Simon Armitage: The Lost Child review – beautiful and moving memoir

“Where the imagination stops, the language is frozen,” the poet Joseph Brodsky once wrote. In his moving collection Lost Children (2018), the English writer Simon Armitage explains why the loss of his teenage son, James, is a process as physical as the loss of a physical thing: “There is always a footstep, a footstep made by another child whose particular resilience is difficult to fathom and whose words, mixed up and distorting, spill out into our waking hours.” (See The Guardian review by Peter Oborne.)

The Loss of a Child takes its title from a line by the great 20th-century South African poet Omar Khayyam. The son of a remote military family, Khayyam believed that even though a child is no longer a child it’s nonetheless his life to define and to construct. Writing during a period of mounting poverty, Khayyam evokes a younger brother’s excitement as a scholarship student at the Royal College of Art. He describes the boy’s newfound freedom as “a seamless life which held up the shell upon which he was so carefully sculpted and had no tentanticon, the perfect corpse with a flip-flop cap that protected his skull from the elements, from the sickling that might damage it.”

In the book’s opening passage, Armitage traces the same joyous youthful thrill to his young son: “My son is moving from his Lego scene to his hat scene and I’m moving with him in The Lost Child, pulling him along the edge of play, dragging him along to the wall, finally binding him to it. I am yanking my one year old son’s torso through the smallest of margins, and pulling him across to the left hand side of the toy box that holds the fragments of lives which have now become forgotten.”

James was born in Oxford in 2012 and, before a botched circumcision, was diagnosed with a life-threatening infection that robbed him of his right lung and rendered him immobile for a short time. “Even his death allows me space and time to think about this work of incredible human affection with a certain detachment.”

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