Bone Rosary: New and Selected Poems
Thomas Lynch has a singular voice in American literature. Although an accomplished poet and essayist, it’s his day job as owner of Lynch and Sons Funeral Home in Milford, Michigan, that sets him apart from other writers. His 1997 essay collection The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade brought him notoriety in the form of an American Book Award and National Book Award nomination, as well as providing inspiration for HBO’s series Six Feet Under. But it was as a poet that Lynch made his literary debut in the 1980s with the collection Skating with Heather Grace. His latest volume, Bone Rosary, includes 140 poems from his five previous poetry collections along with a number of new poems under the heading “Cloud of Witnesses.”
The “greatest hits” section includes “Grimalkin,” his hilarious and touching tribute to both a monstrous cat and Lynch’s innocent son. The cat is “sex-desperate once or twice a year, / urgently ripping her way out the screen door / to have her way with anything that moves / while Mike sits up with tuna fish and worry, / crying into the darkness “here kitty kitty.” Lynch decries the cat’s crimes against upholstery and the fact that mice winter safely unharmed while the cat sleeps. The poem resolves with Lynch saying that “all boys need practice in the arts of love / and all boys’ aging fathers in the arts of rage.”
Another of Lynch’s great poems from the past is “Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets” with its haunting reflection on his own mortality (he imagines his life in groups of eleven years but can’t see himself making it to ninety-six, and is left simply to say “Thanks”) as well as a number of poems featuring the same character, Argyle, a sin-eater, which draw on Lynch’s Irish-Catholic background.
Now in his 70s, and “not retired but not required” at the funeral home, Lynch reveals he thinks in meter: “I live alone on a lake with a dog,” and “Our old dog, long into his dotage, yawns.” These gems come from the book’s introduction, a rollicking ten pages of memoir, worth the price of the book alone.
There are new poems only an undertaker could write. “Libra” begins, “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.” And there’s an even sadder exploration of loss in “Theodicy: A Lament,” which speaks of slaughtered school kids, teachers, and first-graders and asks “What shall we say to these things, Lord? Some days / we are your chosen, others we’re alone?” and wonders “How’s God all loving and all powerful / when all week long we’ve buried children?”
Lynch’s pain is not limited to death. His rollicking poem “Franchise 2016” is another lament, this time filled with bitterness at the white men and women, so many of them evangelicals, who propelled Donald Trump to the Presidency. White men, it seems, are averse to change because “Old white guys got us this far after all.” The evangelicals were motivated “because their lord and savior Jesus Christ / was crucified to save old billionaires / from political correctness.” Lynch saves his sharpest and most shocking lines for the white women who supported Trump, ending the poem with Trump’s own words about the women’s body part Trump declared himself entitled to grab. The effect works; as a reader I was startled and bothered, and my initial surprise that a master of the language like Lynch would use such a word was replaced by the realization that he was simply quoting someone we saw fit to put into our highest office.
Other poems are much softer and sweeter, and the whole has a prodigious effect. I once heard the poet Christian Wiman say that poems don’t describe experiences, they are experiences, and that sentiment certainly holds true for the poems in Bone Rosary. They are experiences of what matters most: life and death, love and loneliness, faith and doubt. The New York Times used the words “upfront” and “unvarnished” to describe Lynch’s style. I might add a couple of other words for this unusual undertaker, “uncompromising” and “unabated.” The new poems in Bone Rosary are worth your time, and adding the previously published poems makes this a wonderful way to explore Lynch’s work over the years.