Lost and Found
by Andrew Merton
Accents Publishing. 2016.
In October of 2013 I received an email from Andrew Merton—a journalist, essayist, poet and professor Emeritus of English at the University of Hampshire. Although he and I were not acquainted, he’d stumbled across one of my poems and reached out to tell me he was intrigued. “I think you may feel a small shock of recognition when you read my own poem, “‘Snow,'” he wrote, a poem from his first book, Evidence We Are Descended From Chairs.
Reader, I did. Both our poems had pivots at the end, attempting the literary equivalent of whisking a tablecloth out from beneath a set of plates and cutlery, a feat Mr. Merton executed with no clatter whatsoever.
“Small shocks of recognition” is also an apt summation for what readers will experience in Merton’s second poetry collection, Lost and Found (Accents Publishing, 2015). In line with the title, this book brims with the odd and common debris of humanity: memories, observations, feelings, both misplaced and recovered, out of which Merton fashions plainspoken, heartrending poems.
Divided into seven sections, perhaps one for each decade of the author’s term on earth, Merton’s volume proceeds chronologically—the first poem references events before the author’s conception, and one of the final poems playfully imagines his future autopsy. Yet this is not self-engrossed verse; there’s too much humor, too much self-awareness and intelligence. Often enough, something significant is risked on behalf of this art. For example, “Being Andrew Merton” establishes the poet’s identity as not the second coming, but the understudy role of his parents’ first attempt at giving birth to a person named “Andrew Merton.” “Over a brandy my mother told me about the first boy, /stillborn two years before I came along://how much she and my father had wanted that child./…and how, later, I was given his name.” The poem concludes with a comic but wistful reply to his mother’s apology for disclosing this long kept secret. Merton writes, “I would have taken the job/ even if I had known//I was not their first choice.”
In “On A Dock in Mexico,” Merton again explores his existential presence against his parents’ preoccupations. Composed in tercets, one line for each member of his family, these stanzas portray their estranged cohesion:
On a Dock in Mexico
The marlin hanging from a scale
is the center of attention
like a birthday child
My mother smiles at the camera.
My father smiles at the fish.
I am not in the picture.
On the day it is taken
I am busy turning five
in New York.
Continuing to act as both jester and scholar of the grab-bag self, Merton reflects on his value, his contribution to the society, in “My Worth (circa 1968),” tallying the accomplishments of his mere 24 years: a lost job, a divorce. Here again, he discerns his equivalent in the form of another creature. This time he isn’t competing with a deep-sea trophy fish. Preparing to board a small aircraft as the plane’s sole passenger, he steps onto a cargo scale to determine his physical heft, and ponders what might be installed across the aisle as his counterbalance. Soon enough he observes the stewardess strap seven large boxes, inside of which come small scratching sounds—“By the time the plane took off/I knew I was, at least, /worth my weight in rats”—an ending which stings by harkening insignificance, yet delights by surprise and comedy.
As Lost and Found flies over familiar territory, (by which I mean “family-related” and thus, highly relatable), charting a flight path from the confusions of childhood to the quasi-terra firma of adulthood, one might consider a more apt title could have been Lost to Found. But Merton consistently declines to write the kind of poem that lands with a single, simple emotion upon a tidy conclusion.
In “Shorts,” Merton establishes, in just a smattering of couplets, a glimpse of his long deceased mother in Washington Square Park: “sitting on a bench/young again, slim.” She’s surrounded by trappings of a time past—in her palm, a copy of Steinbeck’s latest novel, and a Gimbel’s shopping bag rests by her ankles. The reader anticipates that the author will approach his young mother as the senior man he has become. Instead Merton brings us this unexpected and apt conclusion: “I take a step in her direction. Then she looks up, calls out,// and from another direction I come running,/ five years old, wearing shorts.”
Complex forms of mourning are also explored in “Downpour (Fifty years after my father’s death).” This poem begins, “Back then it took me a week to cry,/ a year to stop.” And, decades after becoming accustomed to the loss, and after finding “the old man’s voice” coming out of his mouth, the poet discovers there are moments “…like today,” Merton writes, invoking the sudden storms of obsequious grief:
when I think about the woman I once saw
standing in her front yard, weeping,
garden hose in hand,
watering her lawn in the rain.
It’s hardly more than a puddle jump for Merton to go from referencing his parents’ deaths to imagining his own, and yet again, he sidesteps the strictly maudlin by considering the kinds of things the coroner(s) performing his autopsy will discover when “they cut into me.” The squeamish will be relieved. Merton expects they’ll find, “my father’s Steinway upright,/ his yellowed score of the Moonlight Sonata/ still open on the stand” as well as, among other items, “an Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague” and “an empty bottle of Jameson’s.” (Hey, I’ll drink to that). By this time the reader, a sort of coroner?, understands that the poet has, over the course of his collection, revealed a repository, composed of the bits and bobs of a half inherited, half invented self, and offered us this inner life—very much alive.