The poet as symbiont

A review of Harry Gilonis's 'Rough Breathing: Selected Poems'

Image of 'Rough Breathing' cover and photo of Harry Gilonis.
Photo of Harry Gilonis courtesy of Carcanet Press.

Rough Breathing: Selected Poems

Rough Breathing: Selected Poems

Harry Gilonis

Carcanet Press 2018, 240 pages, £15.29 ISBN 978-1784103729

Reading Rough Breathing, one is quickly struck by the extent to which Harry Gilonis’s poetic praxis is imbricated with antecedent poets and forms. Titles such as “Some Horatian Ingredients,” “Reading Hölderlin on Orkney,” and “Georg Trakl fails to write a Christmas poem” locate the poetry’s provenance in the praxis of reading (or experiencing by different means) the work of others. Gilonis also frequently favors already existing forms — sonnet, haiku, renga, ghazal, acrostic, to name just a handful. Even so, his poems are always demonstrably experimental with their source material, positioning him not as an epiphyte in relation to the greats but as a symbiont who takes utterly seriously the task of orienting his poetry both toward and away from that which precedes it.

The poem that opens the selection, “Catullus played Bach,” is an appropriate introit into some of the book’s concerns. Below is an excerpt:

air, an

under a 
flaked arch

arco, light(s)
in air
-noon, between
slab stone,
the sixth hour[1]

The confluence of literature and music that is a recurring feature of the book is signaled in the title, a torquing, Gilonis tells us in the annotations, of the Zukofsky phrase “Bach read Catullus.” Certainly, there is music here, a shimmer of assonance that delicately modulates across “air,” “aria,” “arch,” “arco,” “air,” “after,” “before,” and “hour,” sounding and sundering etymological linkage as it progresses, accruing resonances that are analogous to grace notes. What is important here is to recognize that the music is doing something to the poetry, impressing its alterity upon the language. We might also say that the poetry is doing something to the music, that what we encounter in the confluence of media is a kind of artistic mycorrhiza, something phenomenologically more capacious and outward-looking than the purely poetic. A perhaps even richer example can be found in one of Gilonis’s entries in “from far away”:

no-one hears the small music; the wind
in the whin, the flights of warblers,
the sedge’s humming drone; nor, tiny thunder, 
the birl, the dirl, the skirl of the urlar of the heather (77)

That this of one of fifty Gilonis entries in a one-hundred-stanza renga (the other fifty entries are allocated entirely to another poet, Tony Baker) reinforces the importance of symbiosis to Gilonis’s work. What most stands out, perhaps, is the final line, whose phonological and graphical skitter effects a kind of mesmeric susurrus, a “tiny thunder” of sound and image. This line riffs on Baker’s question: “& who is there of the herring-smacks will play pibroch?” (76). Pibroch is glossed as the “high-art mode of Scots bagpipe music” (224). Gilonis’s response is thus colored with an appropriately Scots diction, in which bagpipe terms such as “urlar” (“an initial tune or ‘ground’” [224] of a pibroch composition) become displaced into the botanical domain, specifically as a property of “heather,” a plant with strong Scottish associations. The disparate genres that inform the above two poems merely hint at the range of Gilonis’s musical interests, and many more genres, styles, and artists can be discerned throughout the pages of Rough Breathing.

At this stage, it is worth qualifying Gilonis’s receptivity to otherness. Importantly, he appears less interested in sublating the borrowed materials than in opening up a space of fruitful tension between the intrinsic and the extrinsic. Consequently, the surfaces of his poems often vacillate pleasingly between compositional contexts. Such vacillation is particularly overt in “cover versions,” in which William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” is  machine-translated into (and then back out of) various languages so as to leave telltale typological traces on the resulting poems. Below is the German cover version:

This is to be said
(Deutsches Gedicht)

fairly that I ate
the plums
Those were in

and who
you probably 
to the breakfast

me to forgive
which was so cold
them köstliches
so sweet
and were so cold (26)

The English of these cover versions is pleasingly upended by alien word orders, morphologies, vocabularies, and capitalizations. While the range here is somewhat limited (not veering beyond Romance or Germanic languages), elsewhere in the book Gilonis pushes into the Celtic, the Japonic, and — particularly notably — the Sinitic.[2] The poems from NORTH HILLS, Gilonis’s ongoing project of what he describes as “‘faithless’ translations” (228) of classical Chinese poetry, frequently instantiate a remarkable whittling away of the syntax of English. At its most extreme, this procedural inclination can result in poems that look almost completely nonsyntactic, their words appearing largely as blocks of contiguous paradigms. This is a brave choice — no alphabetic language can be shaken down to the bones of its paradigms and still be expected to resonate as richly as an ideographic language might. Gilonis knows this and revels in it: “Obviously it is impossible to replicate [the effects of literary Chinese] in English; so the NORTH HILLS poems set out to do just that” (229). As much as quixotically attempting to render into English the rich semantic lattices of the original Chinese poems, Gilonis seems interested in rebutting the kind of translations that blithely daub these poems with agencies and temporalities that are merely latent possibilities in the delicately equivocal originals. In this way, Gilonis follows the example of Pound, who wrote that “until now the translators [of Chinese] have been hypnotized by the noun, always trying to link the ideograms to a ‘part’/noun, verb, adjective.”[3] In the front matter to his book eye-blink, Gilonis is clear about wanting to “resist any such hypnosis.”[4] Below is one of several poems composed “quite a way after Li Shang-yin (AD 813–858)”:

