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.


Desire Lines – Unselected Poems 1966-2000, Barry MacSweeney: A Review

Desire Lines – Unselected Poems 1966-2000, Barry MacSweeney (edited by Luke Roberts), Shearsman 2018, SKU 978-1-84861-579-3, £16.95

In Desire Lines, Luke Roberts and Shearsman have done readers of poetry the very great service of bringing together much of Barry MacSweeney’s work that was excluded from the 2003 Bloodaxe volume, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems, 1965-2000. In a sense, the two volumes should be read in tandem to provide a broader view of MacSweeney’s breadth of achievement, but for the sake of this review, I want to approach this new book as if it were the reader’s first encounter with his work.

Fortunately, the selection begins with the entire text of MacSweeney’s 1968 debut The Boy from the Green Caberet Tells of his Mother alongside half a dozen other poems from the same period, so my imaginary reader gets to see the poet’s early voice emerge from a welter of influences and reading, including 19th century French Symbolism, the emergent Cambridge School of Prynne and others, Basil Bunting and, perhaps, the Liverpool/Mersey Sound poets. This early work is assured, inventive, somewhat of its time and very much taken up with the act of walking, and these walks become occasions of fine perception:

It is not

of fish,

the sea



it is not

of water.


What binds these poems is their regular prose syntax, even the title poem depends on semantic effects to achieve a sense of dislocation:

The mail coach upturned,

wheels spin like planets,

poems pinned to its shafts!

Dames, merchant, musketeer,

in the dead season.

This is apprentice work, albeit of a high order, the echoes of others running through the emerging individual voice of the poet. Within a few years syntactic and spatial disjunction found its way into his repertoire, especially in the 1971 sequence Twelve Poems and a Letter he co-wrote with his then partner Elaine Randell. here the words explode across the page in a more thorough-going open-field manner than he had previously employed. How much of this change is due to Randell’s influence is not something the reader can be sure of, but the immediate return to the safety of the left margin in the two longish and very personal poems that follow, Fools Gold (dedicated to Randell) and Dance Steps (For Paul). While these poems abandon open-field composition, they are open in other ways, open to the world outside and inside the poet’s mind:

by the river

eating snow

for breakfast

soaking wet

what a long winter

I photograph myself


then tear it up

for fun

Both these poems and the next work collected here, Toad Church, are dated 1972, a measure of MacSweeney’s virtue and vice of prolific abundance. Toad Church is one of the many abandoned longer projects that occur across his career, and it’s not difficult in this case to see why. It reads as a grand failed experiment, with the poet pushing his materials beyond the then limitations of his technique. This was followed by the more modestly ambitious Fog Eye, in part, at least, an elegy to fellow poet Mark Hyatt. Here the material and technique blend in a more controlled, but deeply personal, disjunctive conjunction that is moving without sentimentality:

An irrecoverable move not quite plume

or slow-motion wing-beat.

The bird, book, flower, man, all fold up

with the approaching cumulus sudden dark.

And then we have what is one of the great recovered treasures to be found in this book, the 1973 sequence Pelt Feather Log. Although unfinished, there is not the same sense here of a work abandoned because it was outside the poet’s reach; the open-endedness is fitting to the open composition of the poem. In some respects, this is a variation on the classic trope of town versus country, with the dull routines and casual violence of the city being set against an almost Edenic vision of the rural. The poem opens in London, a place of


matic bovver boots, nuts

bolts gleaming oiled wrench

and rusty scaffold crown

and then moves from this site of strife to the reconciliation of the countryside:

after three stops

we reached the summit

behind the house

and all problems and heat

resolved in the sea wind

This rural location is specifically aligned with the biblical root of the country/town, nature/civilisation dichotomy shortly after this resolution:

mark the open branch pressed against the garden wall

this is your eden, among withered fruit

and is later further called out through the element of water when the purification found by standing under a waterfall is contrasted with the ‘wet oily dirt’ of city rain. Sadly, there is a snake in this eden, too, the inner demon that would haunt MacSweeney’s life and work until the end:

sad drunk self

mewing cloyed brain

tipping on desk

to write murder

in the vine.

