Finally made my way to reading another of those gift books, one shuttled off to the side and forgotten for a long while, and as happens was once more surprised by a writer previously unfamiliar. Kind of a 'late to the party’ feeling about it, but fortunately there is nothing at all dated about the writing of Thomas Lynch. His themes are as relevant today as they will be a hundred years from now. The book here before me is a book of essays from 1997, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Wonderful title and one with a direct reference to the day to day work of Lynch, which is that of undertaker in a small Michigan town. Notwithstanding, he is a writer-poet of international fame and author of four collections of poetry, two books of essays, a memoir and one collection of fiction. I have the poetry collections to look forward to, but in the meantime read, reread and relish every line and paragraph of The Undertaking. The poem below is collected in Lynch’s 1999 Still Life in Milford: Poems, but first appeared in an essay titled, “Mary & Wilbur” one that is a part of The Undertaking. The poem was written to commemorate the re-opening of an old bridge in Milford that was at one time slated for demolition.
“AT THE OPENING OF OAK GROVE CEMETERY BRIDGE”
Before this bridge we took the long way around
up First Street to Commerce, then left at Main,
taking our black processions down through town
among storefronts declaring Dollar Days!
Going Out of Business! Final Mark Downs!
Then pausing for the light at Liberty,
we’d make for the Southside by the Main Street bridge
past used car sales and party stores as if
the dead required one last shopping spree
to finish their unfinished business.
Then eastbound on Oakland by the jelly-works,
the landfill site and unmarked railroad tracks—
by bump and grinding motorcade we’d come
to bury our dead by the river at Oak Grove.
And it is not so much that shoppers gawked
or merchants carried on irreverently.
As many bowed their heads or paused or crossed
themselves against their own mortalities.
It’s that bereavement is a cottage industry,
a private enterprise that takes in trade
long years of loving for long years of grief.
The heart cuts bargains in a marketplace
that opens after-hours when the stores are dark
and Christmases and Sundays when the hard
currencies of void and absences
nickel and dime us into nights awake
with soured appetites and shaken faith
and a numb hush fallen on the premises.
Such stillness leaves us moving room by room
rummaging through cupboards and the closetspace
for any remembrance of our dead lovers,
numbering our losses by the noise they made
at home—in basements tinkering with tools
or in steamy bathrooms where they sang in the shower,
in bedrooms where they made their tender moves;
whenever we miss that division of labor
whereby he washed, she dried; she dreams, he snores;
he does the storm window, she does floors;
she nods in the rocker, he dozes on the couch;
he hammers a thumbnail, she says Ouch!
The bridge allows a residential route.
So now we take our dead by tidy homes
with fresh bedlinens hung in the backyards
and lanky boys in driveways shooting hoops
and gardens to turn and lawns for mowing
and young girls sunning in their bright new bodies.
First to Atlantic and down Mont-Eagle
to the marshy north bank of the Huron
where blue heron nest, rock bass and bluegill
bed in the shallows and life goes on.
And on the other side, the granite rows
of Johnsons, Jacksons, Ruggles, Wilsons, Smiths—
the common names we have in common with
this place, this river and these winteroaks.
And have, likewise in common, our own ends
that bristle in us when we cross this bridge—
the cancer or the cardiac arrest
or lapse of caution that will do us in.
Among these stones we find the binding thread:
old wars, old families, whole families killed by flues,
a century and then some of our dead
this bridge restores our easy access to.
A river is a decent distance kept.
A graveyard is an old agreement made
between the living and the living who have died
that says we keep their names and dates alive.
This bridge connects our daily lives to them
and makes them, once our neighbors, neighbors once again.