Now and again, a new book turns up that feels like an old friend, even though I've never read it before. It’s a rare treat when that happens, and all the more surprising and delightful when it isn't a book I've chosen to read, but one that's been given to me to review.
This has just happened to me with Andrew Merton’s sublime yet minimalist poetry collection, Lost and Found. You know the saying "You had me at hello"? Well, Merton had be me hooked from the very first poem in the collection, a disarmingly understated account of how his mother once inadvertently revealed to him that he'd been named after his stillborn elder brother. (The collection is peppered with such jaw-dropping snippets.) The poem ends:
She had not meant to tell me, ever -
It just slipped out, she said, I'm sorry.
She need not have apologized.
I would have taken the job
even if I had known
I was not their first choice.
This moving overture sets the tone for the rest of the volume: wry, self-deprecating, poignant, and always sweetly, deeply truthful.
The poems are laid out in chronological order according to the poet's age at the time each autobiographical vignettes is set. There is much that the reader of a certain age will instantly lock onto. My favourite was the longest piece in the collection, a wonderful tribute to Dr Seuss, whose books rescued Merton as a boy from the numbing dullness of Dick and Jane reading primers. Merton treasures Seuss's sense of fun and his joy in manipulating words way past his boyhood, concluding:
Yes the boy's all grown up. He's read Kafka and Proust.
But still on occasion he likes to get Seussed.
The open, honest, confessional style of Merton's writing gives this collection an intimate air. It reads like a one-to-one conversation, sharing difficult secrets, failures and losses as much as his successes. The deceptively simple but carefully crafted phrasing and shape of each poem seem as effortless as an informal chat.
The poet's tremendous generosity of spirit is physically echoed by the liberal amounts of white space in and around the poems. These slender verses could easily have been shoehorned into a smaller format or slimmer volume, but this sense of roominess makes them all the more engaging. It's as if he's inviting the reader to spread out, get comfortable and relax while enjoying the ride.
I also appreciated the whimsical cover, suggestive of a mature man looking back on his life from some wacky kind of heaven and wondering what to make of it all.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
In book terms, this read was love at first sight on a blind date. Rightly or wrongly, I have this weird feeling that if the poet and I met in real life, we'd be great friends, and to me that seems like a mark of greatness in a book.
This is the kind of collection to keep and reread whenever you feel in the need of companionship and entertainment, and of which to give copies to real-life friends.