John Berger, un poeta de verso libre

Tantágora Magazine, March 2017

We contain poetry
As the cattle trucks of the world 
carry cattle.
John Berger, And our faces, my heart, brief as photos 

A short time after his death was known, copies of his books became scarce in Barcelona’s bookshops. I think that’s a clear and silent act of love. We might not hear him recite again, but his words, the ones he gave us during almost a century of life, had to keep being on hand.

They had to keep being on hand because we cannot go on without poets. Frequently we need an entire life to understand a verse we know by heart. Poetry knows not hours nor years. It must always be there to care for the imagination or, in some cases, to be an emergency service.

When asked about his profession, John Berger used to reply he was a writer. When that question is addressed now to the ones familiar with his work, they say he was an art critic, a novelist, an essayist, someone who had written theater and movie scripts and even acted, someone who used to draw with passion, and a great many other things from his political commitment to his activity as a columnist of everyday life.

All of this is true and can be credited with a long list of his works. If you ask me, however, I would say John Berger was a poet, a free verse poet.

He was a poet who wrote novels and essays, who drew and acted on the stage, who was attentive to the blooming of his garden flowers and the sheltering of the cows when it was time to. He was a poet who cultivated friendships like only poets can do: listening attentively and mumbling words until they became fresh pasture for his pen.

Like any other great poet, he gave dignity to each and every word he used. He used to go in search for them and find them embedded in the chores of the farmers, stuck in the fear and strength of the fighters for justice; he spotted them hidden between his childhood memories and he took pity on those tarnished by power or vogue.

John Berger was a storyteller. He wrote in prose, the form, he used to say,  that best suits narration. However, sooner or later, his writing used to border the limits of its possibilities and inevitably fall into poetry. Eventually, his poetic prose could no longer resist it and he would let himself fall into verse.

In the hands of poetry, the writer seemed to feel the freedom of leaving blank spaces, which are necessary to breathe, as musical scores have silences written into them- blank spaces where names are born and what can’t be named is concealed.

In the poems embedded in John Berger’s stories we can hear the sighs of the pen, which finally, has been able to lose its ink stain – perhaps the only moment when writing is faithful to the idea that it is striving to be.

He enjoyed reading his own words out loud.  Hearing him recite lit up the path of the human voice from Vyasa and Homer to our days. The time of awareness he used, invoked by the gesture of putting his glasses on his nose, has nothing to do with the physical time that measures the transformation of bodies.

This rhythmic pace of inhaling and exhaling, altered as many times as the reading required, is an essential part of John Berger’s writing. Being himself his own reader before an audience who silently waited for his story assured that the invisible wouldn’t go unnoticed.

His voice offered a safe space for the intimate meaning of the story, continuously swaying in the air that’s taken in and let go when breathing. To every word its color, to every sentence its literality, to every paragraph its truth, to every story its breath.

John Berger’s voice can still be heard in the silent reading of his texts and that’s why those who love his verses gather the copies of his books these days to always keep them on hand.

It’s not easy to find readers of the hidden mystery in the conscience that we humans are given. Living has its requirements.


Among all the words that formed his basic vocabulary, may be one got stuck to his tongue in a way that is perceived as a thin veil one must cross to be able to read his writings. Sheltered in every corner of his papers, only rarely is it shown in capital letters being part of some title.

To displace, displacing, displaced…

Home is the center of the world because it’s where the vertical line crosses with the horizontal. The vertical line ascends towards the sky and descends towards the land of the dead, the underworld. The horizontal line represents the circulation all the roads that lead across the earth, to other places. Thus it’s home where one is closer to the gods in the sky and the dead underground. This proximity brings the hope of being able to find them. At the same time, it is the point of departure and arrival (hopefully) of all the journeys on and of Earth. (1)

Any displacement entails the risk of losing this center- a risk that implies at the same time loss and hope. Two other words that chase each other in his stories.

Exile is, probably, the most ferocious displacement that can be imagined. Being expelled from home by arrogant and strict strangers… Exile rips out the roots and even reaches words, which once again, seek the compassion of the poet to embody its unease:


Migrant words

In a pocket of the earth

I buried all the accents

of my mother tongue


there they lie

like needles of pine

assembled by ants


one day the stumbling cry

of another wanderer

may set them alight


then warm and comforted

he will hear all night

the truth as lullaby


How many displacements fit in a dozen of verses?


John Berger writes from facts: the birth of a cow, the absence of the painter Janos Lavin from his studio, a wedding, the viewing of a Goya etching, the reading of a letter, the shadow of grass that nocturnal snowfall left under a tree…

A fact occupies the center of every one of his stories – the literary home – upon which comings and goings form the narration.

A fact is the seed of a story. Poetry, the cement that holds it alive without losing the temporary record with which it was born.

