Thomas Lynch has been called “The Bard of the Midwest.” He operated the Lynch and Sons Funeral Home in Milford, Michigan, for decades, and is also an author whose book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, won an American Book Award. His latest poetry collection, Bone Rosary, was published earlier this year, and Reformed Journal editor Jeff Munroe caught up with Thomas Lynch a few months ago and interviewed him for our podcast. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Jeff Munroe: You begin the introduction to Bone Rosary with the line, “I started stringing soup bones on a rope for reasons I’m not entirely sure of 10 years ago.” You call that string of soup bones a “bone rosary,” and you say it’s both a symbol of life’s deepest questions and also an emblem of the connections poetry makes. Tell us more about the bone rosary, and what it means to you.
Thomas Lynch: The meaning that it took on was coincident with a visit by my dear friend, Matthew Sweeney, the bed of heaven to him, who came here in 2016. It was the last trip he made to North America. I had by that time been stringing bones on a rope for quite some time. He said, “What’s that?” I said, “Well, that’s a bone rosary, you know?” That was the first time it came from my mouth and I just liked the sound of it. I liked the sound of the two words with those open “o’s”: “bone rosary.” It did remind me of a rosary, these soup bones, that, then my dog Bill, now my dog Carl, just hollows out in his daily office in the morning. He lays it on the floor, sucks out the marrow, chews on the bone a little bit, and then goes outside and goes about his day. Going around and picking up bones after a dog is also a kind of daily office for me, and I do find that the collection lengthens, like time does. It has a sense of arithmetic; it sounds like an abacus as I’m stringing these things up.
It also seems to be a great deterrent for jihadis and right wing Christian zealots and people who don’t like my politics. I live on a dead end road on a lake, and I’m just worried about some nasty perch fishermen coming up here and doing me damage. Anyone who looks at it will say, “Whoever did that is not well,” and decide not to tamper with me. It’s working so far.
Jeff Munroe: And it became the title of your latest collection.
Thomas Lynch: As soon as Matthew heard the name, he started writing. He wrote a little chapbook, right here on Mullet Lake, which included a poem called “The Bone Rosary.” He described what he saw: “The big dog’s grave is already dug, a few / yards from the lake, and all the bones he’s / sucked the marrow from are strung on a rope / draped over the porch railing, a bone rosary, / waiting to be hooked to a rusty chain hung / from a metal post stuck in the ground, poking / over the water.” I don’t think Matthew ever saw it festooned with blue blinking Christmas lights, but at night it’s really haunting. I think we’re haunted by the dead. I’m haunted by Matthew Sweeney and his poems and by dozens of other poets. This is why we read, to be happily haunted by voices, many of whom are long gone. But we still hear them speaking to us. We still get glimpses of their realities because they wrote them down.
Jeff Munroe: How did you first become interested in poetry?
Thomas Lynch: I’ve always read poetry. Prayer is poetry: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here.” As are our childhood formulas: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for this food.” Or, “Now I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep.” And, “Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are.” I just love the sound of those things. Like when Yeats was dying, he wrote, “Irish poets learn your trade / sing whatever is well made.” It’s the same rhyme and meter as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” Emily Dickinson–and you can try this at home–wrote everything to the same sort of jingle as the “Yellow Rose of Texas”… “Because I could not stop for death— / He kindly stopped for me—.” There are all sorts of attractions of poetry. For me, it was acoustic. Then I had a teacher at university, Michael Heffernan, who was a poet. He was the first living poet I met. When he published his first book in 1979, The Cry of Oliver Hardy, it came to me in the mail and I looked at the book and I said “This is going to outlive him. Those poems will be in the library after Heffernan’s long gone.” Now, by the grace of whoever’s in charge here, Heffernan is still around. The books are in the library and I’m betting on the books. Because the numbers on mortality are fairly convincing. We’re all going to be goners sooner or later. That’s how I got into poetry. I started writing poems. I started committing poetry.
Jeff Munroe: How did you manage a business, raise a family, and write poetry in those early years? I don’t know how you had the time to do that.
Thomas Lynch: There’s a lot of funeral service which is standing and watching and waiting. You have to be ever at the ready, but a lot of it is waiting for something to happen, or for someone to come in the door. I remember writing a poem, that later found its way to Poetry Magazine, on a Sunday afternoon when I was working a visitation at the funeral home. I was standing there and I was worried about our dog Willie. He was a little Shetland Collie and he was getting very sick. My then wife and I had had a big fight—she thought it was getting close to time to put him down. I said, “Well, if it’s a mercy that we’re going to do to him, I think I should do it,” We had something of a go around about that. We were married and we had these lovely babies but we would fight over such things as who should kill a dog. I wrote this poem called “A Dog with Character” and I sent it to Poetry Magazine and they took it. I thought, “I’m going keep this up,” because even though nobody in my zip code knew anything about Poetry Magazine, I just figured, those poems would outlive me.
Jeff Munroe: How has poetry sustained you over the years?
Thomas Lynch: It is the thing without which nothing else happens. I do enjoy writing an essay. I love essays, and I enjoy fiction. I like stories. But nothing happens unless the language comes into tune, at least in my brain box, unless I tune it with poetry. It seems to be the tuning fork for my access to language. Poetry is mostly subtraction for me. It’s getting rid of everything that’s not necessary. In other writing you can add and add and add, but poetry is more like whittling a bar of soap into something beautiful.
Jeff Munroe: You’ve written in multiple genres. How do you know what you’re writing at any moment?
