In this collection, Thomas Lynch, a funeral director, examines many of the same topics he explores in his essays (see this database for annotations of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade and Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality). In section one, he writes about sin and redemption ("Attende Domine," "Inviolata," "Panis Angelicus"), death and grief ("Late April," "Month’s Mind,"), love and sex ("O Gloriosa Virginum," "Casablanca," "Veni Creator Spiritus," "The Hammock"), and introduces his own point-of-view as one who tends the dead ("In Paradisum").

In the second section, Lynch delves more deeply into sin ("Byzance") and memory. In the section’s first poem, "Liberty," Lynch introduces himself as a man from a "fierce bloodline of men," and in the next five poems writes about "Argyle," perhaps a relative, perhaps an alter-ego. A long poem, "The Moveen Notebook," follows, relating the story of Lynch’s family home in Ireland and his relatives who lived and died there, ancestors who are also represented in Lynch’s essays. The rest of the poems expand upon family and memory and serve to complete the portrait of the narrator, a man who tends "toward preachment / and the body politic," who rages and who wants to "offer a witness" ("St. James’ Park Epistle").

The poems in section three serve as laments. Here Lynch addresses the failures of gods and men ("A Rhetoric upon Brother Michael’s Rhetoric upon the Window," "One of Jack’s") and the wonder of aging ("Loneliest of Trees, The Winter Oak"). But the main body of this section comprises stark poems about women and poems about Lynch’s work ("Heavenward," "The Lives of Women," "That Scream if You Ever Hear It," "These Things Happen in the Lives of Women," "How It’s Done Here," "At the Opening of Oak Grove Cemetery Bridge").

In "Couplets," Lynch speaks of teaching his sons the funeral business and the horrors they witness. In the brief poem "Aubade," he tells of an abused woman’s suicide. The last poem of the book, "Still Life in Milford--Oil on Canvas by Lester Johnson," is both a portrait of the town and of the author: "Between the obsequies, I play with words."


While Lynch’s essays are rambling and wide-ranging, his poems are often spare, stripped bare. His craft is nimble--he uses free verse, rhyme, and a variety of stanza forms and line lengths. The strongest poems and, to me, those most ripe for debate, reflect the subjects Lynch also addresses in prose: suicide, abortion, and women abused and gone astray.

In "Another One of Jack’s," Lynch passes no judgment, as he does in his essays, but simply gives the description of a thirty-nine-year old female cadaver with a string and a metal clip attached to her right hand. In "The Lives of Women," the narrator speaks of female babies drowned or aborted in the "outer provinces," and how the "survivors" are "arrayed in jewels" and displayed in market. But today, the narrator says, "We ask their opinions. We nod and smile. / We keep the buckets and the baskets hidden."

In "That Scream if You Ever Hear it," Lynch tells of a woman who was injured in a car accident, her children killed, a "scream" stuck in her body. The poem ends with "a little truth": how the woman drinks too much and sleeps around, looking for a man who can "tickle that scream out of her." Lynch’s apparent stance toward women--part desire, part judgment--would make a good discussion topic in a women’s studies course.


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York



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