Death and Life: Thomas Lynch's Argyle Poems


by Maryann Corbett

The Sin-eater: A Breviary,
by Thomas Lynch,
Paraclete Press, 49 pp.

A reviewer once described the writer Thomas Lynch as a cross between Garrison Keillor and William Butler Yeats. I’ll say more later about the Yeats genes in this hybrid cross. But the comparison with Keillor is apt: both men are big, bearded, jowly and affable in performance. And the writing that comes out of Lynch’s meditations on death and life—several books of poetry, essay collections that have won national honors, and a collection of fiction—all of that is now a settled institution, like A Prairie Home Companion,  the mythical Lake Wobegon, and the real Milford, Michigan, where Lynch’s family owns and operates his town’s only funeral home.  The success of Lynch’s books arises not just from the quality of the writing but also from public fascination with the death business, and with the very personal, small-town quality of the stories and poems, their aptness for our own lives, and their universally pertinent main subject.

But even in his first book of poems, Lynch included pieces about a character who was not contemporary, not one of us, but a historical, fictional, marginal, half-pagan figure whom he names Argyle. Somewhere back in Irish history—the eighteenth century? The nineteenth? Argyle is a rural community’s “sin-eater,” the shaman-like man who takes on himself the sins of the dead by drinking from a bowl of beer and eating from a loaf of bread over the corpse and taking a few pence for his services. In Lynch’s previous books, the Argyle poems have seemed to be in the collections but not of them. The writer for Kirkus Reviews even pointed to them as the “least effective” in Still Life in Milford. The Argyle poems do have hard going to compete with poems that grab us by the collars of the physical facts of our own lives. They have trouble making themselves felt among poems that are supported and confirmed by Lynch’s essays in The Undertaking, his magazine articles about funeral practices and faith, and the PBS documentary that arose from this writing.

Now there’s a new book, The Sin-Eater: A Breviary, which offers us all the Argyle poems together. Considering them purely as poems, and as the yield on a nearly twenty-dollar online  investment, should I be annoyed that there are only twenty-four of them? Should I be bothered that thirteen of them appeared in earlier books, while only eleven are newly collected? Certainly it’s valuable to have them in a single grouping. But should they have been a chapbook, at half the 50-page length and half the hardcover cost?

If you know how badly books sell when poems are considered purely as poems, you will not be surprised that more than a chapbook was produced. The poems are printed on right-hand pages. On the left-hand facing pages are black-and-white art photographs taken by Michael Lynch, the poet’s son. These don’t illustrate the poems so much as give the reader a sense of the visuals that lie behind Lynch’s imaginings.

The other major addition is an introductory essay that Lynch entitles “Introit.” In it he gives the Argyle poems the kind of infrastructure that his books of essays provide for those of his poems that are based on contemporary life. He explains how the character of Argyle came into being and all the ways Argyle derives from Lynch’s musings on the undertaker’s profession, his slightly outcast but necessary position in his community. He describes a Catholic upbringing as it was in the 1950s and early 1960s (and I can confirm that it was as he describes it), with heavy emphasis on the mysterious Latin and chants. He explains how he comes to own a cottage in the  west of Ireland and to spend time there every year, dealing with such rural matters as donkeys, calving and pasturage and witnessing the details of land and weather that end up in the poems. (This accounts for the Yeats portion of the Keillor-crossed-with-Yeats description.) He ties Argyle’s thoughts and words explicitly to particular religious attitudes: attitudes toward sins that are real evils and sins that are Church-created, attitudes toward Catholicism specifically and religion generally, attitudes hovering somewhere between doubt and faith. He shows how all this background becomes Argyle.

In effect, the Introit tells readers how to read the poems. Lynch gives readers the package of critical conclusions that one would like a good reader of poetry to arrive at without help, but that many occasional readers of poetry would rather buy prepackaged. The Argyle poems, having failed to break through to the average reader when presented unexplained, are being given an explication.

Whether or not Lynch meant readers to see it this way, I’ve set out to review the book as a poetry collection and to look at the poems as poems, all by themselves. They are principally narratives, and while they don’t present a continuous plot, they do give a series of vignettes. They’re clear and accessible, their story lines and descriptions perfectly understandable on first reading, though an American reader might need to look up a detail or two of Irish history. The visuals, of geography and wildlife, are stunning and are the book’s greatest strength. The character of Argyle is well realized, and the few characters who interact with him are too minor to need much believability. Argyle, his thoughts, and the landscape are the main actors in the drama:

Because he barely heard the voice of God
above the hum of other choristers—
batwing and bird-whistle, gathering thunder,
the hiss of tides retreating, children, cattle;
because he could not readily discern
the plan Whoever Is In Charge Here has,
he wondered about those who claimed to have
blessed assurances or certainty:

The thoughts in the poems wander, not reaching a real conclusion, but hinting at disappearance: “when the road turned toward the sea they turned with it.”

