The Cresset, Michaelmas 2012 (Vol LXXVI, No. 1, pp 18-27)
The Mediator Is the Message
Some Retrospective Readings of Thomas Lynch’s The Sin-Eater: A Breviary
BEFORE EVEN READING THE POET THOMAS Lynch’s latest collection, The Sin-Eater: A Breviary (2012), I felt a certain satisfaction relating to it. A quick glance at the book’s design and arrangement reveals this poetry “project” (53)—to use the author’s own word—to be a family affair. It announces on its cover the inclusion of photographs by Lynch’s son Michael, and bears on its back cover a self-portrait watercolor by another son, Sean. The painting, “Loaf & Bowl: Self-Portrait,” features a framed torso and arms with the titular objects at its center. The loaf sits atop the chest, and the bowl is just to Sean’s left, within the compass of his arm. Within the book, Michael’s photograph “Loaf and Bowl” captures the same pose. It is the book’s final photograph, serving as a visual postscript, or post-icon, perhaps. The image is a central one insofar as the loaf and bowl are the ritualistic instruments for the book’s title character, the Sin-Eater.
So this opening satisfaction is the collaborative nature of the book. This is not exactly an innovation with regard to Lynch’s past books, which often include personal photos or images drawn or painted by family members. That said, upon further perusal of The Sin-Eater as a book and as a project, Lynch & Sons (which is the name of their family funeral-directing business in Milford, Michigan) succeed here in raising this family involvement and shared production to a new, more conscious and constructed level. Several of the readings that follow will refer to facing-page photographs that create correspondences in the lyrical dramas of the poems. The etymology of the word “poetry” derives from a poem being a made thing, and The Sin-Eater, as a verbal-and-visual drama of vocation and record of a beloved family landscape in western Ireland, is a satisfyingly evident made thing, done handsomely by a small press known for such work.
The second satisfaction involves the sequence of poems featured here, a compilation that will be most appreciated by those readers familiar with Lynch’s prior four volumes of poetry—Skating with Heather Grace (1987), Grimalkin & Other Poems (1994), Still Life in Milford (1998), and the very recent Walking Papers (2010). The sequence gathers twenty-four poems variously including the character of Argyle, the Sin-Eater, an unsanctioned priest in Ireland (in a region Lynch knows well, and where he resides part of the year). Half of the poems have appeared, as rime sparse we might say, throughout those earlier books. Longtime readers will welcome the reappearance as a group of these poems, for the sake of reading them as an uninterrupted group and also, for the more scrutinizing, to consider how the slight reordering of a few poems affect the general storyline running through them. However, these readers will find more interest in the book’s final eleven poems. Four have been readily accessible, having appeared in early 2011 in Poetry magazine, but even so, for most readers, and even for Lynch’s committed readers aware of this recurrent character, this will be their first encounter with a significant number of these Argyle poems.
What is a sin-eater? For a clear, concise definition, fortunately Lynch himself has provided readers with a couple of definitions throughout his writings. Lynch uses a quotation from a 1955 work, The History of American Funeral Directing, as an epigraph to the second section of his third poetry volume, Still Life in Milford. Introducing what follows as a vanished custom, the passage speaks of a “curious functionary, a sort of male scapegoat,” who “by eating a loaf of bread and drinking a bowl of beer over a corpse, and by accepting a sixpence,” was able to “take unto himself the sins of the deceased whose ghost thereafter would no longer wander” (43).
Lynch’s introduction or “Introit” to The Sin-Eater contains his most extensive writing to date on the figure of the “sin-eater” and on the imaginative handling of the figure that led to the current book. Thus the introduction is both freshly germane to the poems now assembled here and, to longstanding readers, nevertheless familiar and retrospective, a piece intent on presenting once again some of Lynch’s main preoccupations as a writer—body and spirit, sex and death, family and church, grief and comfort, poets and priests. For better or worse, Lynch as a writer feels comfortable repeating himself, taking up the same topics, arriving at the same realizations, including again the crystallized, epigraphic ways by which he says certain things memorably, in part because he seeks to verbalize the same matters in both poetry and prose, but also, more significantly, because of his own conviction (one senses) that these points bear repeating, that we as audience do not always have ears to hear.
