Lucas Klein reviews Richard Berengarten’s Changing

  Lakes and Mountains
  Lucas Klein reviews

  Changing, by Richard Berengarten
  via Eliot Weinberger on the I Ching

  JPR 08

Paragraph One follows — 1:

“Octavio Paz, Allen Ginsberg, Jorge Luis Borges, and Charles Olson, among many others, wrote poems inspired by its poetic language,” Eliot Weinberger writes. “Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics used it to explain quantum mechanics and Terence McKenna found that its geometrical patterns mirrored the ‘chemical waves’ produced by hallucinogens. Others considered its binary system of lines a prototype for the computer.” Weinberger is referring, of course, to the I Ching, China’s bronze age “classic of changes.” He continues:


Philip K. Dick and Raymond Queneau based novels on it; Jackson Mac Low and John Cage invented elaborate procedures using it to generate poems and musical compositions. It is not difficult to recuperate how thrilling the arrival of the I Ching was both to the avant-gardists, who were emphasizing process over product in art, and to the anti-authoritarian counterculturalists. It brought, not from the soulless West, but from the Mysterious East, what [Richard] Wilhelm called ‘the seasoned wisdom of thousands of years.’


It was an ancient book without an author, a cyclical configuration with no beginning or end, a religious text with neither exotic gods nor priests to whom one must submit, a do-it-yourself divination that required no professional diviner. It was a self-help book for those who wouldn’t be caught reading self-help books, and moreover one that provided an alluring glimpse of one’s personal future. It was, said Bob Dylan, “the only thing that is amazingly true.”[1]

Richard Berengarten (left)


To Paz, Ginsberg, Borges, Olson, Dick, Queneau, Mac Low, and Cage can now be added Richard Berengarten. His Changing, published by Shearsman last year, is the newest work to write into and out of the methodology of the I Ching. It may also be the most ambitious.


And yet the ambition of Changing is counterbalanced with the understated everydayness of many of Berengarten’s poems, like the interplay of yin and yang in the hexagrams’ broken and unbroken lines.


The book totals 563 pages, comprising 450 individual poems, each of eighteen lines. As Berengarten explains his process in the “Postscript,”


I have modelled Changing closely on the I Ching by replicating and adapting its architectonic patterns at various levels of compositional structure. At the micro-level … each poem has six stanzas and each stanza consists of three lines. In this way, the forms of both hexagram and trigram are implicitly re-presented (re-called, re-embodied, reduplicated, replicated, etc.) in each poem’s mise-en-page. The visual and formal patterning of six tercets (eighteen lines also suggests three hexagrams stacked over one another)

Richard Berengarten


At the macro-level, the book consists of sixty-four clusters of poems, each re-presenting a hexagram. Each cluster begins with an italicised ‘head-poem’, which is related thematically to its corresponding hexagram title and statement in the I Ching; and each of these is followed by six further numbered poems corresponding structurally (and often, though not always, thematically too) to the hexagram’s six change-lines.


In this way, each of the I Ching’s hexagrams yields a cluster of seven poems, arranged hierarchically and in a sequence that follows that of the ‘received’ (standard) version. Together with two additional poems for the I Ching’s extra line-readings in the first two hexagrams, the number of poems in the book is (64 x 7) + 2 = 450. [2]


Berengarten also mentions that he “came across the I Ching in 1962,” as “a nineteen-year-old undergraduate studying English at Cambridge,” and the first poem he wrote “out of” the I Ching was on August 30, 1984, “beginning to entertain the idea of writing a collection based on the I Ching” by the nineties. [3]


So not only have these ambitions served him for over fifty years, since writing the first poem of the book he has published, by my count, at least nine other books of poetry, not to mention his prose and the collections he’s edited.


And yet look at that first poem he wrote — the first chronologically, not as it appears in the book — titled “Two lakes, joined”:


Two lakes, joined,
one above the other
along the same river:

Upstream, the Derwent
and, below,
the Ladybower.

When two lakes join
together they
do not dry up.

One draws the other
through constant

Upstream, the Derwent
and, below
the Ladybower.

two lakes, joined,
one above the other. [4]


This piece, Berengarten explains “was based on a divination,” and “articulated itself quickly and effortlessly through composition into its particular form, with little need for restructuring or rewriting.” [5]


Rather than ambitious and egocentric, the poem reads as meditative in its repetitions, sexual yet not lustful, therefore loving but not Romantic (there is a Derwent in Wordsworth’s Lake District, but here the Derwent and Ladybower are manmade lakes in the Peak District. [6]


Overall, the poem is one of joy: indeed, that is the gloss Berengarten gives at the bottom of the page:


joy                                                                on joy


(which is to say as well that if these subtitular glosses are also poems, then there are more than 450 in Changing). In both its tone and its themes, the poem casts off the ambition and ego otherwise implied by the project as a whole.


