Reviewed: The Blue Butterfly by Richard Burns. Salt Publishing, 2006.
That Richard Burns is not as well known as his poetry merits, even in his native England, is a situation for which I can think of a couple of reasons. First, his book publications, which go back to the late 1960s, have mostly been with small presses and so have not been widely available or publicized. Salt Publications is now doing something about that: The Blue Butterfly (2006) is the second volume in an ongoing series of Burns’s selected writings. For the Living (2004), a selection of his longer poems from 1965 to 2000, was the first. Another reason that Burns is not as widely discussed and appreciated as he should be is that he is a romantic. Not, of course, in a hokey “neoromantic” sense; it’s just that, since his earliest publications, he has written about truth and beauty as if they actually matter—not exactly a part of the job description in po-biz over the past forty or fifty years. His early collection Avebury (1972; and included in For the Living), for example, articulates a foundation myth in terms adapted to the postmodern predicament, a time in which, says Burns—responding to Yeats’s phrase “the center will not hold”—“the center is everywhere” (to which I would respond, Yeats was talking about a center that is, precisely, everywhere: within us all). Octavio Paz was one of Burns’s mentors in that sequence of poems, and Burns’s vision has much in common with that of Paz.
Burns has often written on visionary themes without the conceptual distancing, confessional tactics, ironic disclaimers, or aw-shucks chattiness that so often pass these days for being “contemporary.” This is not at all to say that he has not been writing as a contemporary man speaking to other contemporaries. On the contrary, his poetry is accessible and he grapples with the same cultural uprootedness and metaphysical disorientation as most of us. Burns’s recent book-length sequence The Manager (2001) is an extended dramatic monologue of an executive in a multinational corporation. This fiction gave Burns a means for exploring current idioms and jargon—he wrote the sequence in a variable unit he calls a verse paragraph—and contemporary dissociated mental states. It is the first of Burns’s books that I read, and I was so impressed by the vitality and inventiveness of the language, and the compassion of the authorial voice, that I had to follow it up with more of his books. What I have learned is that Burns is one of the more accomplished English poets currently writing, equally adept at traditional metrical forms, such as sonnets, villanelles, and blank verse, as he is at the free verse lyric or the speech rhythms used so effectively in The Manager. One of his virtues, as for any strong poet, is his ability to adapt the form to the poem and the subject matter at hand—and in Burns’s case the subject is usually serious and far-reaching.
Which brings me to The Blue Butterfly. This is another book-length sequence (that Burns has excelled in long poems is another reason for his relative obscurity), this time about a massacre of thousands of Serbians by the Nazis in World War II. Composed between May 1985 and April 2006, the book’s conception came about when the author was visiting Šumarice, in the former Yugoslavia (now central-western Serbia), where a museum commemorates the massacre carried out by the Nazis on October 19–21, 1941, six months after the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia. Šumarice is an area just outside Kragujevac, which is the main city of that part of Serbia. Burns explains that while he and his daughter were waiting to enter the museum a blue butterfly came to rest on the forefinger of his left hand, which is the hand he writes with. They each took photographs of the butterfly, one of which is shown in the book’s frontispiece.
That this event was deeply meaningful for Burns is evidenced by the fact that the title poem and one other poem were written—or wrote themselves, as he says—immediately after Burns’s return to England. I will quote the poem “The Blue Butterfly” here in full, since it expresses more clearly than I could the moral energy that led the poet to pursue a project that took him twenty years to complete:
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 its untutored messages
among Latin-reading rugby-playing militarists
in an élite 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.
After the writing of this poem and the one that follows it in the collection, Burns set out to study the history of World War II in the former Yugoslavia and of the massacre that took place at Šumarice—the fruits of this study are evident in the book’s postscript, which documents the historical background, and in the excellent notes section. From 1987 to 1990 Burns lived in Yugoslavia, where he planned the book’s structure and composed early drafts of many of its poems.
George Szirtes, in a blurb on the back cover of The Blue Butterfly, calls it an epic; I would call it an extended meditation on tragedy, on the dead, on beauty and ugliness and good and evil—but not an epic. Epics are narratives in an elevated style and so have been on holiday for a while now in our culture. Burns’s book is a commemoration, as Szirtes also says; it is a generous, ambitious foray into ritualized grief, dismay, and wonder. It is a richly conceived, integrated sequence, to be sure, beginning in darkness and consternation, undergoing the katabasis of existential doubt and despair, and ending with affirmation.
It is clear that Burns gave a great deal of thought to the book’s design. There are seven sections of seven poems each. Burns has often employed number symbolism in his work, one of several ways he expresses his affinity with hermetic-kabbalistic thought. For example, he once wrote a long poem called Tree (1980; again, included in For the Living), about the kabbalistic tree of life as well as physical trees, which has the same number of lines as a calendar year has days. Burns’s choice of the number seven for The Blue Butterfly would also seem to be related to his Jewish ancestry (his father was an immigrant to London from Warsaw). Seven is a sacred number in many traditions, but I am going to hazard a guess that Burns is using the number seven here as an analogue of the Sabbath, the day of rest that commemorates the seventh day of the creation, on which, Genesis says, God rested because the creation was complete and good. Seven in this sense is the number of the wholeness that blesses—which is how The Blue Butterfly ends, with seven “blessings” of the lives that were desecrated by the massacre.
