[REVIEW] Rich and Varied: Richard Berengarten’s Changing

{Written by Eleanor Goodman, this review is part of Issue 39 (April 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Richard Berengarten, Changing, Shearsman Books, 2016, 563 pgs.


What should one make of the Yijing (易經), that book that announces its own transient and molting nature in its very name, the Book of Changes? Is it a book intended for divination, via coins, yarrow stalks or bibliomancy? Is it a representation of various states of being in the world, from the micro to the macro, from grand metaphysical hierarchies to social and political relationships, to how qi resides in and flows through the body to affect the mood, attitudes and actions of an individual? Is it a book of advice, of how to navigate the world and relate to other people, institutions and situations? One’s appreciation of the book, and use for it, changes over time, depending on need and interest. In that way, it is the ultimate tool, transforming in accordance with its user. Simply put, it is not a book to read, but to be lived.

Richard Berengarten clearly has a long and complicated relationship with the Yijing—or the I Ching, as it is romanised in the most famous Western translation and commentary by Richard Wilhelm (into German) and C.F. Baynes (into English from that German), a custom Berengarten continues. As he comments in his postscript:

I first came across the I Ching in 1962, when I was a nineteen-year-old undergraduate studying English at Cambridge: that is, just over fifty-four years ago at the time of writing this. It has fascinated me ever since and has constantly pulled me back into it. Like many others in my generation, I began to consult the book for divination and intermittently kept up the practice for many years …

The I Ching operates transversally to sequential linearity. It cuts across both logical and narrative modes, intersecting them by applying a mode of thinking and perception—and hence also, by invoking a way of being—that is irreducibly synthetic, correlative, resonant and poetic.

With Changing the emphasis is on poetry, although given the considerable span of time and the obvious commitment that went into the work, it also represents a way of living the Yijing. Changing is constructed around the structure of the Yijing itself, providing a poem for every changing line in each of the ancient text’s sixty-four hexagrams, along with a subtitular referential gloss at the bottom of each page, and what Berengarten calls a “head poem” that serves to introduce the flavour of the following hexagram. These head poems range from casual, even chatty, as in “On a slow train between Cambridge and King’s Cross” (for the hexagram “Small Blessing, Possessing,”—which Wilhelm/Baynes has as “The Taming Power of the Small” and David Hinton, in his gorgeous recent translation, renders as “Delicate Nurturing,” demonstrating the mutability and potential for interpretation inherent in the original ancient Chinese)—to the more formal or exotic-leaning “Consultation of the diagrams” and “Things, brimming.” This points to the very wide range of mode, tone and diction in Changing, which, while at times disconcerting, comes to be one of its many strengths.

This variety is a strength because life itself is multifarious. It is exalted and exhausting, dirty and graceful, far-reaching and familial. The best of these poems—and there are many excellent examples—pulse with living energy and lived experience. Take, for example, “Wild strawberry”:

Cling to the rock
as if you were the root
of a wild strawberry

clasping tendrils
among crannies in
the cliff-face

over lake-waters,
and hang your leaves
direct from heaven

in a nook where
daylight and darkness
both nourish you

and no huge winds
reach, where you’ve all
time and space

to grow and lead
your own sweet red
wild strawberry life.

This corresponds to the fifth changing line in the hexagram “Nourishing,” which Wilhelm/Baynes renders as “Turning away from the path. / To remain persevering brings good fortune. / One should not cross the great water.” To persevere, to cling to the rocks and nooks that support and protect, to be receptive and in some ways passive (this is a yin line, in the position in the hexagram that corresponds to speech and self-promotion) in order to prepare the groundwork for further growth and understanding—the reader is led not just to that conclusion but to that sensation by the cautious, considered language of the poem. Many of the poems in this book admirably fulfill their promise to mirror the emotional movement of the changing line, which is no easy feat.

The Yijing sometimes gives the diviner the feeling of consulting a wise sage who has seen it all before. As another old book of wisdom has it: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Some of the poems in Changing read uncannily like a description of the time in which we now find ourselves living. Take the poem “Collusion” from the hexagram “Stagnating, Decaying”:

Rottenness spread
so normally, so spiced
and glazed with reason

most believed it inevitable
and universal. Few noticed
this was no product of

‘wild’ nature, or natural
‘law’, but of cultivated
controlled operations

but profiteers and complicit
acolytes. Whether ensuing
corruption derived from

conspicuous conspiracy
among the ruling élite, whole-
sale communal collusion

or patterned itself on subtler
eruption of mass psychosis is
anybody’s theory or guess.

Brexit, the last American presidential election, Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal crackdown on drugs in the Philippines, the struggle to maintain a degree of political autonomy in Hong Kong—this poem applies. Yet the language is precise, impersonal, and this adds to the effect of a reasoned truth-teller. Our global poetry scene could use more of this sort of voice.

Other considerations aside, a reviewer would be remiss not to mention the sheer musicality of the verse on offer in this remarkable book.

In brick cracks
grass grows. Weeds root
wanting wilderness.

Dust decks king’s
castles. Trash carpets
cathedrals. Princes’

palaces crumble.
Decay drips down once
whitewashed walls.

Mould stains steps
and spiral stairways.
Gleaming water

wears away what
was glass and glaze.
Great halls fall.

Take heart. Time
to admit pattering
of inevitable fate.

            (“Past zenith”)

The expert play of consonance and assonance, the movement from “gleaming” to “glass” to “glaze,” and then from “great” to “heart”: there is a formidable poetic ear at work here. At times the wordplay may drift a bit out of hand, and there are poems that sometimes fall flat, but as a work of true ambition and scale, it is a tremendous achievement. Many others have used the Yijing as a source of inspiration for new intellectual invention—from Leibnitz and Hegel to Bob Dylan to the weird and wonderful fragmented essays by translator and sinologist Denis Mair, and even to a Google play app called “Deepware Changes” that lets users cast hexagrams on their cellphones. That category should also include those who have translated the book—a task that requires even more interpretative work than the average literary translation—from the early Jesuits to the inimitable Richard Wilhelm to Edward L. Shaughnessy (a premier Yijing expert who provides an interesting introduction to Changing that yet seems oddly disconnected from the book in question) to the very recent (and very different) publications by David Hinton and John Minford. Into this rich and varied mix, Berengarten’s Changing makes a significant contribution to the larger conversation, and should be read alongside these other fruitful grapplings with an ancient and endlessly mutable text.


Eleanor Goodman.jpg

Eleanor Goodman‘s translation of Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni (Zephyr Press, 2014) was the winner of the 2015 Lucien Stryk Prize and the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant. The book was shortlisted for the International Griffin Prize. She is also the translator of the anthology Iron Moon: Chinese Worker Poetry (White Pine Press, 2017), The Roots of Wisdom: Poems by Zang Di (Zephyr Press, 2017), and Days When I Hide My Corpse in a Cardboard Box: Poems of Natalia Chan (HKU Press, 2018). Her first collection of poetry, Nine Dragon Island (Enclave/Zephyr, 2016), was a finalist for the Drunken Boat First Book Prize. She is a Research Associate at the Harvard University Fairbank Center.

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