When Alberto Giacometti died, the magazine Paris Match published this photo which, in 1961, Henri Cartier Bresson took of him crossing the street under the rain with the raincoat lifted to cover a good amount of his head. When John Berger saw the photo, a portrait of the artist was born in him. He had the air of a survivor, he wrote. But not in the tragic sense… I’m tempted to say “like a monk”, especially since the coat over his head suggest a cowl. (3)

Reading this essay is focusing the view on the minimum distance between the raincoat and the head, the shoulders, the sleeves that shorten because of the unexpected position of the collar to serve as an umbrella… Reading this essay is focusing on the deep black that emerges from the artist’s face, in this hole, in this empty spot in which John Berger holds the word “monk” – which, suddenly, perfectly fits on the figure of an artist who is obsessed with the irreducible.

Years later, Berger dedicated a book to look out loud at Alberto Giacometti’s work which had been photographed by Marc Trivier. He writes: Each of Giacometti’s sculptured portraits seem to present an irreducible self, who only then happens to be woman or man, old or young, philosopher or gangster’s moll. Each of his portraits is like a first name cast in bronze. (4)

The poet is the one who watches. The poet is the one who describes. The poet is the one who sentences. The poet is the one who trembles before this minimum amount of substance needed for Giacometti’s spirit to be embodied. It is the poet who breathes bronze in a word’s fragility.


To make a hole


a stone

to thread it

wear it

speaks immortality

the stone may be


the hole, poetry



My perception of the world comes to me first through the eyes… I really live through my eyes. Why? I don’t know. I was born like that. Seeing is one way of questioning our existence and why we exist. Curiously enough the act of looking is as complex as the arguments of philosophy, except that they are not verbal, this act is not verbal, and therefore it cannot be translated in words. (6)

This is what John Berger said as an answer in a televised interview. He suspected that it could be that way, may be, because he used to be a painter the first 30 years of his life. However, he soon decided that writing was and would be his activity.

Life brought him to know Evgen Bavcar- a writer, captivated by the arts, whom an accident had left blind. They became friends. Despite his blindness, Bavcar still likes to visit museums. He let the person he has chosen for the occasion describe him the artwork of his interest and then he tirelessly questions him or her. He did the same thing over and over, using the remarks of those with whom he had first spoken as questions to those who would come afterwards, until he gets an idea as precise as possible on this painting, which comes to him through sequences of words and silence.

John Berger accompanied him several times. The blindness of his friend was the unavoidable imperative to make him transform in words what he perceived with his glance. Bavcar’s questions, coming from an absolute attention, forced Berger to be so precise in his comments to the point that it was the way in which he realized the musician whom Georges de La Tour painted under the title “Le vielleur aveugle” had dirty nails.

Seeing from the darkness couldn’t have seemed odd to a writer who had been defeated by poetry.

John Berger:

    … Goya is going back with his dog, to work in his studio.

(door opening, dog panting, footsteps, sound of brushes on canvas.)

He’s approaching a canvas, and he’s painting. Figures, voices appear on the canvas. Then… they disappear. And now… all is gone



– Turn the volume of the silence up.

Juan Muñoz:

– Higher, higher still.



– Is this the silence of a likeness?


 Is this the silence of the mountains at night in south-east Mexico?


   Or the silence of you and I, listening to what we believe matters?

“Will it Be a Likeness?”, the radio conversation between John Berger and Juan Muñoz came up during a meeting in Istanbul, in 1995.

In Istanbul, Juan proposed that we do something together. I was seduced by the idea… The secret lay in listening to each other… We decided that it was better to see paintings on the radio than on television. On radio, we do not see anything, but we can listen to the silence. And every painting has its own silence. (6)

Goya’s return to his study is the end of the radio broadcast. The story of how “Will it Be a Likeness?” started lies in the attempt to share meaningful silences with listeners who, perhaps, would end up closing their eyes to see better. Silence is as good for Goya’s audience as darkness is the source of vision to Bavcar’s companion in the museum.

The poet’s intuition overcomes all barriers and transforms into a ball of yarn between the paws of a cat.


Each pine at dusk

lodges the bird

of its voice

perpendicular and still

the forest

indifferent to history

tearless as stone


in tremulous excitement

the ancient story

of the sun going down



Over the years, John Berger’s drawings were stealing space from his words. Not so from his being as a poet. The starting and returning point kept manifesting its energy to keep the existent vitality on the crossing point between the vertical line that connects the sky to the center of the Earth and the horizontal line of all the journeys.

One day by change arose a new collaborative project- this time with María Muñoz, the soul of the dance company Mal Pelo, and John Christie, his film-making friend. John Berger would draw María under the documentary eye of John Christie’s camera.

The result is a three voices movie that bases its intensity on the soft sound of pencil on paper. María poses still, answering with her breath to the intermittent looks of her draftsman. John Christie adds the camera’s slow movement to this wordless dialogue. John Berger looks, redoes, moves his head, half-closes his eyes… he draws. A silence arises and repeats like whispering its presence in that same range where poetry remains. Without any other reference than itself.

Watching the movie reminds us the gaze with which John Berger examined the photos Trivier took of Giacometti’s sculptures. One more line and María falls. One point added without thought and María pierces that place whose door is hidden in the tip of a pencil that scratches the paper.

María Muñoz included John Berger’s voice in some of her dance shows. She recited extracts of his texts like John include poems between the lines of his stories. At the moment of the portrait, their silences achieve the expressivity of the mother tongue. Neither Spanish nor English: the register of a pure vibration.

