Midamble by Peter Jaeger: A Review

Midamble, Peter Jaeger, if p then q, 2018, 420 pp, £12.00, ISBN: 978-1999954703

MidamblePeter Jaeger’s Midamble is a big book in every sense, although constructed from small units, a mosaic of phrases and sentences, each one functioning like the famous first step in the journey of  thousand Li, a proverb that, as it happens, is referenced in the book.

It consists of two bodies of text, ‘Variations for Walkers and Pilgrims’ and ‘Relics’, presented in parallel, eleven lines of text top and bottom of a commodious page, with a broad white band between them. ‘Variations’ is built around a simple sentence pattern, a present participle clause (in one instance, a past participle clause), followed by a main clause in the past tense with ‘we’ as subject. ‘Relics’ reads like, and may well be, the index to a vast survey of world religions, presented as continuous unpunctuated prose. The music, rich music, of the book derives from variation and repetition within the pattern.

The title sets out in a single word the parameters of the book. On one level, it is what it says, moments caught mid-walk and apparently noted down. Then you’re reminded of ‘preamble’ and see that each sentence of the ‘Variations’ text is action without introduction while ‘Relics’ is backmatter without a book. After a time, it occurs to the reading mind that the white band runs through the book like an old straight track, a walk between the ambles above and below.  One thread that runs through the ‘Variations’ text is the derivation of the word saunter from the French sans terre (without land) and à la sainte terre (to the sacred place); the emphasis being on slow, aimless walking, the proper mode for pilgrimage.

And then there’s a whole other meaning in the domain of computer networking. To quote Wikipedia: ‘In computer networks, a syncword, sync character, sync sequence or preamble is used to synchronize a data transmission by indicating the end of header information and the start of data. The syncword is a known sequence of data used to identify the start of a frame, and is also called reference signal or midamble in wireless communications.’ It could be argued that each new sentence in ‘Variations’ (the text that most of this review focuses on) is a metaphorical midamble in this sense.

The sentences in ‘Variations’ are discrete moments in a narrative, sometimes more or less linked to those around them, but more often not, with a good deal of repetition of half or whole sentences in new configurations at a distance from each other, and extended ‘chains’ binding together long stretches of text. For example, across several hundred pages the main clause takes the form ‘we (all) became Christians/Buddhists/Hebrews/Sufis/Taoists/Romantic/Etc.’ These repetitions are, as I already suggested, part of the music of the work, but they also mirror the iterative nature of walking, one step the same as and different to every other step, along with the frequent sense that you’ve walked past that same tree, house or rock already and may be going around in circles.

Equally, the structure of and relationships between the clauses is used to provide variety. Sometimes both clauses are simple and short, sometimes one or both are long and complex, with commas or em dashes used to pile up subclauses, especially in the first half of the sentence. Sometimes the semantic relationship between he clauses is straightforward, more often it’s oblique and elusive. Another source of variation lies in the formal register of the sentence structure, which is occasionally ruptured by the introduction of demotic vocabulary.

The concerns addressed are those you might expect from pilgrims, including, but not limited to: food, drink and shelter; the weather; walking gear and equipment; people encountered along the way; people missed; minor injuries; and getting lost. There’s a good deal of choral and ‘call and response’ singing of one sort or another, a lot of writing things down, and occasional moments of transcendence:

Learning that walking brought us to a moment of ultimate presence, especially in the cool breeze and shade of the afternoon, we could not even speak.

Reading the text, you become aware immediately of the way Jaeger incorporates quotes and references to poetry and song, usually walking-related, into his work. The first page, for example, evokes Dante, Frost and Wordsworth:

Finding ourselves in a dark wood where the straight road no longer lay, we were often simple. Walking in order to research where we were in relation to our desire, we remembered surface. Coming across two roads that diverged in a wood, we stepped into the wood. Beginning nowhere, going, nowhere and arriving nowhere, we deepened the level. Wandering lonely as a cloud, we thought ourselves mannered.

(As an aside, this passage shows some of the variations outlined above.)

While the last page, the third from last sentence in ‘Variations’,  gives us two TS Eliot near-endings:

Arriving at where we had started once again but knowing that place for the first time, we heard the mermaids sing.

The poet most often referenced is Eliot, especially ‘Prufrock’, but Frost makes several appearances, along with Coleridge, Basho, Yeats, The Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Sandy Denny, Tennyson, Dylan Thomas and others. The cumulative effect is to add a dimension (of time or depth, perhaps) to the idea of pilgrimage beyond the experience of the immediate subject ‘we’, a sense underlined by the constant ground bass of the ‘Relics’ text.

plagues of frogs and lice plans for a pilgrimage to jerusalem plato and the buddha on death meditations playing truant from the posture to reveal the spontaneous asana to your constitution please call me by my true name pleasure and happiness pleasure plough pose ploughing plum blossoms plumbing the source poem before words

To quote a passage at random.

