Sorting through the piles, stacks and heaps of books waiting for shelf space at Raymond’s house in Baton Rouge is a search guaranteed to uncover yet another outstanding read. I’ve done a lot of that in the past week or so, but until Monday morning missed the third pile to the left of the window, next to a shelf of biographies in front of an easy chair and under an end table in front of a box of grandbaby toys. Thanks to the gift from Raymond of a book of essays a while back, I have become a great fan of Thomas Lynch’s writing.
Lynch is an undertaker in a small Michigan town, but also a writer of international renown and author of poetry, essays, a memoir and a collection of fiction. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and the The London Review of Books. The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (2009) was a finalist for the National Book Award. His other work includes Still Life in Milford: Poems, Booking Passage, Bodies in Motion and at Rest, Grimalkin & Other Poems and most recently, Apparition & Late Fictions. Lynch lives in Milford, Michigan, and West Clare, Ireland.
His poem “Liberty” is included in the 1998 collection, Still Life in Milford. Lynch’s unusual mix of occupations—running a family mortuary and writing—has enabled him to observe the human condition without the distraction of sentimentality, a style reflected in his 1987 debut book of poems, Skating with Heather Grace, and in the essays from The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. The poems in Still Life in Milford speak of Lynch’s family history, the death of his father, and the recently departed residents of Milford.
Some nights I go out and piss on the front lawn
as a form of freedom—liberty from
porcelain and plumbing and the Great Beyond
beyond the toilet and the sewage works.
Here is the statement I am trying to make:
to say I am from a fierce bloodline of men
who made their water in the old way, under stars
that overarched the North Atlantic where
the River Shannon empties into sea.
The ex-wife used to say, “Why can’t you pee
in concert with the most of humankind
who do their business tidily indoors?”
It was gentility or envy, I suppose,
because I could do it anywhere, and do
whenever I begin to feel encumbered.
Still, there is nothing, here in the suburbs,
as dense as the darkness in West Clare
nor any equivalent to the nightlong wind
that rattles in the hedgerow of whitethorn there
on the east side of the cottage yard in Moveen.
It was market day in Kilrush, years ago:
my great-great-grandfather bargained with tinkers
who claimed it was whitethorn that Christ’s crown was made from.
So he gave them two and six and brought them home—
mere saplings then—as a gift for the missus,
who planted them between the house and garden.
For years now, men have slipped out the back door
during wakes or wedding feasts or nights of song
to pay their homage to the holy trees
and, looking up into that vast firmament,
consider liberty in that last townland where
they have no crowns, no crappers and no ex-wives.
The line near the middle, ‘on the east side of the cottage yard in Moveen’ refers to the poet’s home in Ireland. Moveen is a townland on the westernmost peninsula of County Clare, where Lynch keeps a cottage that once belonged to his great-great-grandparents. It was there his great-great-grandmother planted the whitethorn between house and garden.