Black Light: Poems in memory of George Seferis (1995) By Richard Berengarten (Burns)
‘He was struck, as everyone is, by the light. Instead of being half absorbed into the object, as in England, in Greece the object seemed to give off light, as if lit from within.’
Roger Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore.
There is good reason to describe Richard Burns as a European poet writing in English: equally interested in politico-historical issues and inner spaces, at ease with both established and experimental forms in short lyrics as well as long poems, his is a shape-shifting, encompassing voice, nourished by long spells in places like France, Greece, and former Yugoslavia. Burns draws from diverse influences, and finds common ground in Mediterranean, Balkan and Jewish traditions, attempting to align constants of humanity, to commune with affirmations of life, listen to the legacies of the dead. The poet who founded the Cambridge Poetry Festival three decades ago is now at the peak of his powers: The Manager, a 100-part, verse-paragraph cross-section of modern consciousness appeared in 2001, accompanied by the resounding praise that announces the truly significant. Another major work first conceived in the mid-eighties, The Blue Butterfly, inspired by a massacre of Serbs by the Nazis at Kragujevac in 1941, has recently been published in its complete form.
An earlier highpoint in Burns’s output grew from his relationship with Greece, and his sensed bonds with one of its Nobel laureates, George Seferis. The seeds of Black Light can be traced to observations Seferis records in his journal in June 1946 (there we read that ‘…behind the grey and golden weft of the Attic summer exists a frightful black … we are all of us the playthings of this black’); shortly after, they infiltrate his long poem ‘The Thrush’. In twelve poems exploring the meeting of cultures and staging amalgamations of languages and literary voices, Burns pursues this intimation of death/black, which forever follows, and enables light/life, as it chimes with his own experience of the Greek landscape and people. So we find the Greek poet in Burns, Burns in (Seferis’s) Greece:
So no charts, friend, this exacting light defeats them, just as the
waves cancel our wake:
we’re on our way to an island, 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.
It all unfolds with a sense of resolve and clarity of vision often reminiscent of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and in an array of forms – from the villanelles ‘In Memory of George Seferis’ which open and close the sequence, to the prose poetry of ‘Shell’ – that witness the measured immediacy of Burns’s diction synchronizing with the metaphysical substrata lurking in the apparent warmth of his chosen surroundings: a taverna, waterfronts in sunset, Pelion, the constant drone of cicadas ‘like waves of an inland sea’. Being there, Burns strives to decipher a pre-verbal, primary experience that has already called for insistent retellings. In this he is assisted by Seferis, whose spectre arrives in ‘Neolithic’ to remind him that ‘light is mirrored in blood…dark and light are one’, and whose vision Burns’s originals are also among the best translations of, a prime example of poetry understood by poetry.
Full Review by Paschalis Nikolaou found in Modern Poetry in Translation: http://www.mptmagazine.com