This is further emphasised by the fact that the narrator is walking variously through Spain, India, China, Japan, Australia and England, not a single pilgrimage, but Pilgrimage. The England sections contain frequent references to Alfred Watkins and the idea of leys, which connects the work to artists like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton:

Following a shortcut which ran straight for miles and miles across the moor and which was lined with pre-historic barrows, we marked them with an X.

Again, the white space running through the book seems to be implicated here.

The land art connection is highlighted in Jaeger’s performance in a rural setting which is available on video.

Interestingly the performance is from the ‘Variations’ text alone, which we can see here presented as a continuous prose piece, underlining my sense that ‘Relics’ is essentially intended to be seen and not read, or at most dipped in to. One interesting aspect of Jaeger’s reading is the definite pauses between sentences, which went counter to my own more ‘hurried’ reading. Jaeger’s practice highlights the discrete nature of each captured moment, and this in turn caused me to reflect on a mention of the Mu koan in ‘Variations’. If Mu is the gateway to perception, then perhaps Jaeger wants his readers/listeners to consider each sentence in the ‘Variations’ text as a gateway into the book as a whole, as each new step on the amble is a new beginning, and a new vantage point. If so, it seems almost foolish to read the book as a narrative with an end point, yet images of arrival permeate the closing pages, specifically arrival at the traditional destination of the Camino, Santiago de Compostela. And then, there’s the final sentence, a deliberate flatness so soon after the heightened expectations set up by the Eliot references quoted above:

Reaching the plaza at last, we thought, well, whatever.

On one level, this can be read as the sense of disappointment that accompanies the end of any journey where the getting there was more important than the arrival. But it can also be read as a very 21st century translation of that traditional end word, Amen.

Which thought leads me, finally, to reflect for a moment with one thing which I, as a reader without religion, struggled with at first when reading a text so redolent with religious ideas and images. In the end, it seems to me that Jaeger is positing the notion, strongly reinforced by ‘Relics’, that all religions are equally valid, and, by the same token, equally meaningless. In the end, religion is less important to the book that its prevalence would lead you to think; Midamble is an exploration of universals through the mediums of walking and linguistic minimalism, and as such it’s a book of huge interest and importance. Go read it.


The last recent reading of 2018

logbook, Hiromi Suzuki, Hesterglock, £10.00

some time we are heroes, Reuben Woolley, Corrupt Press, €15, ISBN 979-10-90394-58-2

A Long and Hard Night Troubled by Visions, Tom Jenks, if p then q, £8.00, ISBN: 978-1999954710

The Balthus Poems, William Minor, Coracle Press, €10.

Hiromi Suzuki is a Japanese visual poet/collage artist who is associated with the VOU logbookgroup of Japanese poets founded by the surrealist Kitasone Katue and whose work I first came across in the excellent Empty Mirror. The work collected in this enterprising volume from Hesterglock consists for the most part of collages using scraps of images and text from magazines, newspapers and other ephemera in a style that is highly reminiscent of certain Dada artists, including Kurt Schwitters. Interspersed between these are a number of prose statements that act as commentary on both the work assembled and Suzuki’s methods.

Interestingly, she appears to reverse the Surrealist cliché by working at night before going to sleep, and seeking not to record the content of the dreams she has had but to influence the content of dreams to be had, both her own and those of her reader/viewers. the resulting work comprises fragments of the everyday made over, with apparently random associations of objects acquiring a new logic by dint of simply being laid beside each other. The fact that Suzuki labels these works ‘logbook’ is, I think, telling; they are both a record of a journey as it happens and notes for a potentially expanded later recounting. She favours neutral, sepia-like tones, where the occasional splash of bright colour is rendered all the more vivid by contract to its setting. But it’s almost impossible to do this work justice in words, so here’s a picture to look at, from a series called Seasons:

the_seasons_hiromisuzuki_01The source material behind Reuben Woolley’s some time we are heroes is the Ladybird stwahseries of John and Mary early readers, and again these ‘ordinary’ materials are made over by the poet. Woolley is concerned with what happens to the dull, conventional middle-class respectability of the 1950s-style Ladybird universe when it encounters harsh reality. The result is a study of the tensions that underlie the dilapidated circus that is Brexit Britain.

