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The Blue Butterfly has two points of departure. The first is a Nazi massacre in former Yugoslavia. On 21 October 1941, seven thousand men and boys from Kragujevac, a town in central Serbia, were marched out to the nearby hills and gunned down. The poet Richard Burns visited the site of this atrocity, on 25 May 1985. As he was queuing to enter the memorial museum, a blue butterfly descended onto the forefinger of his writing hand. This extraordinary and powerful book takes off from these two episodes. The title poem is already famous in former Yugoslavia in the translation by Danilo Kiš and Ivan V. Lalić. In Serbia, Burns has recently been honoured with the international Morava Prize for Poetry. In the UK, an early unpublished draft of this sequence was awarded the Wingate-Jewish Quarterly Prize in 1992. The Blue Butterfly unflinchingly explores both revenge and forgiveness, expanding from the Balkan historical context to the present time. The complete book has been a long time in the making. Because it examines profound and important issues, because it does not flinch from asking large questions, because it shapes a crafted, vital, living poetry out of suffering and tragedy, and because it insists on hope and pleads for joy, this is a book which has moral implications on many levels. Both passionate and thoughtful, demanding and rewarding, it is European in context and universal in scope and relevance.
For more than twenty years Richard Burns has maintained a close involvement with life, culture and politics in the Balkans, especially Greece and former Yugoslavia. He lived and worked in Yugoslavia between 1987 and 1991, immediately before the wars that broke that country apart. Out of this have come two books, and a third is on the way. Of these three, The Blue Butterfly is the centrepiece. To be published in June 2006 by Salt Publishing, Cambridge, is it also the second volume in Burns's ongoing series of Selected Writings.
‘This is real poetry. The whole book is an extremely impressive achievement.’ —Frank Kermode
‘One of the chief functions of poetry is commemoration: the poet tries to make a shape in language to perpetuate the passing moment of which the poet, the poet’s family and nation, and ever further, echoing ever more distantly, the whole human race is a part. But the human race does terrible things and suffers terrible things. Any murder is a crime. A massacre is a particularly heinous crime, and the event recalled here, a massacre of children is beyond words.
Or would be. Richard Burns has written an entire book of poems on the massacre at Kragujevac in October 1941. In various forms (sonnets, villanelles, terza rima and many others) and in various sections ranging from song and lament for the specific event, through the registering of the experiences of survivors, to metaphysical and philosophical questionings and short elegies, he gives shape to a moment apparently far in time and space. The figure of the small blue butterfly (a perfectly real butterfly as the photograph shows) is the impulse, the movement of whose wings starts a storm across half a world.
Epic poems are rare. This is one. Richard Burns is one of the major half-hidden poets of England. The book is a monument: vivid, grave, sorrowful, angry and powerfully constructed, a human act of commemoration.
’ —George Szirtes
‘I admire this book deeply. Delicately and rightly, it balances grief, joy, guilt, wonder and blessing. The ‘lacing’ of the poems into their contexts by the use of archival material, documents and photographs, works to mesh the poems back into history, but also to mesh history back into the present. It is a book which burns with ‘quiet fire’.’ —Robert MacFarlane
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