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Changing by Richard Berengarten (Shearsman Books 2016)

Reviewed by Chenxin Jiang

It might be said of Richard Berengarten’s Changing, as it might be said of the ancient work of divination known as the I Ching, that it is a long poem. The former, in the words of its author, is a ‘single work, a composite poem made up of many small poems,’ mirroring the structure of the latter, a 9th-century BCE text whose poetry resonates despite the obscurity of its language to contemporary readers. The I Ching comprises 64 hexagrams, each consisting in six stacked horizontal lines that can be either broken or unbroken; for each of those lines, Changing has a single poem. Like the I Ching, Changing is a unified whole but not a sequential one.

Berengarten first encountered the I Ching in the influential Wilhelm-Baynes translation, an English translation of a German translation, as an undergraduate at Cambridge in the Sixties. The first poem in Changing was not written until decades later. To begin with, he did not turn to it for poetic inspiration but, rather, consulted it periodically for divination, as generations of users had done for millennia. As Berengarten puts it, the text is ‘activated by being intermeshed … with a diviner’s specific question’. Changing has a beguiling freshness to it, as if the ancient text is similarly activated by being intermeshed with a poetic impulse: Berengarten writes that ‘[v]arious modes of thinking, including both heuristic and iterative processes, played their part’ in its writing. The poems in Changing enact the kinship between the gravity of an act of divination and its element of (serious) play.

Each poem in Changing is a complete thought as well as part of a larger whole, using a particular line statement as a jumping-off point. ‘When she sang in the bazaar’, for instance, is based on the fourth line statement from #22 Grace Adorning, which reads as follows in the Wilhelm/Baynes translation:

Six in the fourth place means:
Grace or simplicity?
A white horse comes as if on wings.
He is not a robber,
He will not woo at the right time.

And Berengarten’s poem:

When she sang
in the bazaar, when she
uncurled her voice

a paid murderer swilling
coffee burned his lips
but did not curse

seven sparrows glancing
adoringly at airwaves
stayed put on their wire

five doped-out slaves
passing in chains lifted
stooped eyes, comprehending

the novice prayermaster
turned his head, his mouth
an awed O

and canny winds stopped
swirling, and blew seawards

If searching for parallels between the poem and the line statement, one could read the sense of danger latent in the line statement’s mention of a robber into the poem’s hired killer innocuously drinking coffee, or say that the ‘grace or simplicity’ of the line statement takes concrete form in the woman singing in the bazaar and the wonderment expressed by the prayermaster, that the gracefully winged white horse becomes orchestral winds and motionless sparrows, and so on. But Changing itself invites readers to understand the poem simply as responding to the hexagram rather than corresponding to it in some concrete way. Berengarten’s note, printed in grey italics at the bottom of each page, reads only: ‘grace is white / like a winged horse’.

Berengarten suggests that Changing might be read as a ‘gathering of poems’, pointing to the affinities as well as something like a relation of comity or concord between these short pieces. Several of them are portraits of people (‘Julie’ in #45 Massing, or ‘Rodney’ and ‘Izzie’ in #60 Restricting). Many describe a single moment, such as a phone call from a daughter (‘Hearing the other smiling’ in #3 Beginning) or grandchild (‘Alexander calling’ in #25 Untwisting). Changing is not exclusively an expression of Sinophilia. Its references range from Hasidic tales and Adorno to Epping Forest and Colonus.

Sometimes the poems in Changing engage directly with the logic of the I Ching itself regarding reversals of fortune and the various vicissitudes of human existence, as in ‘A Twist’ (also in Untwisting), in which the speaker describes his friend’s philosophical reaction to a bicycle accident that permanently scarred his face:

healing, again he opens
both eyes and sees

outward and inward.
A twist. A turn. A turning.
A returning.

The permanence of the scar juxtaposed with the finite process of healing: that responds to the I Ching. In #48 Welling, Replenishing, Berengarten describes the I Ching as a ‘self-replenishing/ inexhaustible/ fathomless/ ever-fresh well’:

never diffident
never irrelevant

solid yet flowing
firm yet yielding
radiating images.

Changing’s many images form a unified whole but not a sequential one, like the I Ching, which in Berengarten’s words ‘operates transversally to sequential linearity’. This long poem nonetheless includes a poem sequence recounting the story of Ali Bourequat, a Moroccan businessman imprisoned on the king’s orders for eighteen years. It is perfectly consonant with the I Ching that a linear narrative can reside in its non-linearity and that abstraction can be found in its images. In Changing, the I Ching is a generative rather than constricting, ‘solid yet flowing’ source.

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