One day, somebody asked Alberto Giacometti: When your sculptures finally have to leave the studio, where should they go? To a museum? And he replied. No, bury them in the earth, like that they may be a bridge between the living and the dead. (9)

John Berger transcribed this dialogue in his book “This beauty”.


He left forgotten his biker glove  on Jorge Luis Borges’ grave in Geneva . He didn’t have a flower bouquet. May be, latter, someone used John Berger’s glove to clean the fallen leaves on the mysterious tombstone’s script.

“I have to justify what wounds me / My fortune or misfortune does not matter / I am the poet.”

A gesture, the one John Berger did, that can be read in verse. A verse which sounds on a par with the motorcycle’s buzz; with the journey of the ones who find on the road the hospitality of a home; with the movement who gives an external musical echo to the cadency of the interior rhythm. The motorcycle, the road, the gloves, the helmet and this foot that press the accelerator pedal and makes all the roads of the Earth be seen as an invitation.

John Berger’s motorcycle seems to sing his heart’s wish for freedom. May be this is one of the reasons why the motorcycle is always present in his draftsman and narrator’s life. May be this is one of the reasons why he liked to make sure the same tree cats sheltered in it during the night, as always.

Many times he said that the contemporary world needed songs, that singing was the appropriate language for our moment.

Wasn’t it like that since the beginning? Isn’t all music contained in breathing? Aren’t songs a way to defend a human time that’s distant from clocks and rush? Did he sing while he drove his motorcycle?


Once in a song

A singer may be innocent

never the song. With its instantaneous eyes

opened on to the world

and its heart laid bare,

the song is brazen,

the song is newborn.

Only when it has quietened

can listeners resume by habit

the innocence of their age.



In 1994, John Christie published a version of John Berger’s book Pages of the wound, which contained, as well as his poems, an exquisite selection from the photos and drawings that were stored in his study.

As Borges suggest with his epitaph, Berger returns again and again to the wound that reopens with every forced displacement – the wound that can be felt in every emigrant face, in every village harassed by war and destruction, which progress wiping away the homes that had once been the center of lives, now forever nameless.

Words and drawings overlap, they get close and away on the sheet of paper until they put together pages that bring to life what sometimes gets confused with the unutterable.

In this book, the poet John Berger lets himself be heard as if he was a song of lost and hope. His voice and his pencil gather this way of saying that’s also a way of fighting and a way of being in the trench from which one defends the truth that’s contained in one’s dreams.



Pewter pock-marked

moon of the ladle

rising above the mountain

going down into the saucepan

serving generations


dredging what has grown from seed

in the garden

thickened with potato

outliving us all

on the wooden sky

of the kitchen wall.


Serving mother

of the steaming pewter breast

veined by the salts

fed to her children

hungry as boars

with the evening earth

engrained around their nails

and bread the brother

serving mother



pour the sky steaming

with the carrot sun

the stars of salt

and the grease of the pig earth

pour the sky steaming


pour soup for our days

pour sleep for the night

pour years for my children.



In the Spanish language the word “oración” means ‘sentence’ and ‘prayer’ at the same time.

Today, between the late snow from this March, which say a faraway to winter and announce spring, the silence into which John Berger’s voice has gone, has the flavor of a prayer. Of a prayer that got stuck in his fingertips when they caressed each other to accompany the glint of his gaze, full of blue and surprise and query.

The silence into which his particular way of speaking and writing about love remains has the feel of a prayer, and this prayer gathers the voices of all the animals that live in his texts, the perfumes of all the flowers he drew, the textures of all the oils and wines and bread he shared with the people he crossed paths with.  It is a silence that ascends towards the stars and descents to the center of the earth, thus reaching the dead and those yet to be born.

His poetic living, wrapped now in prayer textured words, is producing already new chapters of this mother tongues who are written at the very heart of existence and go with the cycles of life as planet Venus accompanies the Moon on his way around the Earth.


I write tears / I go through them / as someone who goes / through a curtain / made of crystal beads. / I go through words / seeking / your voice. / A terrible desire / of truth / and hope.


Eulàlia Bosch

14 de marzo 2017

Traducción de Núria Vilalta


(1) L’Exil, La Lettre internationale,1985.

(2) In And our faces, my heart, brief as photos. Writers and Readers, London 1984.

(3) Alberto Giacometti in “The Moment of Cubism”, New Left Review I/42, March April 1967.

(4) My beautiful, Centre Régional de la Photoghaphie, Madrid 2004.

(5) In Poesía 1955-2008, Círculo de Bellas Artes, Madrid 2014.

(6) Interview given by John Berger to Bartleby Editores in occasion of the Premio Cálamo awarded to him in 2005.

(7) From the radio show Will it Be a Likeness? CANNOT /QUIT, producciones audiovisuales, 2009.

(8) In And our faces, my heart, brief as photos. Writers and Readers, London 1984.

(9) My beautiful, Centre Régional de la Photoghaphie, Madrid 2004

(10) In And our faces, my heart, brief as photos. Writers and Readers, London 1984.

(11) In Poesía 1955-2008, Círculo de Bellas Artes, Madrid 2014.

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