By Thomas Lynch
W. W. Norton, 88 pages
Last year, the Chicago Humanities Festival concluded its focus on “The Body” when John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, interviewed Thomas Lynch. The session was entitled “Bodies at Motion and At Rest.” A fitting guest, Lynch knows about both bodies and conclusions— he is a highly regarded essayist (his first collection The Undertaking won the American Book Award), a newly published fiction writer (Apparitions and Late Fictions), and . . . a mortician. So when he talks of bodies at rest, dear reader, he knows of which he speaks. He writes of them, and a great many other things, in his latest poetry volume, Walking Papers: Poems 1999-2009.
Lynch just may be a poet most of all. I discovered his enchanting first book, Skating with Heather Grace, in college and was struck by the disarming candor of poems featuring his undertaker’s point of view, as well as their ability to outpace their author’s novel profession: he mainly cared about language and the forms language can give to stories. Still Life in Milford followed shortly afterward, and now, eleven years later, comes Walking Papers. For those readers as yet unfamiliar with Lynch’s unique, deeply pleasing art, these new poems are the perfect place to start.
Readers who skeptically imagine each poem as a variation on an “I see dead people” shtick will be pleasantly surprised by Lynch’s range of subject and tone in Walking Papers. The opening poem ponders the morning when Euclid discovered parallel lines, but quickly turns to a friend searching for cow horns on eBay. Ireland, where Lynch resides for part of each year in an ancestral cabin, looms large in several poems and is often a source of wit (one old man is “in his anecdotage”).
Some more occasional poems celebrate a wedding or commemorate a public library, while others address the country’s former leaders with polite rage: “Dear Mr. Vice President” evokes the iconic violence of Fallujah as it considers a dying cow, war, and the “deadweight mass of its disaster.” (These leaders receive comeuppance in the poem “The Names of Donkeys.”) That said, formally Lynch is reliable in his love of pentameter lines and sonnets, a few of which he mischievously mismanages. (One refusal to write a sonnet takes place over fifteen lines.)
Lynch’s Catholic background infuses different parts of this new collection. Epigraphs from Zechariah and the Gospel of Thomas inaugurate different sections. Job’s stunning cry, “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” appears in two different poems. In one, Lynch speaks of the eponymous text about suffering as “that vexing, God-awful, answerless book,” and Job’s line is more colorfully declared to be “some such comfortless dose of holy writ” in the other. Some speakers are capable of petitions – “Lord send us, in our peril, local heroes” – and “Account” represents a devotional sonnet on the Nativity. However, more commonly the speakers of these poems treat matters of faith and confession with a light touch that is welcomed. One mischievously explores the connotations of “biblical” as he recalls his youth.
The more pensive “Calling” begins, “We Catholic boys all listened for The Call,” and later the author broods upon a different sense of being called, named after a great uncle and priest who died young. Even this speaker, though, is relatable in an understanding of and familiarity with doubt, spiritual dryness . . .
Belief is easy when God speaks to us.
The ordinary silence—there’s the thing—
The soul-consuming quiet, the heavens’ hush
That sets even the pious wondering.
These speakers’ lives of faith feel tenuous sometimes, but are also persistent: “And I am listening, listening still.” The poem “Calling” ends by validating that title word’s secular application, as the speaker remembers his father finding his vocation as an undertaker, “this life’s work between the quick and the dead.”
Even with more expected poems here, Lynch relies less on actual experiences of the “dismal trade” and more on what results from that day job in Milford, Michigan: an unusual directness about death and its inevitability, as in the poems “Local Heroes,” “After Your Going,” and “Asleep.” The focus is as old as poetry, yet once again I hear a freshness in the voice. Typically poets’ lines become more inflected, elegiac or otherwise elevated, when treating the topic; Lynch’s remain unflinching. Take, for example, these lines from “Fr. Andrews,” which sounds like one of Horace’s casual odes to his friends:
We have our little say and then are silent.
But still, you met the mourners at the door,
and pressed the heavens with their lamentations
and tried to make some sense of all of it,
then saw them to the edge and home again— …
He speaks of death the way a scientist might describe gravity, except that he does so feelingly at the same time. For all of his firsthand knowledge, Lynch never forgets that what he confronts is ultimately a mystery. His poems often record these confrontations in wonderful ways. We who usually don’t wish to think too deeply on the matter may learn something as well. To learn about a mystery is to arrive at difficult knowledge, which is the kind of education poetry always values most.
Brett Foster's writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Image, Kenyon Review, Poetry East, and Raritan. His first book of poetry, The Garbage Eater, was recently released.