Having read the Introit, and knowing that Argyle is chiefly an outlet for Lynch’s musings on his funeral-home work, I find it hard not to see modern issues being touched on, as when Argyle deals with the body of a raped girl, and I think of child sexual abuse scandals. Tensions over the role of the clergy come up as well. But timely matters are much less important to the poems than timeless ones like discomfort with death, the utter misery of suicide, and social separation. The Introit points to those too.

Besides guiding readers toward the desired understanding of the poems, the Introit also nudges  us toward the correct view of their craft:

If the English master, Auden, was correct, and “art is what we do to break bread with the dead,” then the Irish master, Heaney, was likewise correct when he suggests that “rhyme and meter are the table manners.” Prayer and poetry are both forms of “raised speech” by which we attempt to commune with our makers and creation, with the gone but not forgotten.

This is not a formalist manifesto. The poems are mostly iambic, and mostly pentameter, but only loosely:

Argyle kept to the outposts and edges,
cliff rocks, coastal roads, estuary banks,
sheltering in dry ditches, thick hedges,
forts and cabin ruins, beside stone ranks,
much scorned by men, much put upon by weather.
The weeping of keeners brought him hither,
fresh grief, fresh graves, lights in dark localities—

The lines sometimes shape-shift from accentual-syllabic to syllabic (counts of ten without discernible meter) then back again. A poem may start out in what appears to be regular pentameter, in the most standard of abab rhyme schemes, then switch rhyming patterns, and then switch again, only to have all rhyme evaporate by the poem’s end. A poem in what looks like blank verse may suddenly flash a couple of rhyming lines, end and internal, as one more device amid puns, alliteration, and word echoes like perish/parish and decadent/decedent. There’s a swerving back and forth from high diction to low that reflects Argyle’s conflicted thoughts and tenuous social position.

Lynch clearly wants us to notice his formal devices. In Still Life in Milford he mentions the forms openly in the poems; he even uses traditional sonnet form at times. He doesn’t want readers mistaking his poems for free verse. And heaven knows modern readers might, given their poor training in hearing meter, and given also the on-and-off, semiformal quality of Lynch’s meter. But whether he’s exhorting or warning, I’m not sure. I don’t know whether he means to say “Be alert! I want you to see that I’m using the devices of formal poetry” or “Don’t be alarmed! You’ll see things here that aren’t plain talk, and there are good reasons for them.”

The loose approach to meter and rhyme is deliberate, but some other loosenesses probably are not. It’s true that one can’t always tell whether a word choice is wordplay or homophone error. (Should wretching be retching, for example?) But because so many of the poems were in the earlier books, and because those were published back in the 1980s and 1990s when presses were not so hard up, a reviewer can find and investigate apparent errors. When in the earlier book a line read “looking back for Ulster” one knows that only careless proofreading would turn it into “fro Ulster.” And when another line read “like brethren in the one Creation” and has become “like breathren…” in the new book, one has to blame bad typesetting and bad proofreading together. There are other such flubs. There’s visible tightening of the type on some pages of the introduction, the sign of late corrections. Work seems to have been hurried for the important purpose of getting the book into glossy catalogs by Christmas-gift-ordering time. It’s sobering to compare this book with the beautiful Knopf edition of Lynch’s first collection, Skating with Heather Grace.

As I’ve said, the Lynch writing enterprise is now an established concern. I don’t imagine that what I write can damage it, nor do I wish that. I have no problem with books or journals that tread the road between poetry and spirituality and aim for the audience that wants both. May the book sell; may it help Paraclete Press to continue publishing the poetry of Scott Cairns and Paul Mariani and Thomas Lynch and others.

But I want to register my sadness that poetry can’t simply be poetry, and that for its own survival a press must busily exploit every associated market. The Sin-Eater has apparently been sped to press to draw on every possible audience. It will be marketed to those who already like Lynch’s work and may not realize they’re buying poems they already have. In spite of the anything-goes theology in the book’s introduction, the magazine Commonweal has featured The Sin-Eater in its August 12, 2011 issue and published the Introit and a sampling of poems. That will draw the audience of those who sigh for memories of the pre-Vatican II church, and also the audience of those who hunger vaguely for God but shy away from anything as specific as a doctrine. I have no doubt that I’ll also see the book in catalogs of all things Irish.

It’s a fair bet that the book will be enjoyed by those who buy it. It’s just that for many of them the poems may be the least important part of the package.

About the Author:

Maryann Corbett lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and works for the Minnesota Legislature. She holds a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota and is the author of Breath Control (David Robert Books, 2012) and Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, forthcoming from Able Muse Press, as well as two chapbooks. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared in River Styx, Atlanta Review, Rattle e-issues, The Evansville Review, Measure, Literary Imagination, The Dark Horse, Mezzo Cammin, Linebreak, Subtropics, and many other journals in print and online, as well as the anthologies Hot Sonnets, The Able Muse Anthology, The Best of the Barefoot Muse, and the forthcoming Imago Dei. Her poems have been shortlisted for Best of the Net, the Morton Marr Prize competition, and the Able Muse Book Prize, and have won the Lyric Memorial Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize.