The Butterfly Poems emerged around 2007 when Silke was composing her verse novel, The Griffin Elegy. She subsequently used the form to compose day by day, and it became a communication tool in her correspondence with Norman Morrissey. On this page are two sample Butterflies; as well as an examination of the form by Eduard Burle in an Introduction to an unpublished manuscript of Butterfly Poems; and an interview between Paul Mason and Silke about the origins of the form.
In public readings, the Butterfly Poems have been unexpectedly well-received, probably due to their cradling rhythms. They are poems meant to be read aloud.
Spells have a place in the world of our awed human hearts – who can tell what it is that has yanked us together to make us both well? I do know that the rhythm and steady progression of thought in these lines play a part in the mystery of orders that seem quite divine; and the future is caught up with faith in these borders of rhyme that adorn the bright beast of this poem. The light lifting of wings, and her breath in this body of fine, searching words, comprehend what it is I must send in the way of bold prayer – so you find yourself now on the mend, resurrecting your strength, and our love that I've had to defend against foes we can't see. Every day I have pleaded: 'Allow me to lend my Beloved my force. Tap my sap, clap my beat: ward off Death. Let him be so recovered, reviving for me, for a Spirit reborn that's lain dormant too long. He has things still to do – he will shine.' And the Muse must agree – for she grants me the tools for these times, and rejoices in songs you'll compose on your journey from Hell – I can hear them already; your dear voice strikes wells that no drought can quell.
Joy in the wings A chatty butterfly
Oh, how exciting the morning has been – I designed my new dress - to be cut from the t-shirt you gave me (I've worn that in caves of Kalk Bay – stained your Haiku with blush from the underground clay on that day) – now at last made my way to dear Cecil, the tailor – whose head keeps good faith with his heart, seems to me. With wife Eve he now shares a mere room in a boarding house here – yes, Kalk Bay – where he sews, as before, with unfailing good cheer, it appears. When he tells me his partner betrayed him, I say: 'I'm so sorry you had to endure such behaviour' – but Eve bursts out laughing: 'We're used to it!' (Humour's their saviour.) Then measurements taken, fit fabric discussed for a skirt, and I paid him; talked a bit more. After dropping him off at the store, I drove home. In the post box I found your new Ecca book - which I assume is entitled not 'brood', as in ponder, but 'Brood', as in 'bread' – what we used to thank God for, until human power to pray slipped away. But your poems using Yeats's high notes to resound on your staves rush on joy – I'm a lass who breaks bread and writes love with her boy – we are blessed!
27th October 2010
Introduction by Eduard Burle to Days Like Butterflies (manuscript)
Introduction to Manuscript of select Butterfly Poems by Eduard Burle
The poems in Days Like Butterflies demand to be read on their own terms. The self-devised and unique Butterfly structure, in which almost all the poems in this volume have been conceived, provides the entry point.
Not all readers will warm to the prospect of a collection of verse ordered according to such formal aspects as outlined on page iii. However, even readers not fazed by or concerned with the Butterfly structure may feel that the poems are clever to the point of being showy; or they may object that there is something self-consciously literary about the project and find the tone of the language to be too elevated for their taste. Further, they may find the language to be, on occasion, obtuse, and, frequently, antiquated (I find the latter to be part of its charms). And, while there is a case to be made for such dissatisfactions, these are essentially criticisms of style which are far outweighed, I feel, by comparison with the rewards on offer.
Part diary entry and autobiography, part confession and meditation (or mirror), part love letters and tributes, part novel extracts – in Days Like Butterflies one encounters a generous and imaginative probing of the various connections between self and Other – whether this is Other as beloved or friend, or as Nature; or Self as Other; or whether it is the act of writing itself which is held up for scrutiny. Almost regardless of the subject matter, at the heart of the writing in Days Like Butterflies lies a quest for truth and beauty, and its yield is there in abundance in the many fine and memorable lines which emerge from its pages.
I could quote from several different Butterflies to illustrate how the speaker’s love affair with the “wild instrument” of language has moved and nourished me, but since such discoveries should remain, largely, with the reader, I will single out a few highlights only.
‘It comes back like song’ takes its title from the following lines:
[…] words are the clothes of a numinous body that comes back like song – an ungraspable dream.
You endure the great music of sorrow. It mills you down finer than stillness, and fills your mute hands with the lines of love’s illness and melody.
In ‘Melancholic Butterfly’:
[…] We will not fall asleep till these wounds on our spirits have bled out a clue about how we might hold. Like smooth stones in the river are we: you move one and they all begin rolling. Their weight – is it yours, is it mine?
The first line of ‘When you lose control’ reads:
Sometimes what happens with writing is depths, which you plunge as you go […]
From ‘Middle-aged woman distracted a bit’:
[…] Your myths […] seem to perch like great birds on the branches of both of our minds, looking down on each self.
Such distillations are in evidence throughout the collection. In some of the love poems in section one, Butterflies Alighting, there is an unflinching and poignant honesty (‘Melancholic Butterfly’; ‘Like water over each break’), while in others there is a sometimes myth-infused ‘feeling into’ and celebration of connection with a beloved – occasionally explored, as in ‘Love out of sight’, via forays into the animal kingdom.
Even the less dramatic or charged poems, which affirm moments within the continuum of friendship, for instance, have their place and their rewards – like ‘Just to remember’, with its telling line:
[…] You’ve endured disappointments like decade-old drought […]
The portrait poems in section 2, Six Poets, are deft and vivid and provide both affecting and penetrating snapshots of their subjects. Some of these poems again skillfully invoke animal imagery. The poems of the third section map territories as varied as grief (‘Malady’), our relationship to Time (‘Allotments’) as well as to technology (‘A call that is wilder’), and include a poem fashioned as a “response to a conversation about gender differences”. Significantly, there are poems which chronicle personal struggle and rejuvenation and, not least, poems which explore the speaker’s relationship with writing and the Butterfly form.
Here, as elsewhere in the collection, one might suggest that the creation and deployment of a form as finely calibrated as the Butterfly structure would seem to serve – as could be said, too, of the use of forms such as haikus or sonnets – to contain, both psychically (see, for instance, ‘Skies of desire’, ‘Malady’, ‘This habit’) as well as at the level of rhyme. Paradoxically, this may create opportunities for ideas to develop in ways which might not have been possible, perhaps, with free verse – a notion borne out by the poem ‘True love's the purest of meds'.
What is also noticeable throughout the collection is the musicality of the lines, which shines through at almost every turn. This quality, both in the endlessly creative weave of rhythm and rhyme, as well as in the sequencing of the poems and sections within Days Like Butterflies, is one of its most enjoyable features. It is both varied and balanced, with the final extracts or ‘appetizers’ from The Griffin Elegy providing further balance by showcasing how an earlier use of the Butterfly form has been used in a fictional (or non-personal) context – with equally fine, if differently flavoured, results. The fusion of such musical sensibility, together with a sense of the poems issuing from the roots of a life, makes them both compelling and enduring.
Eduard Burle Cape Town, July 2010
Where do the Butterfly Poems come from?
This interview between Paul Mason and Silke Heiss in 2008 provides a little history.
FOR THE LOVE OF WORDS
Wits alumnis Paul Mason (English Hons, 1985, author of Comeback. Poems in conversation 1984-1989) and Silke Heiss (M.A. Comp.Lit., 1992) share a few words with each other and with Wits Review.
PAUL: During 2007 and 2008, you worked on a verse novel, The Griffin Elegy, which New Contrast SA Literary Journal (UCT-based) published in serial form until last year.* Could you offer an understanding of why you chose such a strange literary form? SILKE: I finished my M.A. in Creative Writing at UCT with a novel, which won second prize in the Wits-based Ernst van Heerden Creative Writing Competition (2002) - of which our former lecturers, Marcia Leveson and Tim Trengove-Jones were two of the main judges at the time. Yet still I didn’t know what to do with it. Then one day I walked into the local stationer’s and saw Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse novel, Aurora Leigh, lying on top of the diaries, for R15. I bought it and gobbled it up. It was the beginning of my love affair with narrative verse. I subsequently pursued a kind of private study of what could be called modern verse novels - closely reading Nabokov's translation of Yevgeny Onegin by Alexandr Pushkin, and The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (both of these were recommended to me by our friend Andrew v d Spuy, currently head of the Wits Linguistics Dept.). Then I decided to transform my M.A. into verse, and read out the first few stanzas at the weekly Off the Wall poetry sessions, organised by Hugh Hodge (who had just been asked to take over editorship of New Contrast). He wanted to experiment with a serialised novel. The idea of a novel in poetic form excited him, but he wanted it set in contemporary South Africa. I relocated my characters in the present and decided in a new book to resolve the love triangle between the characters I'd created for my first novel.
PAUL: The dynamic between the protagonist, Eric, and his dead brother, Theo, drives your story. What is the reader expected to make of this?
SILKE: Eric is the dominant brother, while Theo is the archetypal problem brother. The fact that he drowned was something I used quite consciously to show my own feeling that success-driven society drowns uniqueness, originality and beauty - all of which aspects are embodied in Theo’s art (if not his personality). His unpleasant personality traits and his occasionally downright anti-social behaviour indicate, I think, that true originality can never be accessed by society unless it breaks through its own comfort zones.
I think maybe I see much human violence and people’s delight in hurting one another as starting in the home, inside families. Maybe solutions to the human inclination to inflict hurt or violence could also be found in the home. And maybe I see a significant connection between human misery in general and dead or unfinished business that tends to haunt us.
PAUL: There are some colourful minor or secondary characters, such Hedy and Goodson. What’s their role in the story’s unfolding?
SILKE: These two act as guides or helpers to Eric. Goodson reminds Eric of his brother. He was the last character to have had contact with the brother before he drowned. Both Goodson and Hedy are archetypical Capetonian characters – marginal, odd and unambitious. Eric starts off as a favoured creature, but through the course of the story he’s forced into humility, and learns through such characters to be more accepting of ‘lowliness’. Hedy is an intuitive character. She teaches Eric to trust intuition more. Through her, Eric learns that embracing unconscious knowledge is a reasonable, intelligent thing to do.
PAUL: Does Eric not also learn to develop a capacity for decadence, for letting go, from Goodson?
SILKE: Definitely. Part of Eric’s problem with Theo was that Theo in many ways lived out Dionysian elements, whereas Eric is predominantly an Apollo-type. Through the course of the story he learns to accept Dionysian aspects. His love-making, for example, becomes much more soulful.
PAUL: Indeed. Returning to your novel’s form – its almost invisible rhyme scheme strikes me as distinctive. Would you care to comment?
SILKE: I designed a special 16-line stanzaic structure especially for Eric. I call it the butterfly stanza because of the central rhyming couplet which stands for the butterfly’s body. Lines 1-7 are in rhyming symmetry with lines 16 -10 respectively – standing for the butterfly’s wings. You don’t perhaps notice the rhymes while reading, because the rhythm is irregular, like speech, with many run-on lines - but you would hear them. I have hopes of recording this novel one day, because I really wrote it with my ears.
PAUL: You have continued to create butterfly stanzas since completing the novel.
SILKE: Yes. I have tried to perfect the form – it has become much more poetic in my recent butterflies, where the narrative drive isn't paramount, with far fewer run-ons, and a more regular (three-beat) rhythm. I have now put together a new manuscript consisting only of butterfly poems, and I am submitting this to two poets, Eduard Burle and Norman Morrissey (author of Triptych), for editorial advice and comment. I would like to publish this book, entitled Days Like Butterflies, if possible, while I am still alive.