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Matthew Sweeney reviews Thomas Lynch's latest collection.



Matthew Sweeney

Born in Donegal in 1952, Matthew Sweeney is based in Cork currently, having previously been resident in Berlin, Timişoara and, for a long time, London. His last collection was Black Moon (2007). Several books prior to that include Sanctuary (2004) and Selected Poems (2002). New from Salt in 2010 is his retrospective selection under the title The Night Post. Bilingual collections of Sweeney’s work came out in Germany and Holland in 2008. Earlier translations appeared in Mexico, Romania, Latvia and Slovakia.






Walking Papers by Thomas Lynch reviewed in Southword Journal OnlineWalking Papers

Thomas Lynch

(Cape, 2010)

ISBN: 9780224090063

£10.00 paperback

Buy from Cape




Sometime in the late 80s I was staying with a friend in Dublin when I picked up a copy of a poetry book called Skating with Heather Grace by a poet hitherto unknown to me called Thomas Lynch. It was a typically elegant production, from Knopf, I believe. I was immediately captivated by these poems, so much so that I informed my friend I had to steal the book. He thought I was joking but when he saw I wasn’t, he hid the book. I had to wait to acquire it.


What those poems had was a clarity and a grace, not commonly found together. Also, a sweeping, authoritative tone, and great narrative strength. What emerged was that Lynch, while being American, also lived through his Irish forbearers, bringing their world alive again. This twin American/Irish focus has been ever present in Lynch’s poetryand is even more present in this new volume, the writer now splitting his time between Michigan and Clare. One is also constantly reminded of his other profession, that of funeral director, as the book is preoccupied with mortality (in one chilling little poem he imagines his own death in his sleep). The strong title poem, ‘Walking Papers’, looks mortality full in the face: "One moment you are and next you aren’t", or "we mortals come with our mortalities, / freighted, laden, born with our last breath in us", or "whatever’s going to happen’s going to happen". Which is not to say this poem, (or the book as a whole), is gloomy or depressing. It’s moving, certainly, but also has a lacing of humourquite reminiscent of Lynch’s celebrated essays on his dismal trade.


If there’s a recurrent mantra running through the book it’s that life goes on (that actual phrase comes up at least four times). If this seems a contradiction, given the constant reminders that death is waiting for us, then we shift to the bigger picture of life in general, and we note the irony. A corpse is told, at the beginning of one poem, that, for the record, life does go on. Another poem ends with these lines:


            All true believers, all who disbelieve,

            Come to their ashen ends, and life goes on.


Even here, though, it is not as simple as that. The poem ‘Himself’ – for this reviewer one of the strongest in the book – deals with the passing of a way of life, that of an old-style bachelor farmer.


            Those long contemplations at the fire, cats

            curling at the door, the dog’s lame waltzing,

            the kettle, the candle and the lamp […]

            the votives and rosaries and Sacred Heart,

            the bucket, the basket, the latch and lock,

            the tractor that took him into town and back

            for the pension check, the messages and pub


all this will slowly disappear, and some grandniece will inherit the farm  and will

put it on the market, and it’ll be as if he and his way of life never was.


Not all the poems are in this mode, though. There are four witty poems in the voice of Argyle, the sin-eater, who visits corpse-houses to eat bread and drink beer over the occupier of the coffin, in the process also consuming the dead person’s sins.


           Upright over corpses it occurred to him –

           the body outstretched on a pair of planks,

           the measly loaf and stingy goblet,

           the gobsmacked locals, their begrudging thanks,

the kinswomen rummaging for coppers –

it came into his brain like candlelight:

his lot in life like priesthood after all.


We have met this sin-eater beforeeven as far back as that first Knopf book. I hear a complete book of these sin-eater poems is forthcoming in the U.S. Another eye-catching clutch of witty poems, this time in a satirical mode, are pieces addressed to Mr President, Mr Vice-President, Madame Secretary and Messrs Attorney General, relaying in each case tribulations from farming life. The first-mentioned begins like this:


            The black cow we put inside

            for Mrs Murray to inseminate

            got its head stuck in the metal gate

            and couldn’t get it out.


These are wonderfully indirect swipes at the Bush regime. And I must not omit to mention a very funny history of the donkeys Lynch has acquired, or bred, and keeps in Clare (Charles, Camilla, George W, and Sarah P), or the epithalamium for his son’s marriage that is also a memento mori.


As to how the poems are put on the page, although he could hardly be called a formalist it is fair to say Lynch can be a great respecter of strict form. He likes the iambic line, and is fond of the sonnetthere are six of the latter in the book, plus one 13 liner, one 15 liner. One poem talks of "denouements doled out in tens, fourteens".


Lots to like, then, in this fine bookthat I suspect might appeal to more readers than most books of poetry ever reach. Might even appeal so much that it would be in danger of being stolen.    


©2010 Matthew Sweeney






Author Links

Sweeney at Salt Publishing

Sweeney's Contemporary Writers bio

Bio and poems at Poetry International Web








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