Lynch’s titling of his introduction “Introit,” the opening part of the Mass as the priest approaches the altar (psalm passage, antiphon, Gloria Patri), signals to readers the liturgical framework or implication of the drama that follows. It also identifies the sin-eater as a priestly sort, however marginalized or in opposition to local clergy and the traditional Church hierarchy. As we soon learn, his work represents an “unholy competition” and consequently he is “banished to the hinterlands of the social and moral order” (xviii). The first photo within the book, “Kitchen Shrine Moveen,” resembles a makeshift altar, heightening the title’s connotations. The contested act of sin-eating involves the imputation of the deceased’s sins onto the mock-priest, either despite his being an outcast or possibly leading to his outcast state ontologically, or both. He leaves the scene “laden with the burdens of perdition” (“Channeling” 14). Thus the sin-eater’s actions resemble the atoning work of Christ: “He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:21, NIV).
Sin-eating also clearly resonates with and refracts ironically the sacrament of the Eucharist, insofar as the mock-priest figure is fed by the bread and beer instead of providing it to the sinners, who being deceased can no longer participate in the meal, and, significantly in a few poems, whose circumstances have excluded them from the last rites of the Catholic Church. The sin-eater’s action becomes a means of reconciling the deceased on a spiritual plane, so that the host “would no longer wander.” (One quickly remembers the ghost of the slain king who visits his son at the beginning of Hamlet.) Furthermore, there is at least suggestively a transubstantiation of bread and beer into a meal that is not spiritual food in the traditional sense—that is, the body and blood of the sacrificed Christ—but rather the drawn-out concentration of the sins still burdening the deceased, and thus the means of the transfer or displacement of sins from the dead sinner to living sin-eater. The use of beer rather than wine is one aspect of subversion or downgrading of the Catholic rite, as is the explicit payment of pence by the family to the functionary. The bread and beer are one means of payment, but they are also the vehicles by which the sin-eater must bear another’s sins, often leading to his misery. The highlighted pence represent a more straightforward quid-pro-quo transaction.
If the title choice of “Introit” seems a nod of sacramental confidence or affirmation, or even anti-clerical or heterodox defiance on behalf of the sin-eater, the epigraph that follows—Augustine’s Si comprehendis, non est Deus—immediately undermines that position, introducing instead counterpointed themes of ambivalence, doubt, and divine unknowability that recur throughout the poems. Lynch typically defends these attitudes of the unsure, embattled, but still faithful pilgrim in the person of the sin-eater, in his struggles as much as in his consolations, and in his “rootlessness, his orphanage and pilgrimage” (xx). In the end, Lynch concludes, he is “just trying to find his way home,” with a faith “always seasoned by wonder and doubt” (xxiv). He seeks a place at a more welcoming table than those vexed, deathly tables where he is brought by his work. Like every being in creation, Lynch emphasizes, he is “hungry for the favor of our creator” (xviii).
Here and elsewhere Lynch has identified his doubts and yearnings, and he makes clear his understanding of the sin-eater as the “mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings” (xix), just as he identifies with the famous doubts of his namesake apostle. Lynch describes God resignedly as “Whoever Is In Charge Here.” When asked once in an interview about the afterlife, he replied, “I don’t have a clue. The resurrection rate around here is really tiny” (“Questions”). The sin-eater’s name, Argyle, also expands his identification outward, to all of us. The name first calls to mind the “reliably Scots” socks, but Lynch also intends its acoustic resemblance to “our guile” [emphasis mine]. It is also worth noting the roughly similar construction “our man,” one of the author’s favored Irishisms; it is a winking way to speak of someone being referred to, with whom one’s involved. Argyle is, in a sense, everyone’s “our man.” Despite readers’ seeming distance from this strange, roaming figure, then, Argyle in his alienations and “hungry offices” (xvii) serves as an Everyman. He also becomes, even more grandly, a symbol in his contentions of the “schism, reformation, division, and denomination” that has characterized the historical Church (xviii). Finally, contemporary readings of the exiled character may be unable to avoid seeing in Argyle a symbol of the tarnished image of clergy in light of the sexual scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, which Lynch briefly addresses as the Current Sadness when explaining how the sin-eater “articulates the mixed-blessing and contrariety of my own life of faith” (xxi).
Lynch announces these notes of ambivalence and identification early in the introduction, when explaining how he first encountered a film version of a sin-eater in The Master of Ballantrae (1953). Having swilled the beer and tore at the bread with his teeth, the sin-eater, “part pirate, part panhandler, dressed in tatters, unshaven and wild-eyed,” thrusts his open palm at the widow, demanding payment (ix). The widow feels in need of his services, but hates this need and hates his presence. She pays him spitefully. He departs. Lynch further describes the effect here by introducing the Scots word “swithering”—“to be of two minds, in two realities at once: grudging and grateful, faithful and doubtful, broken and beautified—caught between a mirage and an apocalypse.”