Not that Changing doesn’t include poems more emblematic of its drive to encompass.


The thirty pages of notes at the end of the book attest to this, ranging references from bronze age China to Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, and Joan Baez (“The night before // he was executed, Joe telegraphed / Big Bill Haywood: ‘Don’t waste / time in mourning. Organize’”) to Edmond Jabès (“Singular, unique you, // final piece in its puzzle, / end-cog, wired connection / completing its circuit, // switching it on, off, on, / you open and close the book / with no back cover”) to Thomas Malory (“And when Sir Bedivere had / thrown the sword in the lake, an / arm and hand rose up straight / from the waters and grasped it”) to Theodore Adorno (“I shall find words, my / own, after, despite and because / of this. And speak of it. / … Whatever your intent, your // words invite barbarism / to root in nothing-saying. / Failure is not of or in // language, but small trust / and short vision. Our task lives / in words. Not outwith them”) to Cesar Vallejo (“Calor, Paris, Otoño, ¡cuanto estío / (Heat, Paris, autumn, so much summer) — / and then turned pages and read // C’est la via, more de la Mort! — / and that was even finer than fine. / Poetry is a criticism of death”) to Blaise Pascal and Caliban (“The grandeur / of these infinite spaces / gives delight / and hurts not.”) [7]


And there is of course ambition in the heightened pitch of many of the poems:


Josh’s fossil turned out
a nautiloid, black limestone,
400 million years old.

Air in these lungs
is thick with crumbled
shit dust. Meanings

that moan in dross
and memorabilia demand
magnified attention. [8]


Or here, where the texture of the language here sets it apart:


Ballasted angled keels,
hewed smooth-curved hulls to
sit stable in water, caulked

carvel planks, lengthened
bowsprits, hoised masts further
forward, slung neat jibs… [9]


But more common are plainspoken statements with philosophical implications. From “A lake on a mountain”:


A mountain presses
up, pushes its presence
to rear, bucking

against gravity. So
when a lake forms on
a mountain, opposed

forces meet and
merge in fine self-
checking balance. [10]


Which is to say, the book’s greatest ambition may be to stay as accessible as the everyday.


The quotidian ambition of Changing also gives it an internal tension. If this is an embodiment of the I Ching’s yin and yang, it is at once the result of the poem’s — and, I think, Berengarten’s — greatest influences being the poetics of Octavio Paz and Ezra Pound.


Pound, of course, was not only, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time” with Cathay, his 1915 translations of medieval Chinese poetry, but was also one of the progenitors of the by now long tradition of writing Chinese culture in poetry in English.[11] Pound is, unsurprisingly, referred to many times throughout Changing, from the last line of the epigraph (“it coheres all right”) to the final poem (“It all coheres, no question, / as do these notes of mine”) — including a poem written against Pound’s lines “these were the ‘Wing’d-with-Awe’, / Inviolable,” from a poem Berengarten titles “Hail Victory,” a translation of Sieg Heil.[12] But while Berengarten disclaims the fascist in Pound, clearly he emulates his erudition.


Poet Octavio Paz, photo by AFP.

The Paz in Changing is perhaps the more interesting case. “Of all the poets I have known personally,” Berengarten has written elsewhere, “Octavio Paz has had the strongest and most lasting effect on me” — and it shows. [13]


They met in Cambridge in 1970, when Paz was writing The Monkey Grammarian (whose main character, the simian deity Hanuma¯n, also incarnated as Sun Wukong in the Ming dynasty Journey to the West). While Pound has his focus on the luminous detail, Paz is the gentler poet, and lends Changing its understated tenderness — even without being cited as often (or because he is not cited as often).