inlaid harp
patterned zither not carry five ten strings
one string one fret consider magnificent years
Chuang Tzu day dream confused butterfly butterfly
Wang Emperor youthful heart entrust restrict cuckoo
green sea moon bright beads are tears
blue field sun warm white grow smoke
this situation able stay become pursue remember
merely is being when stop desolate thus (183)

A line such as “blue field sun warm white grow smoke” reads as a moment of undoing, a rejection of the facile decisiveness that would cauterize Chinese verse into a comfortably attitudinal English. Where a more conservative translation might mobilize a suite of modals, pronouns, and conjugations to arrive at something confidently propositional, Gilonis here prefers a more aerated surface, a vapor of images that refuse to be easily disambiguated. However, it would be misleading to suggest that all of Gilonis’s translations are similarly aerated, or that the above translation embodies the best means of approaching the source poem. Consider another of Gilonis’s translations of the same poem:

no title
exquisite zither’s fifteen strings
fretfully bridge time lost & spent
(butterfly dreams shivering scales,
cuckold-cuckoo sings in spring;
these pearls that were moons tears
from a long way off, smoky-grey)
how hold lost time immaterial
gone in a flash amidst bewilderment (195)

The traditional poetic adhesives are more noticeable here, initiated with an almost mannered trochaic prosody and some heightened literary imagery. But although the poem is this time allowed to disport itself with such niceties as grammar and register, it is still, in traditional terms, a highly obstreperous translation. The parenthesis that cinctures half of the poem’s material is an inspired instance of historico-poetic reimagining, including as it does a wildly anachronistic Shakespearean phrase protruding from its center. We might argue that this clever allusion patinates Li Shang-yin’s poem with an affect that the original encourages. Even so, one translation — or indeed, two translations — can be nothing like definitive. In total, Gilonis translates Li Shang-yin’s poem four times in the sequence, each time placing different pressures on the syntax and tapping into different registers and contexts. Such fluidity suggests that Gilonis sees an iterative process of single-poem translation as the most appropriate means of approaching the density and richness of such a text. And indeed, such repetition is indicative of Gilonis’s perceived role in working with this material. By coming to Chinese poetry as “a poet, not as a grammarian nor a Sinologist,” as Gilonis tells us in eye-blink, he dispenses with notions of precision, instead exploring what he calls the “indeterminate space” of the original poem, a space in which the transmission between languages can become richly dialogistic, facilitating the emergence of a new poem that, instead of paying excessive obeisance to the original poem or attempting presumptuously to “capture” it, initiates a conversation with and through it. In this way, the NORTH HILLS project both pushes further beyond the groundbreakingly experimental Chinese translations of Pound and others and places Gilonis in conversation with the many modern-day poets who are also experimenting with open translation forms.

Gilonis’s attention is similarly heightened when he takes nature as his subject. The sea poems “Pelagic” and “walk the line” hark back in their music to both Homer and Pound. However, what Gilonis produces might be thought less an homage than an interstitial foray into previous readerly refractions. Consider for a moment Pound’s comment on Homer’s thalassic melopoeia as “untranslated and untranslatable.”[5] While this assertion may in a certain sense be true, Gilonis nonetheless proves that, in the right hands, English can also attain to a thalassic majesty:

the sea is not calm
today, but showing
angry white tips
on lip-curling in-
volute trem-
ulous masses of
water cascading:
along the shore
splash and splash
and fall of waves:
the sea trails 
a long line of spray,
cradles stone, 
embraces, grasps, fondles,
kneads, strokes and polishes
then lets its load drop
onto sluiced
gravel (137)

Even if the English phonology doesn’t allow for the kind of sea-soundings that Pound recognized in Homer, the virtuosic unfolding of sound and sense nonetheless encodes a somewhat analogous formal-semantic syntony. That is, image and cadence work simultaneously to convincingly approximate the turbulence of the water. The object here is of a part with Gilonis’s other foci. As when the focus is music or non-English literatures, Gilonis’s approach to nature is concerned with something essential, a quiddity to be explored generously and perspicaciously.