In Roberts’ selection, this is followed by the distinctly ordinary Starry Messenger which in turn is followed by the quite extraordinary Black Torch (1978). This consists primarily of documentary poetry around the history of industrial unrest among the mining community in Durham. Drawing on first-hand testimony in the local dialect, it invites comparison with Jarrow March by Tom Pickard (to whom it is dedicated) which was broadcast on the BBC in 1976, and Bill Griffiths’ 1990s sequences drawing on similar source materials. One of the distinguishing features of MacSweeney’s work here is that it draws on the dialects of both the miners and the owners, so that we hear both groups in their own voices, with the warmth and humanity of the former highlighted by the cold calculation of the latter:

they fined him 3 and 6 for losing a shovel

yi can buy one for a shullin in the shop

ti put ya tally on the tub

ti tell wees done it

the keeker at the tub

i am a kind and indulgent master

they are infatuated with this union

it is a rabble

led by radicals and revolutionaries

should i speak with them

There are passages in this poem where the present and recent (relatively) struggles are placed in a longer temporal context, taking in the early history of the region, in ways that indicate that MacSweeney may have been absorbing lessons from the work of David Jones

Roman sentries dreaming of Naples

pulled down by long hooks from the wall

as Alaric approached the gates

of the seven hills

there have been straight roads through Newcastle

& household gods

In his introduction, Roberts discusses the impact of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 impacted on MacSweeney’s poetry, making it more overtly political and angrier. However, one of the main targets of his anger, corrupt, venal and ‘sell-out’ Labour politicians are already there in Black Torch and later on in the book Arthur Scargill (the trade union leader who lead the miners in a strike that broke both the unions and the existence of their employment) and Thatcher are given equal blame for what happened. The sad reality is that the political poetry he wrote through the 1980s and 1900s is generally dull, repetitive and difficult to read. This comes to a head in the 1998 volume Postcards from Hitler.

Discussing this later work, Roberts talks about the poet’s ‘pessimism and bravado’. For this reader at least, there certainly is pessimism, and some bravado, but these are drowned out by a great deal of self-indulgent name dropping and a bitterness  of spirit that gets in the way of the poetry, such as it is, with page after page of writing that displays the very worst of the Ginsberg/Blake inspired self-aggrandising litany:

I am Lucifer

little miss Froo Froo,

very Sixties white no-whats

ah-ha, Marianne Faithfull,

Give it to you Neil boy, Tony boloney,

let’s see what happens.

This also mars his variations on Apollinaire, Horses in Boiling Blood

Young poet Barry

only 20

Already you have witnessed the appalling world

What is your judgement on the adults who betrayed you

Try as I might, it is difficult to divorce this degree of self-indulgence from what Roberts calls ‘the terminal crisis of MacSweeney’s alcoholism’. There is a frantic quality to the writing that, married with lapses into deep sentimentality, that remind you of being cornered in a pub by a highly intelligent, extremely articulate, but ultimately dull stranger who insists on telling you their troubles.

It is then an enormous relief to come, at last, to MacSweeney’s final extended piece of writing, the prose-poem sequence Letters to Dewey, a warm, self-deprecating set of words of advice to the son of the poet and friend Stephen Rodefer.

Here, at the end, the self-absorption gives way to a genuine interest in another human being, and sentimentality to deep feeling. There is a sense that MacSweeney may have a sense of his own possible failings as a parent, but these are subsumed into a drive to pass on experience in a way that is shot through with humour and warmth:

Listen Dewey, I am a common man. I am as common as muck. I am the original muck-spreader after farmers Noble and Nicholl who built their ginormous leeks up here in the high grounds and we all sat around and read Zane Grey when the fires died and we were dead asleep until the lentils and the beasts the next dawn.

Being a common man is most special.

What you have to do is turn it.

So, what would my imagined new reader make of MacSweeney based on this book? My feeling is that she would be impressed by the notion of a poet of rare gifts that were all too often unfulfilled, largely through the circumstances of his personal life. However, the cumulative effect of the early work, Pelt Feather Log, Black Torch and Letters to Dewey should be enough to convince her that at his best, he was a poet of real and important achievement. Those of us who value poetry should be grateful for Roberts for bringing this work back into the public domain and to Shearsman for publishing the fruits of his labours.