Very little of the poetry in this book directly recalls the terrible event itself—the documentation in back, which includes old photographs, serves that function. One poem at the start of the book records the Nazi order to carry out the murder of one hundred Serbs for every German soldier killed by Serbian insurgents, and fifty Serbs for every wounded German. This poem, called “Two Documents,” is a dark satire on officialese—the language of which it imitates—which expresses the oft-noted dullness of the Nazi mindset, what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil, of totalitarianism driven by monotonous monomaniacal efficiency. As Burns’s poem expresses it: “The quick / and ruthless suppression of the Serbian uprising // represents a considerable gain towards the final / German Victory.” The next poem narrates matter-of-factly the day of the massacre, interspersed with quotations from notes the victims wrote to loved ones just before they were taken to slaughter—a few of the notes are reproduced in the documentary section of the book.
And that is all, in terms of direct, specific reference to the atrocity. The remainder of the book is alternately a commemoration of the victims and a self-reflective exploration of the fact of being a poet-survivor of this and other holocausts (again, Burns’s ancestry clearly is important here). All of us, as survivors, are left to confront or avoid or gloss over the darkest nadirs of our history, where “lie sentences so deep they are unsayable.” And yet, as a poet, Burns is compelled to try to say the unsayable. In “The Telling,” which is a poem in three “attempts,” as Burns calls them, the poet asks: “Is it language itself won’t do here?” His hope is
to carry a cargo of such immense weight
of souls from the hold of their burying ground,
seal pain, refine death, transubstantiate
blood, to wine, to spirit. This, blue fritillary,
flight filtered fine in a poem’s distillery,
is how I would ring their memorial sound.
And yet, to do this is to confront a paradox: how can the poet craft an aesthetic object based on a tragedy that appears so unredeemable and unspeakable? As the mother of a dead child says in a sequence of seven villanelles called “The Death of Children”:
There is no comfort. What comfort can come,
when neither here nor up on high
are love and justice more than martyrdom?
Furthermore, what do we, the living, do with the fact of the world’s beauty, of our pleasure or happiness on a given day, given the stain on our memory brought about by tragedies like the one in Šumarice?
The mental stench of soil soaked in spilt blood
drowns out even the blueness of this heaven.
A poem from “Seven Wreaths,” a sonnet sequence in this book that takes as its starting point the flowers that have grown where the massacre took place, asks, “Could flowers’ quiet voices avenge these fallen?” But how can nature heal anything, when, as the father of a dead child puts it, “Nature . . . Bloody in vengeance, red in tooth and claw,” is so often a force that “snarl[s] at human longing, love and law”? On one hand, Burns’s view of regeneration echoes Shelley in its use of natural imagery to depict an eschatological redemption:
Should ever judgement come to fit this crime,
should these dead but awaken, and their tombs
throw up their burdens, in that timeless time
when earth harvests redemption, then these blooms
will rise with scaly wings, like imagos
of butterflies, blue heralds . . .
and, again echoing Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”:
Rooted in death, but death’s antithesis,
what is this wreath, if not hope’s chrysalis?
—even if, for now, the flowers the speaker is observing are merely “weak angels, harbingers . . . / in blood and crimson rose.” The red of the flowers, lovely to look at, is also a reminder of blood. In this life, the shedding of blood almost always leads to more shedding of blood. Once again, the poet resolves this dilemma by an imaginative leap: “until / red stands for more than . . . avenging will,” and “until revenge’ll / take vengeance on itself, take eye for eye / no more.”
In the above quotations, Burns writes in the tradition that stakes a claim for imagination’s metaphysical efficacy. But this optimism is tempered in the next sonnet: “Against revenge? No. Just a mass of flowers.” Similarly, elsewhere he writes that “the dead do not hear us, and we are not Orpheus”; and “how / can the likes of us claim anywhere anything more / than a handful of smoke and puff or wisp of dust?”; “I should like to speak with conviction but am condemned / to stammering.” Further, he asks, can it be that
everything we have been vanishes
and consciousness itself or what we have been vanishes
and all we have imagined, believed, dreamed and aspired to,
even touched and reached, really consisted of nothing?
In such passages, and there are many in this collection and elsewhere in Burns’s oeuvre, we find ourselves in the familiar area of postmodern doubt. Burns has been consistent in being a romantic who shares in the existential quandaries of the present. Holding to seemingly contrary opposites—not getting stuck on “antifoundationalism” and other poststructural gerbil wheels—he practices negative capability in its original, Keatsian sense. Burns has elsewhere expressed his debt to the renegade Jungian James Hillman, who has advocated just such an approach, in books such as The Dream and the Underworld, which seems directly to inform parts of the longest poem in Burns’s collection, “Conversation between a Blue Butterfly and a Murdered Man at One of the Entrances to the Underworld.” This poem is one of the pieces in “Flight of the Imago,” the philosophical section in this book, in which the author ruminates in long, metrically loose lines. Hillman has been consistent in his defense of the soul’s perspective, which he contrasts with that of the spirit. The spirit, says Hillman, is azure-inclined, arrow-like in its trajectory, ascetic, and detached. The soul, meanwhile, enjoys dark depths, attachments, and polysemy. While the spirit soars the soul flits—hence its name in Greek, psyche, butterfly. This is no doubt why the blue butterfly is the muse of this book:
Teach me, blue butterfly, to open
these winged words in singing and in dancing.