The poems are a kind of muted call-and-response between the central figures, with images of violence and dislocation surfacing regularly:

mary’s here

& sleepless.she makes

the stories

the dancing


that john will speak & night

never comes

without a grin

a grimace

we write with knives

gouge words on skin

There are occasional flickering glimpses of redeeming beauty:

i hold light

like sand


a galaxy


but the overall tone is of quiet despair, of people surviving in a cheap dystopia gone to seed. As befits poetry, the hope, such as it is, resides in the quality of language, the sound of the poet’s art on the page. Woolley’s characteristic music is a kind of spiky percussiveness, and it is evident here in moments of crisis:

a certain state

of sanity / a wholly health

is not


these hollows

no hallowed hides.are

louder now.they speak us dry

It is, I think, impossible not to see the poet’s name and identity behind the wordplay of these lines, a nod to the fact that the question of identity is central to our resistance to the everyday oppression that is the subject/object of this collection. The idea of the actor is a recurring theme, with both Mary and John slipping in and out of roles, costumes and masks not as alternative selves, but as disguises; john considers/who he’s wearing/today. They have grown up and away from the simplicities of the easy reader into the more complex, difficult and rewarding realm of poetry, thanks to Woolley’s art.

Tom Jenks is another writer whose focus is on the mundane, and like Suzuki, he views it jenksaskance via a kind of surrealist lens. And like Woolley, there’s an element of call and response across the four sets of prose-poems that make up A Long and Hard Night Troubled by Visions (note that the title also implies the importance of dreams here). So that on page 16 we read:

Up early picking plums, I spotted the mermaid perched on the edge of the pond. She slipped into the water as I approached, disappearing among the knotted weeds, leaving only a thin string of bubbles.

and then on page 63:

I waited ten years to be objectified and now it’s boring, like poetry is boring. This is just to say I have written a note about writing a note about eating the plums in the fridge, in that Tupperware box, There’s no point in saying things like that, says Topaz. People just don’t get the reference, like calling your imaginary horse Ceefax.

With these two brief extracts, we get a fairly comprehensive idea of Jenks’ concerns. The intrusion of the fabulous into the everyday; the references to technology from one imagines, across the poet’s life (Tupperware and Ceefax echo reference Instagram, Google and the near forgotten image of TV sets that have to warm up that are found across the book); the insistence, repeated elsewhere, that poetry is boring (which raises a number of questions, including but not limited to ‘is this poetry? ‘is this boring?’ ‘is Jenks attempting to transcend or subvert poetry/boredom?’); following on from this, the telescoping of time into a continuous present; the difficulty of communicating anything in a world where shared points of reference cannot be assumed; an interest in mass media and entertainment that cumulates in ‘’strikes’, a logbook of every instance of someone smoking in season 2 of Mad Men.

Like Woolley, Jenks adapts texts intended for children to new ends; in this case the Strawberry Moshi stories become a set of poems in which language is stripped of all literary connotations and becomes all the more odd and oddly menacing for it:


I am always asleep. I am always cleaning. I am always crying, I am always flying. I am always studying. I am always hiding. We are always carrying something. We are always playing an instrument. We watch over the couples. I am always upside down.

(As an aside, I wonder if Jenks has read Maurice Scully’s work.)

The cumulative effect of the book is to remind us that we live in a world that is constantly in flux, yet constantly static. Everything changes, and nothing does.

Balthus-PoemsWilliam Minor’s work is new to me, I have to confess, The Balthus Poems being the first of his work that I’ve read. This little book from Coracle slips neatly into your pocket, which is apt given that the writing is epigrammatic and fragmentary, texts of one to five lines with, even in this format, loads of white space around them. The poems, if such they are, are reflections on the work and attitude of the titular painter, ranging in general from the mundane to the banal:

In Balthus, one can sense an action taken.


Balthus saw

a lot of people

going in and out

of buildings.

and occasional flashes of insight:

What could education and society bury in Balthus

that he couldn’t resurrect with absurdity and dream.

But there is a disturbing silence, an absence, at the heart of this little book, that is perhaps barely hinted at in one of the poems:

In painting a woman as a woman

Balthus must have foreseen the results.

For the reality is that Balthus’ ‘women’ were all too often prepubescent girls painted in highly sexualised poses. The Balthus Poems might have been a far more interesting book if Morris had confronted this uncomfortable, unsupportable reality.

