“Poetry as mother’s milk” is a phrase Thomas Lynch often repeats, and is one that speaks his truth. To wit, Bone Rosary, Lynch’s recent book of poetry, nourishes readers emotionally and spiritually, as humans and as seekers. The collection is selected from five of Mr. Lynch’s previously published volumes and includes several dozen new poems (in the last section, “Cloud of Witnesses”). Reading such an expansive range of work provides a window into the poet’s development.
Thomas Lynch spent his career as an undertaker, as did his father before him. The depth of his poetic work leads us to understand that surely, he began his roaming contemplations while growing up in this context, being furnished a day in, day out serving of death on a platter. His contemplations deepened during adult life, resulting is his frontline observations, his fine poetry.
Ireland, the Lynch ancestors’ country of origin, is featured in his work; he has traveled between his American and Irish homes throughout his adult life. Lynch’s poetry is also soaked in Catholicism, in extensive, generous detail. His breadth of knowledge must have served him well in his role as undertaker-consoler. Lynch has an uncanny way of discussing the process of steeping strong Catholic tea without revealing his own beliefs. Like any good undertaker, he stands in the background of his own shop.
Given the right circumstances, most of us choose to look away from death, until it is unavoidable. This privileged, blunted awareness, the fast-asleepness about the reality of death, is a buffer that keeps the inescapable at arm’s length. In Lynch’s life though—and his work—the familiarity has led to ordinariness, which has nurtured a deep-thinking, -feeling, and -expressing man, who is unencumbered, unafraid. From his perch of eyewitness, Lynch presents to the literary canon his deeply considered treatise on the meaning of life in all of its mystery and death in its inevitability.
Two lines in point: In “At the Opening of Oak Grove Cemetery Bridge,” Lynch writes “A graveyard is an old agreement made / between the living and the living who have died.” In “The Moveen Notebook,” Lynch gives us, “We bury our dead and then become them.” Such provocative lines have the ability to set readers more deeply into Truth. Most of us prefer the view of the dead as other, not keen on the awareness that we follow in their death steps.
As paradox would have it, poetry with death as the backdrop is life-enhancing, life-affirming. In “Art History, Chicago,” discussing Georges Seurat’s painting “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Lynch writes, “But art is the brush of a body on your body . . .” In “Grimalkin,” Lynch satirizes an ongoing battle of wills between himself and his beloved son’s beloved cat, juxtaposing his son’s attachment with his feeling of nemesis, arch enmity with the feline. The cat has a lack of enthusiasm for hunting “. . . mice/that winter indoors safely as she sleeps/curled about a table-leg, vigilant/as any knickknack in a partial coma.” These images are spare and precise and laugh-out-loud funny. Perhaps the seriousness and depth of Lynch’s life’s work required digging an equally deep trench for his art, and his humor, for balance.
Of a man relieving himself on the front lawn in “Liberty,” Lynch unflinchingly examines graces and trepidations:
For years now, men have slipped out the back door
during wakes or wedding feasts or nights of song
to pay their homage to the holy trees
and, looking up into that vast firmament,
consider liberty in that last townland where
they have no crowns, no crappers, and no ex-wives.
And in “Walking Papers” he writes tongue and cheek of the inevitable, while interweaving his language thought process:
By all accounts, there’s nothing to it, pal—
a cake walk, kicked bucket, falling off a log;
one moment you are and the next you aren’t,
the way that semicolon slipped in there
before the comma in the following line
three lines before the coming period.
You can think of it as punctuation
and maybe take some comfort from that, friend—
a question mark or exclamation point—
no matter, we’re all sentenced to an end,
the movers and the shakers, bon vivants,
all ne’er-do-wells and nincompoops, savants,
sage and sluggard, deft and daft alike:
everyone’s given their walking papers.
As a practitioner of the mortuary sciences and literary arts, Lynch is a unique enigma, serving to bridge and blend worlds. The oddity of the combination has given Lynch a certain deserved celebrity, in both realms. Who among us could conceive the poem “Libra” (featured in Cloud of Witnesses)? The first-hand account looks directly at rather than away from death, and of course, loss:
The one who pulled the trigger with his toe,
spread-eagled on his girlfriend’s parents’ bed,
and split his face in halves above his nose,
so that one eye looked east, the other west;
sometimes that sad boy’s bifurcation seems
to replicate the math of love and grief—
that zero sum of holding on and letting go
by which we split the differences . . .
Lynch’s language, with its beautiful syntactic turns and syllabic harmony, moves us seamlessly into these depths. Astute observation of all forms of the human condition and keen translation into elegant language of precision is at the center of Lynch’s talent.
In the context of literary exploration, Thomas Lynch points a head lamp into the mysterious cave of human existence. Turning over the rocks on the ground, he asks readers to consider with him: What have we here? What can we make of life’s paradoxes of misery and bliss, blessings and curses, loves and losses, connections and loneliness, the exultant and base, as good and as evil as it gets?
Lynch’s work does not ring out in answer, but rather repeats our big, probing questions in living, breathing creation.
About the Reviewer
Suzanne J. Schoenfelt is a poet and author. Her work has been published in Antenna, Indiana Writes, Southwest Journal-Poetry Issue, and Bear River Review. She spent her career as a medical writer and editor, and seeks to bridge the worlds of science and art.