A wounded pilgrim like us all
POETRY: The Sin-eater: A Breviary, By Thomas Lynch, with photographs by Michael Lynch Salmon Poetry, 81pp. €12
FOR “many bereaved Americans”, Thomas Lynch opined in a 2005 article for the New York Times, “the presence of the dead at their own funerals has become strangely unfashionable”, the prevailing trend favouring “bodiless obsequies where the finger food is good, the music transcendent . . . Here someone can be counted on to declare ‘closure’ just before the Merlot runs out”. Marketed as the “celebrated poet-undertaker” (Carlo Gébler once dubbed him the “Garrison Keillor of the undertaking trade”) the American-Irish Lynch is eminently well placed to pronounce on funerary fashions from Michigan to Moveen, and his fifth poetry collection, The Sin-eater, returns the corpse to centre stage. Unsurprisingly, finger food and fine wine are not fit fare for Argyle, the sin-eating protagonist of Lynch’s 24-poem pageant, as he works the west Clare peninsula, saving the dead from damnation by consuming bread and beer off their rotting corpses. Such a “steady diet of iniquities” causes our gutsy hero no end of stomach trouble, as in Argyle in Agony where, “gaseous and flatulent”, he resolves “to draw the line somewhere, / to leave the dirty work to younger men, / or anyway, to up his prices”. And you thought yours was a dead-end job.
Of course, cadaver-centred antics have long animated the work of modern Irish writers, from the Joycean wake to, more recently, that of Paul Muldoon, whose Maggot (2010) probes the poem as self-digesting, decomposing cadaver. Death, like sex, is always in vogue, and although Lynch undoubtedly profits from his high-novelty-value vocation (in his volume of essays Bodies in Motion and at Rest he compares his appeal to that of “a cop who sings opera . . . it makes for good copy and easy interviews”), he must also bear the burden of the more “suspect” feelings that his flair for combining the “literary and mortuary arts” routinely arouses. Argyle, as he sits “amid the whispering contempts” of his clientele, earning his wages of sin from their human losses and sceptical of the “blessed assurances and certainties” that they live by, is thereby the poet’s alter ego. It is no accident that this shadowy outcast has stalked Lynch’s poetic corpus from the beginning, having made his debut in the 1987 collection Skating with Heather Grace. Lynch’s celebrated “dismal trade” is matched by Argyle’s own “wretched work”.
Yet, as is ever the way with liminal, outlaw figures, Argyle’s peripheral position grants him an acute, humane vision. His considered ruminations make for many of the book’s liveliest, most refreshing moments, as in this rejoinder to the priest at Carrigaholt:
You do a brisk trade in indulgences
and tithes and votive lamps and
You keep your pope and robes and host
Leave me my loaf and bowl and taste for
Here, the chime of “chalice” and “malice” seals the deal. That Argyle is a figure for the poet, scapegoat and sage, playful and ponderous by turns, is felt in His Ambulations as he tunes in to the connective coincidences of sound and sense that vivify the words and world in which we find (and lose) ourselves: “the way grace and gratis, wherefore gratitude / partook a kinship . . . much as grave and gravitas, then gravity . . . the humus, so-called, God wrought humans from”. In fine allegorical style Argyle’s paraclete is an ass named Recompense, and as a questioning journeyer through grey moral landscapes Argyle is not afraid to intercede, overturning the inhumanity of Catholic doctrine as he consoles the parents of a suicide: “Your boy’s no profligate or prodigal . . . only a wounded pilgrim like us all”. We are, accordingly, prodigals all, as here again the agreement of rhyme upholds the just, irrefutable truth.