Nor should Paz’s relationship to China be overlooked as a deep wellspring for Berengarten’s interest in the I Ching. Weinberger has catalogued some of Paz’s expression of China:


Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, translations of Chinese and Japanese poets. East Slope [Ladera este, 1969], arguably his best book of poetry, takes its title from the Sung Dynasty poet Su Shih, who wrote under the name Su Tung-p’o (East Slope). The pages on Taoism and Chinese eroticism in Conjunctions and Disjunctions [Conjunciones y disyunciones, 1969]… In the 1970s and 1980s, short essays on Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Han Yu, and other Chinese poets… In 1989, Duo Duo, the young Chinese poet avidly read by students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square, remarks that his favorite poet is Octavio Paz. [14]


Weinberger adds that Paz “never indulged in Orientalism.” [15] And alongside Duo Duo’s interest in Paz, there is also the contemporary Chinese-language poet Yang Lian, whose Yi is also based on the I Ching and, according to translator Mabel Lee, bears many similarities to Paz’s poetics in “Sunstone.” [16] Weinberger continues that one of Paz’s most “Chinese” poems, “Concord,”


Water above
Grover below
Wind on the roads

Quiet well
Bucket’s black Spring water

Water coming down to the trees
Sky rising to the lips [17]


“takes its first two lines from the I Ching (the 28th hexagram, Ta Kuo: ‘The lake rises above the trees: The image of “Preponderance of the Great.” Thus the superior man, when he stands alone, is unconcerned, and if he has to renounce the world, he is undaunted.’)” [18]


Those lines had been written by 1968, two years before Berengarten met him. “In 2014,” Berengarten writes, he discovered “that Octavio had been exploring the Chinese Book of Changes as early as 1958.” Serendipitously, the two “had been following similar explorative approaches into the I Ching… but by independent routes.” Berengarten concludes: “To Octavio, then, what is called chance is just one of the modes through which our perception registers the inherent coherence and connectivity of things.” [19]


But if Paz never indulged in Orientalism, has Berengarten? Is Changing indicative of what Timothy Yu has said about “white writers praising Chinese culture while ignoring Chinese people”? [20] Weinberger’s line above, about “the seasoned wisdom” from “the Mysterious East,” implies that nearly any vision of the I Ching would have its Orientalist aspects.


Wikipedia calls Berengarten “a British poet, translator and editor,” but his own website says he is “a European poet who writes in English”; is such cosmopolitanism not a pose that overrides locality and real borders, which he can afford by virtue of a passport he doesn’t admit to? [21] The allusions I traced out above are all of Western literature — in writing from the I Ching is he extracting value from Chinese heritage only for the exclusive use of a separate tradition in the West?

Scholar Lucas Klein.


My answer is no. Orientalism is real, but reflexive accusations of Orientalism for nearly any engagement with a cultural other are too easy (such an accusation was recently made of Weinberger, in fact, in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “Reading him sometimes feels like traveling across a map that’s still studded with sea monsters… How rigorous are our standards for cultural borrowing here?”). [22]


For one thing, Berengarten points as frequently to scholarship on China and the I Ching in its earlier contexts as he does to European and American reference points. The sources for most of his knowledge about the I Ching are Edward L. Shaughnessy (who also provides Changing with its preface) and Richard J. Smith, as well as innumerable Chinese friends and acquaintances who have guided him in his journeys; their not being included above as illustrations of Changing’s breadth represents my selection based on what I expect to be legible to my audience here. [23]


In addition, Berengarten’s acknowledgement of his living Chinese sources not only makes the I Ching more contemporary, it also avoids the typical Western construction of China, which is to make itself the standard-bearer of modernity while relegating China to antiquity. More broadly, look at the history of the I Ching itself: it has its cultural rootedness, but it is also oracular — and like all oracles, it was meant to be open not only to interpretation, but open to outsiders as well as insiders.


And it has been. Weinberger writes of the I Ching’s mythic origins that Fu Xi discovered that “the patterns of nature” — namely “the markings on birds, rocks, and animals, the movement of clouds, the arrangement of the stars” — could be “reduced to eight trigrams, each composed of three stacked solid or broken lines, reflecting the yin and yang, the duality that drives the universe … From these building blocks of the cosmos, Fu Xi devolved all aspects of civilization — kingship, marriage, writing, navigation, agriculture — all of which he taught to his human descendants.” Of course, “The archaeological and historical version of this narrative is far murkier”:


In the Shang dynasty (which began circa 1600 BCE) or possibly even earlier, fortune-telling diviners would apply heat to tortoise shells or the scapulae of oxen and interpret the cracks that were produced … Where the hexagrams came from, or how they were interpreted, is completely unknown.



And for centuries much of the story of the I Ching has already been international: the registry of writers with which I started the review, of course, but also earlier, as “the I Ching was discovered in the late seventeenth century by Jesuit missionaries in China … Leibniz enthusiastically found the universality of his binary system in the solid and broken lines.”


Later, it was “It was Richard Wilhelm’s 1924 German translation of the I Ching and especially the English translation of the German by the Jungian Cary F. Baynes in 1950 that transformed the text from Sinological arcana to international celebrity.” The German edition gave general terms to “specifically Chinese referents,” as well as “scores of footnotes noting ‘parallels’ to Goethe, Kant, the German Romantics, and the Bible,” so not all cross-cultural representation is free from ethnocentric implicit violence, of course.


But in the presentation of the I Ching as emphasizing a “Jungian, metaphysical version of chance,” the I Ching became a text that wrote the merging and melding of times and cultures (“even if,” Weinberger writes, “for true believers, the I Ching does not operate on chance at all”). [25]


Weinberger’s essay is in fact a review of two recent translations of the I Ching (too recent for Berengarten to have consulted them), one by John Minford and another by David Hinton. [26] “The two latest translations of the I Ching couldn’t be more unalike,” he writes; “they are a complementary yin and yang of approaches.”


Minford’s, “obviously the result of many years of study, is nine hundred pages long, much of it in small type, and encyclopedic,” presenting as well the translator’s reflections to “link the hexagram to Chinese poetry, art, ritual, history, philosophy, and mythology.”


On the other hand, Hinton, a classical scholar rare for being “thoroughly conversant with, and connected to, contemporary literature in English,” gives “only two pages allotted to each hexagram … Rather than consulted, it is meant to be read cover to cover, like a book of modern English poetry — though it should be said that this is very much a translation, and not an ‘imitation’ or a postmodern elaboration.” [27]


Changing is an elaboration, rather than a translation; Berengarten explains: “My hope is that this book will be read first and foremost as a poem, or gathering of poems, in its own right and for its own sake.” [28] Nevertheless, insofar as Weinberger explains that “the I Ching is a mirror of one’s own concerns or expectations … like one of the bronze mirrors from the Shang dynasty, now covered in a dark blue-green patina so that it doesn’t reflect at all,” we can also draw the same conclusion about the reflections and refractions, the clarity and opacity, of Changing. [29]


Though it is not a translation, Changing has elements of both Minford’s and Hinton’s I Chings. It is both encyclopedic and linked to poetry, art, ritual, history, philosophy, and mythology, as Weinberger describes Minford’s I Ching. It should also be read either cover to cover, like Hinton’s I Ching, or, better, “dipped into at random, the way one reads E. M. Cioran or Elias Canetti.” [30] At best, both what Berengarten says and how he says it are profound; at worst, the form’s repetitions override what makes each entry interesting. I recommend dipping into it, or perhaps consulting it as you might an I Ching translation.


Weinberger compares Hinton and Minford’s treatment of Hexagram 52, which Minford calls “Mountain” (it is two Mountain trigrams on top of each other) and Hinton translates as “Stillness”. [31] Minford’s translation reads:


The back

Is still

As a mountain;

There is no body.

He walks

In the courtyard,


No Harm,

Nullum malum.


Hinton translates:


Stillness in your back. Expect nothing from your life. Wander the courtyard where you see no one. How could you ever go astray?


“None of these are necessarily misinterpretations or mistranslations,” Weinberger writes. Yet what is certain is only that Hexagram 52 is composed of two Mountain trigrams and has something to do with the back and something to do with a courtyard that is either empty or where people in it are not seen. Otherwise, these few lines may be about stillness, having no expectations, self-restraint, peace of mind, knowing when not to follow a leader, the care of various aches and pains, glaring at things, and the preparations for, and results of, human or animal sacrifices. [32]


For his part, Berengarten renders the name of the hexagram “Stilling,” and the first poem, about the hexagram itself, is titled “He left his city.”


He left his city,
walked out past
wind-battered scanty

fields carved vertiginous
in terraces, sheds wedged
against hillside rills

nestling perilous on
edges and past these
higher still where

scant trees grew,
to a cloud-smothered
mist-wreathed hut

on a gorse-spattered
plateau. Friend, he said
on arrival, I bring you

no gift, either of inheritance
or of adequate skill. None
the less, here I am. [33]


The poem starts to narrate what seems like the prototypical Chinese hermit at the moment of becoming, but his mist-wreathed mountain is in fact a plateau, spattered with gorse — a flower native to western Europe. Perhaps the mountain on mountain takes place not far from the “Two lakes, joined,” above, from which Changing grew? And where the hexagram, in either Minford’s or Hinton’s version, talks of meeting and being met by no one, Berengarten’s hermit meets a friend. In its way, then, this poem, like every poem in Changing, is a microcosm of the book in which it takes part and its relationship to the I Ching: two mountains conjoined, as if reflecting each other across the surface of a lake, rippling with differentiation, and yet always returning to each other in stillness.


