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Monthly Archives: April 2018

Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet)

Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet)

I first came across the work of Harry Gilonis in a 1991 issue of EONTA, an Arts Quarterly of which he was Associate Editor. This particular issue was subtitled ‘Dante issue’ and was dedicated in memoriam Frank Samperi who had died in Tucson, Arizona, in June that year. The contribution Gilonis wrote for that issue was titled ‘Rocked on a Lake’ in which he concluded that Dante was bewitched by detail, the matter of memory:

“Purgatorio XXVI has him, following Vergil, seeing ants talking to one another. How long did we wait for someone else to notice? There are moments out of time, when infected perception of a sudden clears. Proust trips on an uneven cobble in the Guermantes courtyard, is instantly in the baptistery of St. Mark’s.”

That clarity of perception noted above is one of the central features of this remarkable selection of poems by Harry Gilonis, the poet whose interest in poetry began as a reader when, according to Philip Terry’s introduction, “he went to school (like others before him including Basil Bunting) with Ezra Pound”. Terry goes on to point out that Gilonis “spent a year reading the Cantos on the dole – an apprenticeship no longer available – using a university library ticket to access source books, from Provençal and Chinese dictionaries to books on art and architecture”. Given this careful engagement with reading it can come as no surprise that I was both honoured and delighted by Gilonis’s contribution to the festschrift for J.H. Prynne, For the Future, which Shearsman published in 2016. The focus of his contribution was on Prynne’s ‘Stone Lake’ poem, the poem written in Chinese as No. 22 of Peter Riley’s Poetical Histories, and in an email to me early in 2015 Harry Gilonis had outlined the sort of scrutiny he wished to bring to bear upon that poem:

“I propose a character-by-character gloss of the poem and its title; notes on some character-combinations which act to ‘steer’ a reader towards certain reading-conclusions; some glosses on the poem’s geographical setting (a lake in Suzhou); some remarks on the poem’s style, in traditional Chinese terms”.

Rough Breathing contains about two-hundred pages of closely-wrought poems and amongst the rich variety offered to us there is a selection of 30 short poems from a much larger group of “faithless translations from old Chinese originals” titled ‘North Hills’. One can see how much care has been put into understanding the original texts so that approximations can be presented which themselves possess the vitality of refracted light. Each of the fifteen poems chosen for this selection presents the reader with two versions and I refer below to just one of the pair titled ‘old friend’:

autumn pours us full
night levels towns cities
chanced meeting beyond geography
flitting about time time
wind moves magpie / words
Spider-web flutters clear night
travellers with wine constant
kept mutual in looped days

One of the compellingly attractive aspects of this poem for me is the juxtaposition of qualities of movement in lines 5 and 6. Words appear on a page and when they do they possess a sense of the static, being placed there either by brush or print; the movement of that magpie thief and hoarder can shift a word from one context to another like an object. The delicacy of the fluttering of a spider’s web is, however, different in that the softness of movement does not remove the web from one place to another: it returns to its original position. These two different qualities of movement are given further definition in their accidental record of “chanced meeting” and the very noun used there is opened up to offer suggestiveness concerning its meaning. A meeting which is “beyond geography” may lack a physical presence but can be a meeting none the less. This is poetry of a very high quality and I am inevitably reminded of the world of Pound’s World War I poetry publication, Cathay.
In contrast to this reflective lyric grace we can turn to the bitterly assured tone of the political poems which present us with a language that might well be used by the self-promoting innocence of the world’s arms-dealers:

“fully field programmable
with in-flight re-targeting
to cover the whole kill chain

with sensor-to-shooter capability
for effects-based engagement
and an integral good-faith report

and a situational awareness
of integrity and trust
to achieve the desired lethal effects”

It was appropriate that the Dante issue of EONTA from 1991had contained an obituary of Frank Samperi (written by David Miller) and when John Martone edited Spiritual Necessity (Barrytown/Station Hill), a useful selection of the Brooklyn poet, he pointed out that Samperi had discovered Dante in a Brooklyn institution and had taught himself Aquinas in Latin as well as studying the Indian philosopher Sankara, non-Euclidean geometry, and astrology. Samperi’s attention to moments reflected an active engagement which echoed perhaps the world referred to in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Notebook entry for March 1871:

“What you look hard at seems to look hard at you, hence the true and false instress of nature. One day early in March when long streamers were rising from over Kemble End one large flake loop-shaped, not a streamer but belonging to the string, moving too slowly to be seen, seemed to cap and fill the zenith with a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping—regularly curled knots springing if I remember from fine stems, like foliation in wood or stone—had strongly grown on me. It changed beautiful changes, growing more into ribs and one stretch of running into branching like coral. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is.”

In the introduction to this new Carcanet publication Philip Terry places Gilonis “at the head of a long line of innovative contemporary poets, from Tim Atkins to Peter Hughes and Caroline Bergvall, who have been engaged in renewing poetry with experimental, prismatic, forms of translation”. I think I would add to that list as I recognise that there is indeed a sense of the renewal of language throughout Rough Breathing as I turn from page to page, or maybe it might be more appropriate to say from leaf to leaf: Harry Gilonis’s poetry consists of words made new.

Ian Brinton, 24th April 2018

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The Books of Catullus Translated by Simon Smith (Carcanet Classics)

The Books of Catullus Translated by Simon Smith (Carcanet Classics)

When Bernard Dubourg contributed his article on translation to Grosseteste Review (Volume 12, 1979) he asserted a very important and necessary truth:

“The technique of translation, of which no one can properly define the terms, serves to conceal the fact that a good translation contains a greater number of possible senses than the original, being the result of two labours instead of one, and it’s for the reader to profit by it.”

It was Ben Jonson who wrote about the way our use of language reveals who we are when he said “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind.” Just as no one person can read the mind of another the shark’s fin of language cuts its way through the water carrying with it the knowledge of what is held in bulk beneath: the fin of words is suggestive of a weight below the surface. The associations accumulating around words have shifted over centuries and we can only read from our own position in the NOW: we bring to bear upon our close scrutiny of language the sum of our own reading. We cannot read as Sir Philip Sidney did when in the late 1570s he became the first poet to translate Catullus into English with his four line version of poem 70 from Book III:

“UNTO no body my woman saith she had rather a wife be,
Then to my selfe, not though Jove grew a sutor of hers.
These be her words, but a woman’s words to a love that is eager,
In wind or water streame do require to be writ.”

However, it is possible that he may have read Thomas Wyatt’s version of Petrarch from some half a century earlier in which the poet’s attempt to hold tight his lady’s love is compared with the impossibility of seeking to “hold the wynde” in a “nett.” When we arrive at Simon Smith’s version of poem 70 we are firmly in a modern world in which the language bounces off the walls of everyday association:

“My woman would marry none, so she says, other
than me, not if Jupiter pressed his case.
Declares: – what a woman pledges a keen suitor
is better scripted for air and quick streams.”

The opening assertion of possessiveness (“My woman”) is followed by such confidence with the use of the word “none”; and this is so quickly followed with self-doubting humour in “so she says”. And there’s the rub of course! The lady’s words are the centre of focus and the extreme comparison with Jupiter sounds hollow. Script is air and airs are of course now streamed making them available for all! These poems by Simon Smith are bursting with sharpness and, as in the work of Frank O’Hara, whom Smith clearly reads with critical engagement, the seemingly informal or even offhand is in fact “accessory to an inner theatre”
Nine years earlier than that Dubourg article on translation the American poet, editor and translator, Cid Corman, opened the Zukofsky number of Grosseteste Review (Vol. 3, no. 4) with some comment upon Catullus:

“The question at issue is not whether Catullus would have liked these versions or not – though I might like to think so – or whether they have the same weight or speed as the original. These versions ARE originals. Related, yes, beyond any doubt. A semblance of Latin syllabics in English and English itself extended anew – as if the language itself were being renewed in our mouths.”