Thomas Lynch: I can say that poetry almost always happens to me in the ear first. I hear a line like, “The thing you fear the most will hunt you down.” There’s 10 syllables worth hearing again. I remember hearing that and saying, “That, I’ll remember.” I heard it from a father whose daughter had died of a childhood leukemia that tarried until she was in her twenties before it killed her. I heard that at the Lutheran church. I can’t tell you the year, but I remember watching him at the lectern trying to eulogize his daughter and I was in the back. He said, “The thing you fear the most will hunt you down,” and I’ve never forgotten it. But part of that is because it sounds like a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” … “The thing you fear the most will hunt you down.” Like Yeats, “When you are old and gray and full of sleep.” It’s the rhythm of the heart, the duh-dum, duh-dum, of your heartbeat.
I’ve always told my students at workshops, “You’re only going to get two or three good thoughts in your whole life. You may as well get as much mileage as you can from them.” So after I’ve written the poem, I start thinking about the essay. Stories pop out of that kind of stuff.
Jeff Munroe: You’ve had a lifetime as a funeral director of helping people through tragedy and loss. You’ve also experienced tragedy as a father. You lost your daughter Heather Grace recently and you wrote a beautiful piece in The Christian Century that reflected on your own loss and tied it to the pandemic, a time when, in one way or another, all of us have been experiencing loss. Could you talk more about that experience and how you’re reflecting on it now?
Thomas Lynch: We’d been losing Heather Grace for years to what I would say was a form of mental illness complicated by a traumatic brain injury from a fall from a horse. She was doing what she loved to do the most, but she fell and hurt her head. This exacerbated her symptomatology, and so when she leapt from a bridge in California, when she died by suicide, it was like the final fatal symptom of an ongoing illness that resisted our best impulses to intervene or to seek counsel or medication or hospitalization, all of which we did. It proved the eventual helplessness that all of us feel in the face of death, because there’s not enough time, nor money, nor talent, nor brainpower, nor technology, nor anything else to undo this mortality that is resident in our begetting, to use a biblical term. We are begat with the seeds of our undoing in us. I’ve always thought that funerals were a pretty good way of handling a death in the family, but it’s been difficult for people who experienced a death in these pestilent times, when we couldn’t gather together the way we normally would. I feel a kinship with so many families around the globe who could not gather with their family of faith, or their family of blood, or their family of community. They could not gather with whatever people come, those who are brave enough to show up and pitch in to say, “I’ll take my part of this grief.” That was not possible through this past God-awful year, and so I do feel a kinship with the families of the victims of this pestilence.
Whatever was bad got worse in the age that we’ve been in. The last five years have been especially desolate. When we follow our worst impulses, rather than our better angels, we pay the price. There are people who give Christianity a good name. You see the love that we’re supposed to bear towards one another in them, but there are as many or more who look like posers. The last four or five years—it seems to be the age of posing. I don’t think it’s our better angels that got us there. I think it’s our own selfish self-interests.
Jeff Munroe: Did you feel like your background as a funeral director prepared you for what you experienced?
Thomas Lynch: No, not particularly. I had been with many, many families like me and my family, and I’d seen that helplessness and desolation, that sense of abandonment. This is the book of Job, as you know yourself. This is why they wrote the book of Job. To let you know that there is no end to suffering.
Jeff Munroe: And you’re not the first one, right?
Thomas Lynch: Yeah, and you can organize a fist to shake in the face of whomever is in charge here, and the answer comes back a version of “Where were you when I made the world? It’s none of your business.” Why me? Why not? Why not? And so the experience of death prepares us for faith and for apostasy, and for me, it’s always been provisional. I mean Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I can agree that God’s doing a great job. I’m glad he’s in heaven, or she is, whoever it is. But Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I think maybe not, maybe she took the day off or maybe she’s trying to convince me that she’s not all powerful or all good at the same time.
Jeff Munroe: Let’s talk a little bit more about that because you do express a lot of different religious inclinations in your poetry. Sometimes you express uncertainty and at other times hope and faith. Yet you always seem to express a respect for the traditions of the church. And earlier in our conversation, you said, “When I used to go to church,” but then you said, “I was at a bible study this morning.”
Thomas Lynch: I am named for a dead priest, but not incidentally also for a famous doubter. They never said “Thomas” in my childhood without saying “Doubting Thomas.” Yet I don’t know if I’m as doubtful as I’m contrarian. My experience has been some days it seems like a loving God’s in charge. Others it seems like we are entirely alone. So, somebody wanting to make a point, emailed me. I forget what I had said or done that he didn’t like, but he wanted to ask, “Are you a believer?” And I said, “Yeah, I am. I believe in some things and others, not so much.” You know, the best possible answer I can give you to this, Jeff, is one I’ll steal from Robert Ingersoll who was a great apostate, a great agnostic. He was, not incidentally, a son of the manse. Ingersoll said, “I know nothing. I believe nothing. I deny nothing. I live in hope.”
That pretty much covers it for me. I don’t know if it’s Mother Nature or Father God in charge. I just know it’s not me. Tom is not in charge. Anytime I’ve tried to be in charge, I’m quickly reminded of how much I’m in error
I do believe in a power greater than myself. I don’t know if that power is the creator of the universe. I haven’t a clue. But I live in hope.
Jeff Munroe: Thank you, Thomas Lynch.
Thomas Lynch: Thank you, Jeff. We’ll talk again.