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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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3 responses »

  1. Though I recognise (to some extent) the scholarship involved, in the book, as in this review, I am not myself a scholar. But how could you not love a book of poems entitled ‘Rough breathing’? There’s already enough there to give pause for thought.

    Reply
  2. ryanenglandblog

    Reblogged this on WJ Clark.

    Reply

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