Here’s the opening line of the title poem from Andrew Merton’s debut poetry collection, Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs:
A chair looks like a person sitting in a chair.
This is the poet at his best. It’s succinct, surprising, and in retrospect almost stunningly obvious. Reading this poem over a few times made me feel stupid and privileged in turn, stupid that I hadn’t figured it out for myself, privileged that I was now in on this little secret about our relationship with the material world: how we shape it and are shaped by it.
Evidence is filled with sharp one-liners like this, but Merton proves himself master of more than one trick. With a variety of short lyric and narrative poems, his collection offers an engaging and evolving reading experience. Each poem is something just a little bit different than what preceded it, and each one sets the reader off in a slightly new direction while continuing to wander the same grounds, love, family, aging, and death.
In his foreword to the collection, Charles Simic says “Merton is like an elderly neighbor, someone we pass on the street for years without a second look.” And then, one day, without knowing why or even really meaning to, we look again, and if we are surprised, it’s not just for finding something there, but finding that something was there all along. That’s how reading a lot of this collection felt to me, like taking that second look.
That may be most true of “At 65,” a short poem that examines old age with double vision:
When you were ten it seemed as old as China,
and as distant.
Now one of your goals appears within reach:
death in old age. When it comes it will feel
like the quiet of an empty house.
Meanwhile, you find yourself astonished
by the texture of clouds,
the taste of table wine,
the gentle ache in your left knee
your wife at the piano, playing Bach.
It’s sad twist on being careful what you wish for. Imagining yourself living to a ripe old age and living to a ripe old age are so completely different, are separated by so many years and experiences, as to be literally unimaginable to the speaker when he was 10. Astonishment is the only reasonable reaction to finding himself having actually arrived at 65, as if he had been parachuted into the middle of Beijing. It turns out the only way to glimpse your own future is to live it.
Some of my other favorite poems in the collection take a more playful stab at aging and death. “Your Date with Death” imagines Death not as the classical cloaked and scythe baring figure but as a beautiful girl the speaker once rejected in high school. “The Death of a Scholar” offers the final moments in the mind of an academic who thinks of the General Antonio López de Santa Anna rather than his own passing.
Poems like these best exhibit Merton’s sense of play, which is evident even in his most serious moments, like the subversion of death in old age as “a goal within reach” in “At 65,” or in the penultimate stanza of “One of the Starving Children of Europe Absolves Me.” The speaker, the starving child, tells how his little sister died gnawing on a pigeon wing.
You, in New York,
not eating your broccoli–
you had nothing to do with it.
This is what the addressee has been absolved of. The starvation, the desperation, goes on, but not eating the broccoli plays no part in it, and the poem offers no additional relief.
Not every poem in here is a ringer, but there are enough standouts to make it an easy recommendation for anyone who reads much. These poems are darkly considered and reconsidered, funny and raw and sad and worth thinking over for a while, preferably while sitting in a chair.
Similar reads:Jackstraws by Charles Simic, Different Hours by Stephen Dunn, and Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort.
[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]