It is clear, then, that Gilonis’s facility with language is never the belletrism of a mere stylist — that it is always buoyed by a sense of serious engagement. Consider the following excerpts from a poem whose incipit runs “start / with what / you know”:

that “a half-line is
in the line, that
a growing stalk
          is wheat”

for being    is becoming
and I am
a verb, a verb
by things (44–45)

Gilonis here riffs on Aristotle’s metaphysics of being. Both excerpts use their line breaks to instantiate the temporal demarcation of states that are posited as simultaneously different and identical. This poetic entelechy is significant because it gestures toward Gilonis’s broader ontology. Being often begins, for Gilonis, from simple matter, what is given by nature. The poems “The Matter of Britain” and “The Matter of Ireland,” for instance, are composed simply of the names of those islands’ native minerals, which are then arranged into the acrostics “no ideas but in things” and “the properties of stone,” respectively. While one may well detect a slight humor at work here — a levity undercutting the conspicuously gravid titles — there is also something like the opposite, a serious ur-materialism in which basic matter not only accretes into something larger, but also suggestively extrudes itself into more portentous (i.e. political) matter.

If the politics remain implicit in Gilonis’s “matter” poems, elsewhere they are more overt. The poem “foreign policy (a performance text)” opens with an epigraph from Hegel: “History [is] the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states and the virtue of individuals have been victimized” (164). Dedicated “from, and to, Tony Blair,” the poem constructs a recursive casus belli out of Blair’s words on the war in Afghanistan. As the text progresses, words are replaced with increasing frequency by the noun “slaughter-bench,” such that what begins as “our quarrel is not with the ordinary people” (164) ends up as “slaughter-bench slaughter-bench is slaughter-bench with the slaughter-bench slaughter-bench” (165). The whole reads like an entropic system, its increasingly beleaguered lines the result of certain historico-dynamic laws. But the dedication makes it clear that the conditions for these “laws” are not the ineluctable movements of history tout court, but the systemic structures that grant executive power to mendacious and bellicose statesmen. Equally politically charged are Gilonis’s stanzas from his unHealed project:

Sargon            Hammurabi            Cyrus                  Antiochus
Hormizd                          Harun al-Rashid                 Faisal
the Administrators of the Coalition Provisional Authority (177)

Here, a flux of Middle Eastern empires is compressed into a series of nodes — the names of kings, caliphs, and transitional governments. The culmination of the series with the “Coalition Provisional Authority” brings us into the modern era and into a post-invasion Iraq. However, the text that we are reading is in fact rooted in another, far older, text. Gilonis explains the provenance of the project in the annotations:

The germ of the unHealed project was re-reading the fragmentary old Welsh poem-cycle the Canu Heledd (“Songs of Heledd”). I was reading a line, Eglwysseu Bassa collasant eu breint (“The churches at Bassa have lost their privileges/status”), when, as I looked, the churches at Bassa became the houses at Basra in Iraq, and collasant became “collapsed,” breint “burnt.” And that was that; the impetus was imperative, to take a relatively unknown, once-everyday tale of English soldiery invading a neighbouring country and behaving badly — and bring it up to date. (227)

By treating ancient poetry not as something to reset in the aspic of straight-up translation but as a vessel to help convey an analogous indignation from the modern era, Gilonis arrives at something trans-temporally political. Consider, for example, the poet’s juxtaposition of language from Tony Blair’s open letter to the Iraqi people with a slice of orthographically suggestive Welsh text, “yr ffuc” (177), from the original poem. We might be inclined to see in this particular clash of materials something highly Benjaminian, a disruption of congealed time that serves also as an inspired “fuck you” with multiple temporal vectors.

What we get in Rough Breathing, then, is a singular smorgasbord of material from a writer whose receptivity to extant poetries is matched by his commitment to finding vitally new poetic inflections. Equally important as Gilonis’s range and erudition (and the elegant gait of his cadences) is the rootedness of his work in the political and the social. More than anything, Gilonis recognizes that poetic history and language — and the works that often get anchored to both as ostensibly representative nodes — remain ongoing concerns, things to engage with now and in the future.

1. Harry Gilonis, Rough Breathing (Manchester, UK: Carcanet Press, 2018), 19.

2. It is worth noting that Gilonis has also published an excellent set of poems from the Russian of Mayakovsky and others titled For British Workers (London and Brighton, UK: Barque Press, 2015). Gilonis explains that he opted to exclude from Rough Breathing these and other translations for which “a conventional model of fidelity is intended.”

3. Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends, ed. Zhaoming Qian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 38.

4. Harry Gilonis, eye-blink (London: Veer Books, 2011), unpaginated foreword.

5. Ezra Pound, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968), 250.