Rough Breathing: Selected Poems, Harry Gilonis, Carcanet, 2018, ISBN: 978 1 784103 72 9, £16.99
I should begin this review by acknowledging two pertinent facts: firstly, Harry Gilonis’ first book, Reliefs was published by hardPressed poetry in 1988; secondly, I am the dedicatee of a poem in this Selected. The first of these facts is explained simply by saying that we published him because we found his work to be worth publishing, the second came as something of a surprise. In the 30 years since that first publication, Gilonis has produced a substantial body of poetry and critical writing, including some of the most important exegesis of the work of Brian Coffey, was a regular attendee at the SoundEye festival in Cork, run a small press, edited a journal, and held down a full-time job in publishing.
At the core of this activity are the key values that run through his poetry as collected in Rough Breathing. These are an emphasis on the role of collaboration as a key component in any act of making, an interest in political ethics, and a clear view of the importance of translation as a creative act.
Gilonis’ collaborators are many and varied, and include musicians, poets, both living and dead, and friends. Similarly, his approach to translation spans the arc from literal renderings of works in other languages through cultural borrowings to translations through time, so that, for example, Horace’s poems urging Rome to invade Arabia fold into Tony Blair’s Gulf War, to the credit of neither party. At the back of this, although his politics and poetic voice are radically different, lies the example of Ezra Pound, whose Cantos were pivotal reading for the young Gilonis.
In much of the work collected here, all three aspects I have mentioned are apparent simultaneously. For instance, the sequence ‘from far away’ is a renga written in collaboration with poet and friend Tony Baker. It is a dialogue between London and rural Derbyshire, where Baker lived at the time, both sitting in the shadow of Thatcherite politics:
How long shall I hear the sighs and groanes
O Tythes, Excize, Taxes, Pollings &c
This government is firmly committed to
brute strength hauled up
“dark matter”, undetectable, nameless
names burnt against the wall
[the first stanza is by Gilonis, the second by Baker]
The folding of the 17th century English Ranter Abiezer Coppe into a renga with reference to Thatcher’s poll tax is precisely the kind of ‘cultural’ translation that drives much of the best of the work in this book. The Poundian injunction to ‘make in new’ includes the imperative to view time not as a straight line, but as a cycle of recurrence, so that apparently distant historic moments become contemporary with, and illuminate, each other, as the Ranters illuminate the need to protest the injustices of the now. This bringing together is evident again in his attack, via Horace, of those ‘liberal’ voices, including poets, who likewise enabled the Gulf War 2000 years later:
you white Spes at rare Fides
fraudulent friends veiled cloth
houses share the suffering
nor quit ne fall / the state’s tall
liar an unpoetical word
like dried shit
[from ‘A Misreading of Horace, Odes 1.35]
Perhaps the finest work in the book is contained in the selection from NORTH HILLS, Gilonis’ versions ‘quite a way after’ old Chinese poems. In a note, Gilonis draws attention to the importance of syntax in Chinese poetry (an observation that holds good for his own work) and points out the impossibility of replicating the kinds of ambiguities achieved directly into a language like English, while charging his versions ‘to do just that’.
To achieve this aim, he provides two versions of each poem, and I want to look at how this method works by briefly examining his versions of Wang Wei’s famous ‘Lù Zhài’ (‘Deer Enclosure). Here’s is a transliteration of the poem, with some of the possible meanings of each character given beneath:
Kōng shān bù jiàn rén,
[empty/hollow/bare] [mountain/hill/peak] [negative participle] [see/observe] [person/other]
dàn wén rén yǔ xiǎng.
[yet/only/still] [hear/smell/broadcast] [person/other] [voice/language/words] [(make) sound]
Fǎn jǐng rù shēn lín
[return to/restore/reflect] [sunlight/view] [enter/join] [deep/very far/extreme] [forest/grove/surname]
fù zhào qīng tái shàng
[again/repeat(edly)] [shine/reflect] [blue/green/young/black] [moss/lichen] [on/top/send up]
Here is Gilonis’ first version:
no change on the hollow hills
sole solo voice duplicated
flickering light through trees
falls on blue lichen
The poem as rendered here brings out some of Wang Wei’s Buddhist mysticism, with its teasing out of the idea of the transcendent within the illusion of the sensible world.
And here his second take:
wild sky | HILLS | unseeing people
still conversation sounding
brightness moves into deep woods
again shines again onto green moss
The original impulse is still there, but given the translator’s interest in British political history, it’s impossible not to hear a very specific moment behind the word ‘enclosure’ and not to be taken to the world of the Highland clearances by the wording of the first line. In this reading, the deer become the property of the hunting, shooting and fishing classes who emptied the mountains for their own gain and pleasure, and the illusory Buddhist landscape becomes rooted in the context of the self-advancement of wealth, power and status. The price of the beauty captures in the second couplet, we are reminded, was the near annihilation of a people, a culture and a language. If the true end of translation is the renewal of the subject text in the target language, as I believe it is, then this version is as good an example of the art as you’ll find anywhere.
Gilonis has laboured away at the margins of a poetic culture for three decades now, and it’s nice to see that Carcanet have done his work justice in this well-edited and serviceably handsome book. There is so much more that could be said; for instance, I haven’t touched on the importance of music in Gilonis’ poetry, the strand of occasional poems that run through the book or the visual element that comes to the fore in the selection form Forty Fungi that is included here. You’ll just have to buy the book and read them for yourselves. You won’t regret it.