Keith Waldrop and Sarah Cave: A review

Of And, Keith Waldrop, Guillemot Press, 2018, £6.00

like fragile clay, Sarah Cave, Guillemot Press, 2018, £9.00

Of and.jpgThe arc of Keith Waldrop’s poetic career is a movement from verbosity to minimalism, a paring away of the extraneous. His early work tends to follow the logic of prose, of sentence and paragraph, but his mature poetry removes this scaffolding to let the silence out. However, while the method has evolved, many of Waldrop’s central concerns have remained constant, especially how ‘the spaces between things/all but make up for the intervening/entities (The Space of Half an Hour, 1983).

In that same book, Waldrop wrote

Many years ago

I wanted to write about

prayer, but was hindered by centuries of


practice – also my religion

got in the way. Am I finally ready?

And now, 35 years later, it seems he is, as prayer is at the core of this tiny recent book from Guillemot. These prayers are offered to ‘gods one need not/believe in’, an idea that, to me at least, summons up that New England Transcendentalist tradition with which Waldrop seems to have so much in common, as when Emerson wrote ‘We have no experience of a creator, and therefore we know of none’.

A little later, Waldrop writes

those who believe in God have


no reason to pray

And so these poems are prayers to an unacknowledged god who has no need of them, an exercise in perception with the inward looking eye of the ‘god in ruins’. What Waldrop seems most to believe in is the act of writing, the word isolated for emphasis:

I decline my soul in


old eyes now in my


cold age

just where lights are


going out


of going

The word ‘decline’ here acts, I think, as fulcrum for multiple puns around ideas of refusing, leaning in (as opposed to ‘incline’) and conjugating, as one would a verb. Of And has the feeling of something ending, of being both coda and codicil. If so, it is a fittingly quite, voluminously quiet, closure to a remarkable poetic career.

fragile clayReligion is also in the mix in Sarah Cave’s like fragile clay, with the title apparently deriving from a letter of St Paul in which the human body is described as a fragile clay vessel containing the divine light or grace, and Job’s ‘What then of those who live in houses of clay, who are founded on dust? They are crushed as easily as the moth’.

Cave’s exploration of our fragile clay is constructed in a framework of Tove Jannson’s Moominvalley stores, a body of work that I am almost entirely ignorant of. This is, I think something of a disadvantage when reading the book, as the distraction of working out who’s who served as a distraction from Cave’s undoubted qualities as a writer. There are four main figures at play, a family consisting of Moominpapa and Moominmamma and their son Moomin along with Snorkmaiden, Moominpapa’s lover.

The poems circle around this affair and the sense of grief and loss it brings to the protagonists. At the core of the book, Snorkmaiden is conflated with the Virgin Mother of the Christian mythos in a poem called ‘Moominvalley Annunciation’, presumably an offshoot of the Annunciation poems she worked on with Rupert Loydell:

Heavily pregnant, Snorkmaiden

fills her basket with the tide’s

clutter. She sees the world

endlessly rocking through

the keyhole of a pebble

or transparent sea glass.

Elsewhere in the book, Cave uses typography and the full resources of the page to create interesting tensions, but the Moomis keep getting in the way, and the most successful poem in the book, for me, is ‘Moomin visits the Rauschenberg Exhibition at the Tate Modern’, where they appear only in the title and where Cave’s ekphrastic are allowed free rein in a set of chant-like theme and variations:



in a painted

wooden post-box

dirt and mould

dirt and mould, thorns,

thorns and snail shells




in a wood box

It’s worth reading like fragile clay for this poem alone.

Red Bank by David Annwn: A Review

Red BankRed Bank, David Annwn, 2018, Knives Forks and Spoons, ISBN: 9781912211197, £7.00

David Annwn’s latest book is a study in the mind’s ability to hold multiple heres and nows simultaneously. Specifically, the poems in Red Bank bring together late 1960s Beatles, the Battle of Red Bank in the English Civil War, 1970s Lancashire and the now of their composition in a set of three interlocking sequences that are mutually illuminating.

Each sequence centres around one or two Beatles’ songs; in the opening section, Red Bank, the songs are ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Golden Slumbers’, the first drawing on Bach’s early 18th century 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, the second on Thomas Dekker’s early 17th century ‘Cradle Song’, the two bracketing the mid-17th century titular battle.

‘Penny Lane’ is a song of community located in the ideal world of 1960s optimism. It represents the home to which the singer in ‘Golden Slumber’s once had a way to get back. Later in the book we see surviving Royalist troops fleeing ‘to Renfrew, to Linlithgow’, also trying to get back home.

At the time the Beatles were writing and recording the songs, Red Bank was also a different kind of community, a school for young offenders and home to some of the most notorious child ‘criminals’ of the 20th century, the flip side of the hippy dream. Annwn weaves a flexible verbal music to bring together these disparate documentary strands as poetry of great fluidity:

Cromwell’s fenland grey-green eyes

weighed this incline

came as silent suns to night.


