Peter Philpott’s Ianthe Poems is dedicated to the poet’s granddaughter, and many of the poems play with personae that might credibly be identified with the poet or the young Ianthe. There have been many poems — and indeed whole collections — about parenthood over recent decades, but notably fewer structured around grandparenthood. That said, to write about the latter inevitably means engaging with the growing tradition around the former.
A hundred years ago poems about parent- or grandparenthood (or indeed family in any non-dynastic sense of the word) were relatively scarce. Yes, there are some powerful counterexamples, but on average the embarrassingly-male pre-1900 poetic canon was happy to run endless permutations on death, time, god and unattainable women without straying into anything that might be called everyday life.
Fast-forward to 2015 and things are materially different: poets like Kate Clanchy and Rebecca Goss have used respectively the everyday miracle and the tragedy of parenthood as the founding principles of powerful full-length collections; Patrick McGuinness’s most requested poem at readings is a heartbreaking miniature on the birth of his son; and it’s hard to open a collection by a poet in their 30s without finding a short lyric about an ultrasound scan (to the point that Paul Muldoon’s tricksy gladiator from The Annals of Chile seems retrospectively a lot less original now than in 1994).
Beyond the mainstream things get interesting. Andrea Brady’s breathtaking Mutability deconstructed this entire subgenre into a kind of multiplayer self/other epistemological game whose retroviral syntax gradually blends with the reader’s own thought patterns to change our perceptions of both things and ideas.
Epistemology is also front-and-centre in Ianthe Poems. It’s impossible to write seriously about (or for) a young child without prompting questions about how we know what we know, and how we describe the world. Language is everywhere in these powerful and beautifully unfussy poems: not the mimetic gaga language of Joyce’s moocow, but a repeated enacting of the child’s curiosity about the links between words and things — that simplest and deepest of word-magics that is at the root of all poetry and all myth.
The book is made up of three sequences. The first of these, “Speculations”, is mostly (20 out of 23 poems) made up of 18-line poems broken into two stanzas each, with the first and second 9-line clusters mirroring one another — lines, words, phrases or themes from the first stanza recur in altered form in the second. This ubiquitous mirroring brings to mind not only an infant’s formative learning by reflecting the gaze of others, but also the mirroring of the external world in our internal models — something that dances below the surface of these poems without ever becoming obtrusive.
At times I was reminded of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s explicit engagement with language games and Wittgenstein; at others the intellectual play moves to the background and allows simpler human emotion to take centre stage:
But be still and sleep now
growth comes in the night
something here is very quick
and the heavens mean nothing to us
rumours of colossal machines
that vast space you will grow into
Bless the pramstrings of our hearts! the
empress of all the mice has supped all
the noisy games of excess passed this
is a simple quiet day
In the second section, “Noting Nothing”, the stanza form opens up and the blurring of the lyric “I” becomes more explicit, as does the blurring of the line between describing the world in words and creating it:
Oh no the man on the silver motor scooter rode on
— has he stolen my laptop
. I am writing this poem on or by
followed on the next page by:
Where is the tooth now?
All I can feel
. is the hole
The anomalous milkbottle balances
like any other projection of a mental state
This is dislocating in a constructive, almost pedagogical way that gently forces us to keep questioning our assumptions about who is speaking, why and how.
The final section, “Dubbadea”, shifts the book’s focus more insistently to the world of other people: the cats and birds of the first section have been joined by other children (in some poems directly compared with animals), or by explicit grappling with identity within the immediate family unit:
I, I, I
minute & repetitive
striking this whole world
into its existence
blossoming in its spring
literally and obviously
I see these words
I split between them
. to one
. and I
. am the
The more time I spent with Ianthe Poems, the more I enjoyed it. This is a subtle, intelligent and humane book that credits its reader with the wit to cope with ambiguity and complexity (and with the curiosity of a child, which is perhaps the most important quality a reader can bring to any poem).
Ianthe Poems, Peter Philpott, Shearsman Books, 2015