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Steven Waling Reviews ‘Rough Breathing: Selected Poems’ by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet, 2018)

A Selected Poems is often a good way to assess the development of a poet, to see both where they have come from, and to see how they have developed. This is especially true of this selection, Rough Breathing.

Gilonis begins as a disciple of such Objectivist poets as William Carlos Williams and George Oppen. Even from the first poem, ‘Catullus Played Bach’, we can see the concision and the interest in the small nouns that come from a real concentration on the subject:

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

In perhaps the first pages, these influences are very prominent; I like the fact that Gilonis hasn’t been afraid to show this influence, to show the reader where his poetry comes from, but this is probably not his best work. Sometimes, as in ‘cover versions’, he shows a delightful sense of humour (a W.C. Williams poem put through an antique translation poem, according to the notes). Slowly, however, we see a very much more individual poet emerging, and by the time of ‘from far away’, his collaboration with Tony Baker, it has fully emerged. Often haiku-like, deeply invested in the natural world, these notational poems are a renga of impressions that builds into a meditation on landscape. Quotation doesn’t do it justice, but here are a couple of the odd-numbered poems (written by Gilonis; the even-numbered are by Tony Baker):

a blue moon, nightblue apple trees.
star-naked boys in the meadow.
a frog, a leaf. a fir-fly leaves.

“in an inferior world”
in a laitch wind
bog-cotton’s tiny cumuli
snipe tumble drumming

One of the techniques that marks out this collection is his use of translation, where he ‘translates’ by approximating to the sound of the original, not the meaning. Even his ‘versions’ of the Wordsworth daffodil diary entries and poem are sort of translations; but when he goes first to Latin then old Welsh it becomes a truly original new poem. It would have been interesting to see an original text next to the ‘version’ to see how it has changed, but the poems themselves are really interesting sound worlds.

With ‘the unHealed’, it really comes into its own. “Quite a long way after the Old Welsh of the Canu Heledd” means that he’s taken a poem about the English invading Wales and destroying churches and re-imagined it to talk about the invasion of Iraq. Welsh names become Iraqi, some of the translation is reasonably accurate, other parts of it taken through English-Chinese dictionaries. Here is a small taster:

Coalition cannon dappled grey:
They want a thrust though it pierce heads;
toxic chemicals spread over Derah.

Coalition cannon dappled brown:
the gist of language, burning bodies,
they have taken Derah, a desolate town.

Coalition shelling over the boundary:
chain-guns, co-ax, the armies
captured Derah, a town with no fathers.

He carries this use of ‘expanded translation’ into Chinese in a sequence called ‘North Hills’ but it’s partly the sense of verbal music I think he takes from other languages. His poems have learned concision from the Objectivists and music from the Chinese and the Welsh, but together they make for some very beautiful poetry that sometimes makes me gasp and sometimes smile happily.

If I have one complaint, it’s do with the length of some of the notes. Some notes are necessary but a lot of the notes seem excessively explanatory. He could have included a few more poems if he’d restrained himself from having to explain every reference, which we don’t always need to know and sometimes rather restrain an imaginative reading of the text.

Gilonis has been around in the small press experimental scene for many years, so this selection is very welcome and hopefully will lead to an increase in readership for this very fine poet. Sometimes, experimental poets are neglected because it is assumed that they’re going to be difficult; but while the poems are not always easy, there is so much pleasure in them that I think they should be read by many more people, outside the sometimes narrow confines of the ‘experimental’ world.

Steven Waling

Rough Breathing: Selected Poems by Harry Gilonis is published by Carcanet, £13.59.

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