That an actual blue butterfly landed on the author’s actual hand does not in the least preclude its being a symbol as well. This is the meaning of synchronicity, which Jung said is “the acausal connecting principle” behind meaningful coincidences. As elsewhere in Burns, this way of thinking is consistent with the hermetic or orphic worldview, which does not explain relations between events in terms of cause and effect but rather in terms of analogy. Synchronicity is the theory of correspondences in practice.
So, in the long dialogue between the blue butterfly and the murdered man, the blue butterfly acts as Mercurial psychopomp, explaining that “Language has gaps and holes and in them lurk / many incomprehensible expanses.” But for Burns, as for Hillman, these gaps are entrances to another kind of consciousness, however disorienting—an underworld consciousness that is totally ungraspable by reason, not just the dead end of nihil, as in so much postmodernese. The murdered man asks the butterfly: “Into or out of what notness do you call me?” to which the butterfly responds, “Where but under dark. Underneath it. Under / Death”—a response that goes back at least to Heraclitus.
Burns gives voice, then, to a particular kind of contemporary faith, which might be called postmodern orphism. Like any modern writer, he has fewer options than the premoderns had for writing about evil and death, which is probably the reason so little poetry these days takes on these enormous themes other than reductively. Dante had all of hell to work with, directed by the moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. The Hindus had their pantheon of demons, the Greeks their Furies and fickle gods. We don’t have the collective imaginal forms for giving shape to the essences of these experiences, so we are left with existential reflections and private or eclectic symbols. We say, with Burns, “What justice is, nobody comprehends.”
Whoever offers arguments pretends
to read fate’s lines. Although we must swear by
what justice is, nobody comprehends
how destiny of chance weaves.
Likewise, in a poem about a woman mourning a loved one, the poet says,
She does not believe
in God, yet to the dead human, god-huge in her head,
she ferries wordless questions.
And what are we to make of the apparent randomness of fate? “What hand, against the odds, pulled the Warsavian / musician out of the queue from ghetto to gas chamber . . . Why him and not another?”; and “The detached Goddess Ananke pours acid on our eyes / and smiles the far-away smile of a lover, thug / or torturer.” Given this brutal indifference of life, what is the point of poetry—or as one poem title says, “What Then Is Singing? And What Dancing?” Burns’s answer is that it is
an emptying and replenishing
of the full cup of memory, into now and always
from the source of always and now
by which we
transform petty purpose into total celebration
of now in the cup of always, always in the bowl of now.
Burns’s response to total death and negation, and ultimately this is no different from the answer that Dante gave, is that despite the unchanging predictable routineness of evil and human stupidity, “we must love”—love and courage extend beyond our individual lives or collective present, “to thread . . . through the fibres of the tree / that outspans and outlasts our histories.” As another poem puts it:
I affirm still a man may trace his particular vision
however vicarious or wavering, like the path
of a blue butterfly . . .
register that, for always, in memory’s palpable zone
for anybody who comes there, everybody who comes there,
to visit, to be touched by beauty, as one enters a garden.
One of the most outstanding individual poems in the volume is a dream-vision narrative in terza rima. It appears in a section of “Seven Statements of Survivors”—and, again, it is clear that by survivors Burns means all of us. In this poem, the narrator encounters a goddess or anima figure by the sea. The sun has just passed beneath the horizon; it is dusk. The feminine figure, whose “silhouetted body might stir love’s / unrealised longings in me, yet be bearable,” comes to the narrator “as if she knew my self-esteem // had sunk so deep, I had lost hope.” She represents the transformative power of beauty; in this case, given the darkness of the book’s subject, beauty that is met on the other side of “the deepest terrors you must face.” She is an initiator: “call me keeper of that door // locked fast below fear’s last extremity”; “Your soul is summoned to the secret source of day,” where the sun has gone, below the horizon. The structure of the book as a whole, it seems, could be seen as an enactment of the sun’s journey at night, renewal through descent. Or, as one of the massacre victim–narrators in “Seven Songs of the Dead” puts it, addressing his daughter who is mourning him at his grave:
when your dusk closes
and your sun fails
the black suns on my scales
guide me through mazes
unthreaded by cock-crow.
“The black light behind the sun / opens. And on the skies, black stars.”
This book as a whole is both troubling and consolatory, because the author’s response to his difficult subject was complex, sensitive, and unsentimental. Richard Burns had already accumulated a distinguished body of work, and The Blue Butterfly adds to that resumé.