In his introduction to this entirely new version of the Latin poet Simon Smith points us forward to what should be immediately recognisable when he says that the poetry of Catullus “forms a significant strand of our shared poetic DNA” and that “a poet working in English must first translate Catullus in order to understand his or her own work and the work of their generation.” In Dubourg’s terms these new translations of Catullus reveal to us two poets at work and the correspondence between the two opens up a freshness of speech which is a delight to hear.

Ian Brinton, 18th April 2018

Day In, Day Out by Simon Smith Parlor Press (USA)

Day In, Day Out by Simon Smith Parlor Press (USA)

In April last year I reviewed Simon Smith’s Shearsman publication More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012. In April 2015 I reviewed his Oystercatcher chapbook Half a dozen, just like you. April 2018 is not a season entirely bereft of spiritual consolation despite the ghastly warnings across the ether: there is a new book from Simon Smith and once again I am drawn into a world in which words are offered for their daylight meaning. As an early poem by Charles Reznikoff had put it

“the plain sunlight of the cases,
the sharp prose,
the forthright speech of the judges;
it was good, too, to stick my mind against the sentences
of a judge,
and drag the meaning out of the shell of words.”

As I have said before, Smith’s poetry is on the move and it is no mere accident that the title of his Selected contained a pun on the word ‘Flowers’. As Joyce put it in Ulysses, “Hold to the now, the here, through which all the future plunges to the past”. This new book of journal entries is haunted by ghosts: Paul Blackburn, Christopher Smith the poet’s father, 26 Poems: Californialand in Winter (vErIsImILItUde, 2014). The American influences are identifiable in many ways but, as with all ghosts, they are felt along the bloodlines and are Shades which melt when looked at directly. A poem which bears the title ‘Letter, Yesterday’s: with a Poem / Attached by Paul Blackburn, & my / Entry for the Day Before Yesterday’ has James Wright’s famous ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ in the background and the tone of voice in Wright’s accumulation of images is echoed by “today’s entry is reflection”. Then we hear the voice of O’Hara in the “daily account”, a noun which both narrates and sums up an experience:

“yes, Evan clicked at keys and stops in step to the mouthings
Matt sampled then re-processed
as David and I
spoke line into line
each layer broadcast above
the other”

The broadcast layers, an accumulation of one’s reading and thinking, recall Joshua Tree, Split Rock, Paul Blackburn, Barry Goldwater Jr. and Charles Olson as “lines and stanzas / hang mobile / hang-gliders in air on electronic / ether SPACES”. However, these SPACES are not just the Olsonian central fact to man born in America at the opening of Call Me Ishmael, they are unbridgeable gaps between the present and the past. A journal, day by day, records reflections of loss and yet the teasingly almost-tangible ghosts of yesterday find an opening into the NOW with the very act of writing: this poem of Smith’s is the ‘Entry for the Day Before Yesterday’ and it concludes with an awareness of the spaces “between / us”. It is “a very personal poem” which lies clear on the white page “to drop / kisses into / / browsing data and love”. The poetry of Frank O’Hara is clearly close to Simon Smith’s heart and like the New York poet’s ability to drag that meaning “out of the shell of words” his new series of poetry journals “is a plate of spinning, stunning experience” (Elaine Randell). When O’Hara wrote his famous lunch-time jaunt, ‘A Step Away from Them’ the word “Step” has not only a physical connotation of movement but also a deep-seated awareness of how we all are only a step away from the dead.

Many of Simon Smith’s poems are anchored firmly in the concrete but it is the spaces between the pictures, the cadences, the quiet and unjudging adjacency of people and objects that make their reality moving.

Ian Brinton, 9th April 2018

Selected Poems by Geoffrey Grigson edited John Greening (Greenwich Exchange)

Selected Poems by Geoffrey Grigson edited John Greening (Greenwich Exchange)

In the first essay of Ditch Vision, a fine book which I reviewed in December last year, Jeremy Hooker refers to Geoffrey Grigson’s understanding of how a poet stands in relation to a sense of place. Quoting from Grigson’s The Private Art: A Poetry Note-Book , Hooker highlights the link between the poet and his past:

“The territory may be – often has been – a garden which surrounded him and contained him, a miniature world or universe which seemed enormous and mysterious, and protective as well.”

