Lost and Found: The Afterlife of a Poem

It’s odd how some poems set out, as it were, in the company of their peers, but quickly discover a very different path through the world.

Though I didn’t think much of it at the time (and certainly not more than those which accompanied it), the poem ‘Lost and Found’ from my 2011 collection As the Hand, the Glove, is one that has established something of an independent life for itself. This does not, I think, make it a better (or even worse) poem than others from the same book, but it does serve to remind how so much of what happens at the writing desk is given, fated even, and that in the end the strongest poems inevitably seem to speak for themselves.

Over the first decade or so since its publication, ‘Lost and Found’ (like the majority of poems, let’s face it) went more or less unnoticed – a positive mention in a book review somewhere, an appreciative note once from a reader from across the Atlantic.

And then, three years ago on an Irish radio show in which two friends discuss their friendship (Miriam Meets, RTÉ Radio 1, see earlier blog post), the host asked her two poet guests to each pick a favourite poem by the other. And Theo Dorgan, my long-time friend and colleague, picked ‘Lost and Found’, a poem he had never once mentioned to me, to the best of my recollection.

Of course, the idea of a favourite poem (or favourite poet) is more or less meaningless, at best a prompt to conversation and useful as that. The truth is, we all know the feeling of being in love with a poem or a song lyric one day and then finding it strangely lifeless the next. The heart moves on, even if it has a peculiar habit of subsequently going back and forcing us to think, and feel, again.

So it was a surprise to me when my colleague chose ‘Lost and Found’; I had long since lost what I had found in the moment of writing it.

Even so, having to read it again that day brought, as poems often do, some part of that original emotion physically back to me – as if a small time capsule had been opened and its contents had come spilling out, bubbling up.

This is not to make any particular claim for the poem. Instead, I suppose, I am only trying to clarify for myself my own now-off now-on-again relationship with it.

What is odd though, and heartening, is how that radio broadcast, that surprise return of emotion, seems to have struck a chord with so many of the listeners. Not that the switchboards were jammed! In fact, nothing at all happened. The world happily went on with its existence, as the next programme on the daily schedule was released into the ether.

But within weeks, and then again months, and now, once more, years later, I still receive emails and occasional calls about the poem, asking where it might be found, if the original book is still in print, if the text is available anywhere on the internet. And inevitably the people writing to me have themselves, recently or even quite some time ago, lost a father, are struggling to find ways to talk about it to themselves and to each other.

Just as the poem describes how my late father’s gathering up of all sorts of odds and ends was somehow transformed into a communication to me, that moment in which I thought I was alone with the fact of his death turns out to be a communication to others dealing with the same difficult experience.


Sometimes now I see my father
up in Heaven, wandering around
that strange place where he gathers up
what other souls no longer want,
as all his life he gathered
unloved things.

As if on a screen I see
his big frame bend, his bony hands
reach down for a rusted pin,
a nail, a coin from some lost kingdom.
One day it will be the very thing
someone will need.

And when the tears become too much
and this damned bed might be a field,
I sit up wondering how the hell
the world can always find more fools
to lose things and be lost themselves,
and carry on.

Then something in my heart gives in,
and I know, as if I’d always known
deep down, that all that trash, that old
Christmas wrapping, those balls of string,
the belts, belt buckles, the left-hand gloves,
the dozens of pairs of worn-out shoes
and toeless socks, the blown light bulbs,
the coils of wire and threadbare screws,

the broken clocks, the plastic bags
folded neatly, the leaking pens
and dried-up markers, the ink-stained rags
and blotting paper, the bashed-in tins
of washers, plasters, needles and lint
were never his at all, were meant
for me.

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