‘Rough Breathing: Selected Poems’ by Harry Gilonis – Carcanet


[I will use a range of typed, photographed and screen-grabbed examples of poems for this review]

I first came across the poet Harry Gilonis through a review of his collection Rough Breathing by Simon Collings at Stride in June, 2018, who began by stating the poetry ‘was a revelation’ and ‘a pleasant discovery’. These feelings were further supported with enough illustration and astute observation to embolden the claim ‘this is an impressive volume from a poet whose elegant, witty, and at times angry poetry unquestionably deserves a wider public’.

I immediately joined that public by getting the book and read with the same pleasure, taken by Gilonis’ playful, innovative, experimental, and yes, ‘angry’/political poetry. The discovery was more than pleasurable, being impressive and stimulating from cover to cover. Yesterday I returned for another shot of delight and make these following observations to further the celebration of his work.

I’ll begin by commending the book’s excellent Introduction by Philip Terry. It is a brief but knowing presentation of Gilonis’ influences as well as methodologies as writer, with examples to entice the reader’s exploration of the whole. My cue for this review were some of these highlights and other gems I read outside yesterday in September sunshine.

An early joy to read in this Selected is ‘cover versions’, poems based on William Carlos Williams’ poem ‘this is just to say’, found poems which were created, as Gilonis explains in the book’s Acknowledgements & Annotations, when WCW’s poem was ‘put through an antique online translation engine, and then that process reversed’. Here are some opening examples from various,

firstly that I ate
the plums
Those were in


that I have eaten
They were inside
the icebox


I ate
who were in
the fridge

I think these [each in their entirety] are teasing and entertaining – and in reading the selected poems that is a primary purpose/reader-response – but they also touch on how language confuses/alters/misdirects  which is also explored critically in other work.

Yesterday I especially enjoyed the first from ‘two carnivore sonnets’ because of its shiftiness but also because a dragonfly had earlier flown into and would not be coaxed out of my conservatory, though it wasn’t a Ruddy Darter,


Of course, it is the mimetic placing on the page that captures the dragonfly, but it is also about sound as well as the visual. Again, clever and delightful.

I like the poem ‘Daruma’ for its inventiveness too, based on a Daruma Doll which is a Japanese traditional doll modelled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen tradition of Buddhism, and I have seen images online where only one eye is indeed inked in and which becomes a focus for Gilonis’ play on ‘eye’,


‘Two Poems from the English of the Wordsworths’ demonstrate the new meanings produced through found and erasure techniques. Taking Wordsworth’s well-known ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, Gilonis composes two new poems, ‘the first piece by sampling excerpts from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal entry of 15 April 1805 describing the same episode’ [Peter Terry Intro], and the second takes the original poem and erases to leave/produce a wavering single line moving down the page. What both poems do is liberate the original from its rather clichéd existence, especially the second poem, and in removing the word ‘daffodils’, the over-familiarity and rather twee dust of its longevity gets brushed off so the poem [what it means about the pure joy of observing flowers and – the problematic bit, especially after so many years of similar – writing about such] is revitalised.

For Gilonis, poetry is so often about clarity – being simple and direct and clear [though the more playful/experimental approaches will seek out other effects/impacts: he isn’t narrow and definitive about writing]. So in one sense, his poetry is free of artifice – so I do mean this as a manifesto for much writing – but I accept entirely that erasure/found is all about the artifice of manipulation and re-creating. For the clarity in writing, he puts it precisely in a sequence ‘for Lorine Niedecker’ [the American Objectivist poet] and this is a section from that,

to catch
the ‘grain’
of things,

the detail, not
mirage, of

-a vermicelli scatter
of seedhusks
on whorled cow
-flop, purple gleam

This ‘manifesto’ is further explored in a fine, clear poem ‘Song for Annie’, and also in a poem perhaps more directly so, titled ‘Theory’ [which first appeared in Stride Magazine, 1989]

the cracks
in an old wall,
the shape
of a cloud,
the path of
a falling leaf
or the froth
on a pint of beer

So this/that said, Gilonis is paradoxical in putting the purpose of clarity to a playful test in his acrostic poem ‘The Matter of Britain’,





Above all, these poems are about ‘things’, and things that are real.

That clarity and therefore certainty about ‘things’ is hard to obtain and then translate onto the page seems to get further exploration through reference to musical variation [or maybe just the nuances of performance of a same piece] in many of the poems in this book, and especially in ‘Pibroch’, an art music genre from the Scottish Highlands characterised by extended compositions with a melodic theme and elaborate formal variations, explained by Gilonis and in reference to Scots bagpipe music as ‘each melody-note surrounded by an incrementally-increasing halo of grace-notes, ending in the ludicrously ornate ‘crown-variation’’. To emulate this poetically he writes seven variations about a heron – and explains further ‘my sequence is an attempt to replicate this verbally’ – and these a three of the variable beginnings:

a heron landing
on top of sea-wrack


on wrack
folding wings


a demure heron landing
lowering her legs
on top of sea-wrack

In terms of representing the detail of a ‘thing’ [or experience] with clarity and without the kind of visual variety of differing, repetitive versions, ‘walk the line’ is a wonderful poem about walking miles of Chesil Beach in Dorset, the poem a narrow and linear stretch across eight pages in the book. It really needs to be read as a whole, especially to see and hear the shoreline and waves as well as read all the other details observed.

Another poem that is entertainingly playful and precise is one that focuses on the different meanings of the words ‘content’ and ‘form’, this in the general exploration of such variation but also, implicitly, in how they relate to poetry itself,


A linguistic reverie/revelation/revolution is put to many purposes and uses in further poems. There are dances with language in presenting fourteen differing soundpoems on warblers, and then there is a selection from forty poems of forty lines each about forty types of wild mushrooms, ‘some (of forty) fungi’.

When that purpose/use is to be political, Gilonis’ inventiveness takes cues from history to plot the thread of human horror to the present. In ‘35 stanzas from unHealed’ he adapts a reading of a ‘fragmentary old Welsh poem-cycle the Canu Heledd’ about English soldiers invading Welsh villages. This prompts him to think of Iraq and ‘that was that; the impetus was imperative, to take a relatively unknown, once every-day tale of English soldiery invading a neighbouring country and behaving badly – and bring it up-to-date’. The whole composition is made up of various translations and then found material, one of these ‘An Open Letter to the Iraqi People’ by Tony Blair. Three opening stanzas from the whole are,

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

and three later from another section,

fully field programmable
with in-flight re-targeting
to cover the whole kill chain

with sensor-to-shooter capability
for effects-based engagement
and an integral good-faith report

and a situational awareness
of integrity and trust
to achieve the desired lethal effects

There are two other poems explicitly prompted by/containing reference to Tony Blair, one ‘foreign policy (a performance text)’

foreign policy

and the second is ‘Blair’s Grave’, this another found poem [using an online cut-up engine], an amalgam of Robert Blair’s 1743 poem ‘The Grave’, William Blake’s illustrations and connected poem for this, and speeches and blog comments made by Tony Blair.

There really is so much more to read and discover in this selected edition. Writing this review, and reading Gilonis’ notes [which you can use, or ignore: they are not ultimately necessary, but I found them informative and engaging] focused my attention further into the poems after their second read yesterday, and the poems can be read again and again as they will keep giving, and delighting.

1 thought on “‘Rough Breathing: Selected Poems’ by Harry Gilonis – Carcanet

  1. Pingback: Poetry Reviewed 2019 | gravyfromthegazebo

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