Hooker goes on to mention Grigson’s upbringing in a vicarage in east Cornwall where his first territory was such a garden “with which he felt an original oneness” and from which he moved out into the world of the surrounding parish where “I knew each tree, corner, footpath, rock and trickle, where I knew each of the fields by name.” This is the concern which Grigson himself had also referred to in his Introduction to The Faber Book of Poems and Places (1980) with his assertion that “Our feeling flows into places, and an accumulation of feeling, historical, cultural and personal, flows back from places into our consciousness.” Given this awareness of place it is not surprising that Geoffrey Grigson should have written a poem titled ‘Travelling at Night (After Tu Fu)’ the opening lines of which bear witness to Anne Stevenson’s comments about Grigson’s poetry having a “vine-like way of twisting words around ideas until, in surprise, you discover how much he is saying”:

“Delicate grasses ashore
stir in a small wind. Tall
my boat’s mast in this
night’s loneliness. Stars
depend to these
wide wide levels.”

One listens to the quiet sound of the word “ashore” followed by the clarity of the opening of line two with “stir” and the context given by “small wind” which suggests movement possessing the accuracy of the particular. This brush-stroke has a fine awareness of how place and consciousness merge one into the other. An interesting comparison might be made with the translation undertaken by David Hinton for New Directions in the late 1980s where that opening line became “In delicate beach-grass, a slight breeze.” There is something matter-of-fact about this line and it doesn’t create Grigson’s atmosphere of personal involvement with how the Chinese poet’s journeying echoes far beyond the late eighth-century. In Grigson’s version the second line concludes with “Tall” and again one recognises the stretching out of the particular moment to become an aspect of an individual’s journeying: this mast has been set up in defiance of “night’s loneliness”. Hinton used the word “teetering” in relation to the erection of the mast and this has less urgency. The movement of Grigson’s poem is towards a conclusion in which we read

“Writing gives me no name,
illness, age bar my advancement –
drifting, drifting
here, what am I like
but a gull of the sandbanks
in between earth
and heaven!”

Not being able to read the original I do not know how accurate a rendering this is of Du Fu’s poetry and Hinton’s conclusion (“How will poems bring honor? My career / Lost to age and sickness, buffeted, adrift / On the wind”) may well be closer to the Chinese. However, what Geoffrey Grigson has achieved is a poignant sense of an individual held in self-doubt between what lies below and what lies above. There is a sensitivity and personal engagement in Grigson’s lines which gives the lie (or at least another perspective) to the well-known attribute he had of being a fiercely uncompromising critic and a prickly character to deal with. Perhaps this portrait of the literary editor of the Morning Post who founded the influential magazine New Verse in 1933 can be partly laid at the door of Dylan Thomas who wrote in a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson late that year:

“There are only two men in England whom I hate with all my heart: Sir Edward Elgar and Mr Geoffrey Grigson. One has inflicted more pedantic wind & blather upon a supine public than any other man who has ever lived. The other edits New Verse. His place is already reserved in the lower regions where, for all eternity, he shall read the cantos of Ezra Pound to a company of red-hot devils.”

One has only to look closely at the early 1970s poem ‘Raw Ream: Remembering, Now Dead, a Teacher’ to recognise how much better and how much more generously thoughtful Grigson’s poetry is:

“I speak of times before high whining of cars or round
growling of planes, when silence was fashioned by noises:
it is a pool in our hollow of pines looped by the sun
which makes them the colour of foxes, is defined
lightly by crows passing over, by
a huckling of hens relieved of their eggs,
by women calling to women, is broken, so
made by clangs, or by regular bells now and then.”

As with the world of Du Fu reality is to be found in contrasts, silence is defined by noise. That concept hearkens back to the eighth century of Chinese poetry and forward to the challenging understanding of John Cage at Black Mountain College. This latter suggestion would doubtless bring a wry and disapproving twist to the mouth of Geoffrey Grigson, poet and critic, whose work has been importantly restored to us through the excellent editorial skills of John Greening.

Ian Brinton, 3rd April 2018

http://www.greenex.co.uk

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