Lots of Risks

A Field Guide to Lost Things, Peter Jaeger (173pp, 7.00, If P Then Q)
Ianthe Poems, Peter Philpott (70pp, 8.95, Shearsman)

Yet another collection of poetry from If P Then Q where the starting point is working with existing material, in this case at the high end of the literary spectrum, with a text which 'reconfigures ever single image of a natural object in CFK Moncrieff's 1922 English translation of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, the first three novels of In Search Of Lost Time'. In at least one sense I'm the perfect reader of this 'new' text as I've only ever dipped in to Proust (in translation, of course) and suspect I share this tendency with a lot of other British readers. So what exactly is new here then and what is the purpose of the project? Because as far as I can ascertain the extracts here are verbatim copies of the original translation. Well, I guess it's a question of that old chestnut 'juxtaposition' and there's a quotation from that master of 'quotation', Walter Benjamin, at the beginning of the book, which also suggests another aim of the project, that of a close focus on 'small things', which of course was an essential aspect of Proust's writings:

With a passion unknown to any writer before him, Proust took as
his subject the
fidelity of things that have crossed our path in life. Fidelity to an
afternoon, to a
tree, a spot of sun on the carpet . . .
(Walter Benjamin)

Peter Jaeger takes extracts from the original, using the reference to 'a natural object' as his organising principle, aided by the straightforward and in a sense arbitrary selection by alphabetical order. Some of the extracts are several pages long, some are a few lines only but it's the way the extracts juxtapose that brings about the charm of the overall text, that and the original quality of the writing which is intense and focussed. I read through the whole text in one go and have dipped in a few times since and found the experience very pleasurable and stimulating. Whether or not this will induce me to read Proust 'properly' is a moot point (life may be too short at this stage of events) and in any case, such a 'reductive' reading as this may well be the best approach available in this ongoing era of information overload. So, while I wouldn't say I was overwhelmed by the idea of this 'reconfiguration', its modus operandi, drawn from the realms of conceptual art, has context and meaning and works pretty well I think. Here are three extracts, in alphabetical order, which give some idea of the method and also perhaps of my predilections!

And so I concerned
myself no longer with the
mystery that lay hidden in a
form or a perfume, quite at
ease in my mind, since I was
taking it home with me,
protected by its visible and
tangible covering, beneath
which I should find it still
alive, like a fish which, on
days when I had been
allowed to go out fishing, I
used to carry back in my
basket, buried in a couch of
grass which kept them cool
and fresh. I decided that I
would come there again
with a line and catch fish. I
would always be just on the
point of asking his name,
when someone would make
a sign to me to be quiet, or I
would frighten the fish. It
was not actually my duty to
warn Mlle. Swann that the
fish was biting.

Fish or Fowl "Not like the
other fellow, who's never
definitely fish or fowl."

Fishing In her mind's eye,
she could see his sister,
Mme. de Cambremer,
alighting from her carriage
at the door of our hotel just
as we were on the point of
going out fishing, and
obliging us to remain
indoors all afternoon to
entertain her.

If P Then Q represents one aspect of contemporary poetry publishing in Britain and I'm glad it's out there forging its own peculiar pathway.

Peter Philpott's new collection centres around his role as grandfather, spending time with his young granddaughter Ianthe. There's a prefaced quotation from Lyn Hejinian which gives a phenomenological definition of the purpose of poetry and Phil Terry's back-cover blurb gives a further 'clue' with his suggestion that Peter Philpott was haunted by a phrase of Keston Sutherland - 'The pressure to think and sing', which applies a dialectical relation to poetry which combines the aesthetic with the cerebral. The book is split into three sections - 'Speculations', 'Noting Nothing' and 'Dubbadea'. So far so good:

Today I am eating a mince pie
sometimes a speech act is just so predictable
some obvious common factor
at your school it will be different
wearing your dark hoods in the shadows
svelte and slightly threatening
for you Christmas will be
oh, just another old pagan festival
how glorious and unpredictable it shall be

not a poltergeist but a plumber
make each speech act distinct and memorable
like a many-coloured prime number
yes, you'll learn about these one day
casting their blue light from the shadows
surprising but unthreatening like some kid in a hoodie
suddenly here at Christmas
no one else but an old geezer
how glorious and unpredictable it is
(from 'Speculations'- 12)

There's a lightness of touch to this writing which somewhat disguises the skill involved as Philpott weaves his way between an adult and a childhood perspective, and trick though this may be, there's a sense of exploration and playful thought processing which mingles different kinds of language in an onrush of internalised thought/feeling. I'm reminded at times of Richard Caddel's poetry but that's not quite right, this is more akin to Lee Harwood, I think, in the gentle explorations, lyricism interrupted by thinking and by playful projections.

In 'Noting Nothing', Philpott is presumably pondering the result of the 2010 election - 'The Labour Party poster glows sadly in the window', when a few pages on we are presented with this delightful extract:

Oh no the man in the silver motor scooter rode on

- has he stolen the laptop
I am writing this poem on or by

I am writing it about
he is faster than me
(most people are
you are I
am sure

back to me
swinging through
the whole town
singing and zooming
like a great baby
swinging through the heavens
fat and giggly and slobbering
the whole silver arc so swift
it was easy to see
how this laptop could be taken
and the window

The description here seems to embrace both an adult and a child's perspective, mingled and confused in its celebratory tone, good to the eye and the ear and filled with wonder and anticipation. What comes in through the eye is turned into pattern, a mini-odyssey, the beginning of storytelling, saying the unsayable in a manner which is both joyful and humorous, urgent and immediate.

In 'Dubbadea' (Mummy, Daddy, Babby), there's a more pastoral 'narrative' emerging:

These words are fieldfares

flying out
and hopping

their various patternings

- how do I know this
when I'm only one or so?

the gross conceit of flight
scattered & harmonious

look! look!

or listen
(from '3

There's an attempt here to run 'innocence and experience' in a single text, a dialectical merging of language which is both intuitive and 'thought about'. The comedy of this approach is often delightful yet it has its moments of melancholy and
is occasionally very moving:

let's grow
into this world

where we shall throng
w / fieldfares & babies

gently gently

These children now
are free
(from 'Dubbadea 4')

Philpott takes a lot of risks with this book, I think but it's worth it. This is a collection which I hope you'll want to read and re-read, to enjoy and to think about.

Steve Spence 2015