Lynch continues, “I knew him at once.” He may say this only because it triggers a memory of reading about a figure in the textbook, and he next quotes the very passage used as an epigraph in Still Life in Milford and quoted above. More likely, this comment is the first to identify the vocation of the sin-eater with Lynch’s own career as a mortician and funeral director. (He and his family now run a half a dozen funeral homes in Michigan.) In a more recent note to four “sin-eater” poems published in Poetry magazine and featured in the second half of The Sin-Eater, Lynch repeats the basics from the textbook description, connecting the custom of sin-eating to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but then adds this secondary point:
Like undertakers [emphasis mine], they were needed but not much appreciated, and not infrequently reviled because of their proximity to the dead and their miserable stipend. Their place in the ceremonial landscape of death put them at times at odds with the reverend clergy. (“His Ambulations”)
Lynch throughout his writings spares no occasion when priests deserve gratitude and praise, but he has also written disparagingly of bad clergymen, and specifically of his sometimes testy relationships with them when he is attempting to carry out his professional duties as funeral director. Revilement, adversity, and weakness mark both sin-eating and undertaking, but as we shall see, both professions also perform essential rituals and orchestrate necessary reconciliations. Clergy and undertaker admirably share a “willingness to show up in the worst circumstances, outfitted with only a willingness to serve” (xxi). These actions, as it turns out, are ultimately most important for the living, who must come to terms with the reality of the loved one’s death.
The sin-eater exists in opposition to traditional priests, but this contrast risks occluding his clearly priestly, if ecclesiastically unauthorized, duties. An “upstart and forger” (xvii), he is rejected by priests because he competes with them, ministering in ways that mimic the rites that are only theirs to give. The sin-eater is an outcast who gives last unction to those denied it. He is a hardscrabble absolver. Like priest and undertaker both, he mediates between life and afterlife, prepares the dead to depart from the living. He does it as much for the living as the dead. The sin-eater is a death figure but also peace giver, carrying out, as do his counterparts, “liturgies of thanks and praise and affliction” and “an act of sacred community theater” (“Dead and Gone” 6, “Grave Affairs” 19). Lynch’s more colloquial description in the essay “Good Grief,” of an audience he once addressed composed of priests, pastors, funeral directors, and hospice-caregivers, fits the sin-eater just as well: “they work, so to speak, in the deep end of the pool, with the dying, the dead and the bereaved” (20). More seriously, in the introduction he describes how his work ensures that he regularly witness the “uncommon courage” of these workers, whereby their faith emboldens his (xxi).
In The Sin-Eater’s introduction, Lynch establishes this connection between priest and sin-eater by first creating one between priest and undertaker, and he does this by turning to family narrative, one previously narrated in Bodies in Motion and at Rest (139–48; see “Passing On” as well). His father’s uncle was a young priest, who died of pneumonia in Taos in 1936. When arrangements were being made for burial at the local funeral home in Michigan, Lynch’s twelve-year-old father sneaked off and wandered the mortuary till he encountered two men dressing his uncle in liturgical vestments. He sees them lift the body from the porcelain table to the coffin, calling it an “elevation, this slow, almost ritual hefting of the body” (xiv). Lynch makes explicit the elevation of the host during Mass. This incident inspired Lynch’s father to become a mortician. When asked, why not a priest?, he said bluntly, “the priest was dead” (xv), and there is more truth here than may be supposed. In the witnessed scene, the funeral-home workers have, in one sense, taken over the ministrations toward the dead that the dead priest has now ceased to practice.
We have thus far identified two of the three brokers, or mediators, that the sin-eater evokes, namely the priest and the undertaker. To this pair the poet must be added, for there are affinities with the poet, and with the poet Lynch particularly, in his character of Argyle. The poet is a mediator like the others, but is also a messenger, a transmitter of mediation beyond the immediate need and ceremonial occasion. Arguably Lynch and Argyle converge in this messenger identity, or alternately, the author becomes a messenger of his life-and-death vocation through this project of poetically dramatizing the similar mediating work of the sin-eater. Ironically, Lynch first presents his poetic formation in his introductory essay by recalling his first, boyhood glimpses of life in the priesthood. As an altar boy, he was entranced by the “magic Latin,” and had a knack for the ancient language’s “vowel-rich acoustics” (xvi). He came to love the “sound of religion” (xvii), and he responded to Christianity’s powerful metaphors, so that family meals became “sacred theater” at which he and his fellow “prodigal” siblings returned from daily wanderings. Yet setting the language itself aside, soon Lynch questioned the history and doctrines it affirmed and celebrated: he lamented the “legalisms and accountancy,” the same phrasing used to describe the sin-eater’s resistance to the Church and his own role, a complicit one, outside of it: “The accountancy of sin and punishment at once offends him and feeds him” (xxii). Lynch’s church history and the ambivalence to which it led represent the “ground and compost out of which Argyle arose” (xix). He likewise identifies with the character’s more patent weaknesses and sins of his own, admitting that his divided mind toward the Church and the priesthood (at one point his family had actively encouraged the boy in this pursuit) was brought on by “mighty nature,” or in other words, women and romance and sex. Yeats’s letter to Olivia Shakespear on how there are only two great subjects—sex and death—is a favorite passage of Lynch’s, and he memorably fuses the subjects in the poem “How It’s Done Here” (“We heat graves here for winter burials / as a kind of foreplay before digging in” Still Life in Milford 120). Argyle’s peculiar work felt akin to his own “stumblings, both religiously and occupationally” (Sin-Eater xxi).
