Column: Book Fare

To be with the elegant voice of poet Thomas Lynch

“Walking Papers,” a collection of poetry by Thomas Lynch, arrived in the mail a few weeks ago.

Cover of Thomas Lynch's "Walking Papers"

Lucky me. Lucky us.

Lynch is a writer who chooses to call things by their proper names. Death is death. An ass is an ass. Love is bliss, except when it is something else entirely.

And when he puts his intelligence and honesty and lurking wit to observations of human-scale profundities, he finds solace in even the harshest truths.

“Oh Say Grim Death” muses on the most inexplicable of blows: A child is killed. We learn of it – he died in a fire, on a Thursday morning – from what is cut into a 18th-century headstone, and follow the search in that New Hampshire town as certain as it would be anywhere, for a reason to have “faith / In God’s vast purposes. As if the boy / Long buried here was killed to show how God / Makes all things work together toward some good.”

Just as certain is this:

… Grim death destroys us all

by mighty nature’s witless, random laws

Whereby old churchmen, children, everything –

All true believers, all who disbelieve,

Come to their ashen ends and life goes on.

There are simpler observations in “Walking Papers,” and observations of simpler things.

Maybe “Euclid,” for example, was just another working stiff. The Greek geometer’s insight – that “distance / from a center point can be both increased / endlessly and endlessly split” – could just as easily have occurred to Murray the GM parts trucker in one of those moments of mental space when he was waiting to clear customs at Niagara Falls.

At “Monaghan’s Fish Market,” there are cases of fish “filleted and laid out like the swarm of souls / on the Sistine Chapel ceiling Michelangelo / painted for the pope. . . .”

And from the operator of Milford’s Lynch and Sons Funeral Directors comes a certain view of Pavarotti’s funeral – and we learn that nobody can silence a gasbag quite like an undertaker.

A first encounter with “Corpses Do Not Fret Their Coffin Boards” gives the impression of a more loving spin on the admonition to count your blessings. Return to it, and you recognize that “unholy dread” (“the weight of too much liberty” that too many of us know), the one that sends us to hunting up the metronome: to counting, to collecting, to keeping score. Lynch finds his peace in the velvet-gloved strictures of the sonnet. (At least until he hits 52.)

Other than an occasional burst of bitter laughter, there is (of course) no comfort in Lynch’s scorching assessment of the sorry crew that cooked up the Iraq War. He lets loose his raw revulsion at the recklessness and mendacity of “Dear Mr. President,” “Dear Mr. Vice President,” “Dear Madam Secretary” and “Dear Messrs. Attorneys General” in the middle section of these poems from 1999-2009 – years, as we all remember, when stuff happened. Lynch gives stuff its rightful name here, and he serves up other names as well and pins them on donkeys.

The horror and waste – and the blowback – play out in the stable and the barnyard: A cow “with a pink udder / and its own agenda” tries to mount another cow, crushes it and leaves it to make “an awful noise” for days until a man who knows how to handle these things comes out in a truck and puts “a kill shot / between its eyes,” hoists it skyward and hauls it off. While it’s not cruelty we are witness to, it is still a ghastly scene – but being that it’s dumb animals that are involved we don’t torment ourselves trying to make sense of it. Not so when beasts with the power of reason get an itch, by god, to conceive something out of nothing.

When the smoke clears and the ash settles, Lynch is back at the theme of mortality. But these aren’t crimes; these are the breaks. From the title poem, written for fellow poet Michael Heffernan:

————————————Listen –

something’s going to get you in the end.

The numbers are fairly convincing on this,

hovering, as they do, around a hundred

percent. We die. . . .


So, go on out and count some syllables,

lay some lines down one after another,

check the pulses, make the meters tick,

make up whatever noise you have to make

to make some sense of the day that’s in it.

And always, always, he chooses and pairs such beautiful words, and breathes with them. From “Calling”:

It was a language I learned to speak,

Lovely and Latin, a sort of second tongue –

My parents’ and people’s, the nuns’ and priests’ –

That rose in the air like incense and song

Ghostly and Gregorian, like memories:

First gushing, then going, but never gone.

In “The Life of Fiction,” Lynch reminds us that “the sea and the weather keep coming and going.” Through senseless wars and “good” ones, after the deaths of innocents and of minor sinners with great gifts, “the sea and the weather keep coming and going.” Is that a harsh or comforting truth, salt in the wound or salvation? Does it matter?

This is what Thomas Lynch knows: “We carry on and pay the going rate / because we keep as articles of faith / there might be something for us in the mail.”

About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor. Her book reviews for The Ann Arbor Chronicle appear on the last Saturday of each month.