Too much of it lost

under work and study though we hid

on the bank with our willow-herb spears.


Red Bank assessment unit

for young offenders – once we knew

a way – kept them fit


and away from their families.

Their dormitories backed our

bungalow road; each mode


and splay of their sleeping minds

precious – though not a screw

I was a screw’s son.

The title of the second sequence, The Last Masque, refers to the Stuart Court’s delight in the masque as a form of propagandistic entertainment. The sequence opens with the Beatles’ famous rooftop performance of Get Back, a song that brings the homecoming theme to the fore. That concert coincided with a wreath-laying at the statue of Charles I at the distinctly unromantic nearby Charing Cross Road traffic island to mark the anniversary of the king’s execution. In one sense, this death was the last masque to be performed in the Stuart era, but the conjunction also calls out the parallels between the ‘Cavalier’ 1960s counterculture and their ‘Roundhead’ contemporaries, the office workers who had the music cut short by complaining to the police. This is underscored by the appearance of Paul, George and Ringo in carnivalesque Sgt Pepper’s costume on horseback in the promotional film for ‘Penny Lane’:

To read these fields by the king’s

festivities, a reinvention

and self-fashioning.


As in the habit of masquerade

Sgt Pepper’s reflective wit

uniforms conscripted


ornately anti-

establishment. Even Hendrix


in his black hussar’s jacket.

The carpe diem element in ‘Get Back’ is accentuated by a reference to Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds’ as song ‘with William Lawes’ lunar music/remote and incontestable,/those vast distances’. Herrick’s poem is directly contemporary with the battle, and links it, a chance encounter in the early 1970s with Prince Charles (‘Carolus Hic Rexque Futurus’) and Red Bank school in another multi-layered ‘now’ that encompasses the Matter of Britain, albeit aslant. The placement of both battle and school in the vicinity of Hermitage Green Lane serves to underscore the mythic element while linking back to a possible bus destination from ‘Penny Lane’ in the first section of the book (‘Anyone is free to Hermitage Green Lane.’)

The final sequence, Harvest, opens with a conflation of the harpsichord-like sound of Paul’s Lowrey organ at the start of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ with William Davenant’s Salmacida SpoliaI (the actual last Stuart masque) and John’s notorious ‘Jesus’ remark:

A harpsichord prelude


descent into spell

a  pavane with


triple tempi for chorus


Lucy’s in the sky with diamonds

again and so is the queen:

‘a huge cloud of various colours

and within a transparent brightness

of thin exhalations, such as the gods

are feigned to descend in’

“We’re more popular than Jesus”

‘from over her head dart

lightsome rays.’

Lennon’s ‘Lucy’ lyric was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Carroll, another Cavalier among Roundheads, created a topsy-turvy logic that might serve as a suitable prism for Annwn to focus his multiple nows:

It is another England


streaming backwards over

psychedelic plains

of 70s Lancashire

through grey corridors

and bus terminals

to (where else)

Carroll’s church at Daresbury

not far as you might think

as the raven flies

-triple tempi for chorus-

where Lennon caught a walrus.

This other England, one that can hold both flamboyant musicians and drab princes, Wonderland and schools for young offenders (Liverpool Reformatory Farm School for Boys, later the Red Bank secure unit opened just four years after Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865 and finally closed almost a century and a half later) is other because of what happened in the battle of Red Bank. The country’s odd blend of democracy, puritanism and hedonism, tradition and experimentation derives from the Civil War period and lies beneath the tensions, from rioting to Brexit, that break the surface of British society at regular intervals. In Red Bank, Annwn explores the roots of these tensions through the lens of a set of moments in time that exemplify them. At the back of it all is the expectation of past glories recovered, the return of empire or the reawakening of the Rexque Futurus, the sleeping lord and his hermit knights, a Beatles reunion rendered impossible by death. The book ends on an acknowledgement of this note:

To have seen seasonally the farm bonfire

with its acrid toffee and raked potatoes

and a calf, with sacs pulled around it,


and Fawkes’s effigy flare

and stranger things


a schoolscape lasting one hundred and fifty

years vanish

to walk the track

and then forget

the sleeve


Requiescat in pace


Where is the well’s hermit

of this green Hermitage?

Red Bank is a book to come back to, each reading unpacking new layers of engagement with a society ill at ease with itself. Annwn is in full control of his technique and the materials he has assembled to make these poems and the result is a deeply satisfying read.

Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis: a review

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:

Deer Park


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:

Deer Enclosure


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.