders and surveyors

          pulled first triggers on victims over ditches
          personally slit throats and kicked the dying in
          dialled for bulldozers to destroy evidence
          played chess poured wine opened their flies washed
          then emailed superiors for further instructions
                    (from 'Manual -
the first twenty')

Angels, this writing appears to take in events 'across history' even though there are specific hintings towards twentieth century genocide, and in this sense I can also see similarities to Andy Brown's 'Ecce Homo' from his recent collection the fool and the physician (Salt - see my review on Stride site).

Manual is split into five sections, each containing twenty poems, each poem having two five-line stanzas, continuing a tradition within Berengarten's work of a formal structure allowing for a certain 'free-play' within the framing stricture. Yet the work in this collection has a very modern feel despite what I've said above about the play between tradition(s) and the contemporary, combining a series of snapshots across time and space with clear focus and mini-narratives.

In the section 'Holding the Sea' we are given a brief preface, contrasting Matthew Arnold's 'dictum' - 'Poetry is a criticism of life.' with Berengarten's riposte 'Poetry is a criticism of death.' This point is made manifest by images which celebrate the pleasures and toils of living:


     Outside the cafe underneath the plane tree
     the old sailors play backgammon
     Little they know or care about pasts or futures
     who once chugged out past overhanging islands
     and caught shoalfuls of fish in their long nets
     Islands reached stony fingers out to grab them
     Hidden rocks and reefs sharpened their nails
     Waves grew claws to slash at them and snatch them
     Darkness itself unleashed invisible talons
     and now they sit outside the cafe like ordinary men
                        (from 'Holding the Sea - the third twenty')

Berengarten combines evocation with reflection, breathtaking speculation with classical allusion in a manner which combines history with the 'here and now' and projects, optimistically and hopefully, into the future.

       Steve Spence 2014