Yin and yang are not only the broken and solid lines of I Ching hexagrams, or the feminine and masculine, respectively, or the ambitious and the quotidian; they are also, in their earliest definitions, the north side of a body of water or the south face a mountain (yang), and the south side of a body of water and the mountain’s north face (yin). And even when they are still, they are always changing.


[1] Eliot Weinberger, “The I Ching,” in The Ghosts of Birds (New York: New Directions, 2016), 145–46. Or see, online, Eliot Weinberger, “What Is the I Ching,” The New York Review of Books, February 25, 2016,

[2] Richard Berengarten, Changing (London: Shearsman Books, 2016), 525.

[3] Berengarten, 523, 524–25.

[4] Berengarten, Changing, 464.

[5] Berengarten, 524–25.

[6] See Berengarten, 561.

[7] Berengarten, 56, 141, 157, 293, 333, 445.

[8] Berengarten, Changing, 184.

[9] Berengarten, 336.

[10] Berengarten, 248.

[11] T.S. Eliot, “Introduction,” in Selected Poems, by Ezra Pound (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928), xvi.

[12] Berengarten, Changing, 1, 518, 470. See Berengarten, 534 and 561, and Ezra Pound, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII (London: Faber & Faber, 1970), 27, and “The Return,” in Selected Poems, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928), 85.

[13] Richard Berengarten, “Octavio Paz in Cambridge, 1970,” The Fortnightly Review, July 8, 2015,

[14] Eliot Weinberger, “Paz in Asia,” in Outside Stories, 1987-1991 (New York: New Directions, 1992), 31.

[15] Weinberger, 35.

[16] Yang Lian, Yi, trans. Mabel Lee (Green Integer, 2000). See Mabel Lee, “Discourse on Poetics: Paz’s Sunstone and Yang Lian’s [Yi],” in Cultural Dialogue and Misreading, ed. Mabel Lee and Meng Hua, University of Sydney World Literature Series, no. 1 (Broadway, N.S.W: Wild Peony, 1997), 86–99.

[17] See Octavio Paz, The Poems of Octavio Paz, trans. Eliot Weinberger (New York: New Directions, 2012), 273.

[18] Weinberger, “Paz in Asia,” 35. Weinberger continues: “The poem’s middle lines are an observed Indian landscape; its last line one of the most beautiful Surrealist images. And somewhere behind it all, as nearly always in Paz, a tiny piece of Mexico is transformed; in this case, a 1912 poem by Alfonso Reyes, ‘Cluster of Sky’: Rage above: / Calm below. / Weathervanes rattle, / the blinds weep. // The celestial cattle slowly rise / from the diaphanous courted sheep.”

[19] Berengarten, “Octavio Paz in Cambridge, 1970.”

[20] Timothy Yu, “White Poets Want Chinese Culture Without Chinese People,” The New Republic, April 9, 2016,

[21] “Richard Berengarten,” Wikipedia, September 10, 2017, Richard Berengarten, “Biography,”, 2016,

[22] David S. Wallace, “Unfamiliar Tongues: Eliot Weinberger’s Travels in the Republic of Letters,” Los Angeles Review of Books, December 15, 2016,

[23] Specifically, see Edward L. Shaughnessy, ed., I Ching, The Classic of Change: The First English Translation of the Newly Discovered Second-Century B.C. Mawangdui Text, Classics of Ancient China (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996) and Unearthing the Changes: Recently Discovered Manuscripts of the Yi Jing (I Ching) and Related Texts, Translations from the Asian Classics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); and Richard J. Smith, The I Ching: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2012).

[24] Weinberger, “The I Ching,” 140–41.

[25] Weinberger, 142, 145.

[26] John Minford, trans., I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom (New York: Viking, 2014), and David Hinton, trans., I Ching: The Book of Change (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

[27] Weinberger, 146–47.

[28] Berengarten, Changing, 521.

[29] Weinberger, “The I Ching,” 151.

[30] Weinberger, 147.

[31] See Minford, I Ching, 404–5, and Hinton, I Ching, 104.

[32] Weinberger, “The I Ching,” 151.

[33] Berengarten, Changing, 416.


Leave a Reply