Considering the book as a whole, Lynch consciously thought of its twenty-four poems, each of twenty-four lines, as approaching in form other “brief meditations and reliance on numbers and counts that were a part of the churchy rubrics” (xx)—stations of the cross, deadly sins, glorious and sorrowful mysteries, books of hours, and so on, hence the book’s subtitle of “breviary.” Poetry’s association with meter, with prescribed, patterned numbers of syllables, words, and lines, has led him to speak of the “accounting” of this art, which, framed in this way, becomes a fruitful, more positive accountancy compared with the legalistic version that troubles both Lynch and his sin-eater character.
Jeffrey Klein has explored at length in Lynch’s writing the cluster of sacred actions among the priest, undertaker, and poet. According to Klein, Lynch’s words become carriers of the sacred that seek to “in-corpse” in language the still sacred presence of a dead body, as well as the body’s absence of life still desired by the living (87–88). The goal necessarily falls short of resurrection, but it is at least a textual record, a witness or service. Poems and funerals “become icons of meaning that point toward something transcendent and uncontainable in the present state of reality” (Klein 104). Lynch himself more directly treats this relationship near the end of his introductory “Introit.” Prayer and poetry, he argues there, are both “forms of ‘raised speech’ by which we attempt to commune with our makers and creation, with the gone but not forgotten” (xxii). Argyle’s hunger and his work are meant as metaphors for “those rituals and rubrics,” that raised speech. It may even be that the poet’s “raised” speech approximates the priest’s elevation of the host, the undertakers’ raising of the dead body from the porcelain table into the coffin. Each of these, Lynch argues, like the sin-eater’s ritual, is a “sacrament of renewal and restoration,” nourishing our hope (xxiii).
All of these themes addressed above are present in The Sin-Eater’s twenty-four poems, and the short readings that follow the opening and closing poems in this collection will seek to connect Lynch’s abiding concerns with the character of Argyle, his work and his struggles, and his own pilgrimage. If tattered and despised, Argyle is clearly a pilgrim whom Lynch values; he relates the sin-eater’s travels and encounters with surprising compassion that is not diminished by the narrative’s frankness and bluntness. The opening poem, “The Sin Eater,” plunges into its titular action from a third-person perspective, that of the bystander in the room with the deceased. It introduces Argyle as a “narrow hungry man” with a “wicked upturn” to his eyebrow (3). He must do his work amid the family’s “whispering contempts,” but work he does—gulping the beer and the venial sins it contains, turning to the bread leavened with “cardinal mischiefs.” The first words we hear Argyle speak are, “Sixpence. I’m sorry,” establishing both the transactional basis of Argyle’s trade but also his capacity, if terse here, for sympathy. The short comment reflects in brevis Lynch’s own nuanced feelings about his role as undertaker: he takes pains to distance his work from “ministry in the religious sense,” preferring to think of it instead as an “exercise in humanity,” but he has also said in an interview that undertaking is a “way to minister to people” (“What Makes a Good Funeral?” 17; Smith). The sin-eater’s terseness, his focus without pleasantries on the necessary work at hand, may also symbolize Lynch’s own resistance to consumer-catering, indulgent funeral trends. Reviewing some writings on death, he praises them for displaying a “welcome refusal to traffic in warm fuzzies or psychobabble,” for being “hushed enough to listen to the din of creation in the rattle of death” (Rev. of The Eternal Pity). In these poems, Argyle experiences that shift from death to creation when his work is done and he escapes into landscape. The first poem ends with Argyle’s departure, “down the land / between hay-ricks and Friesians with their calves,” with two parishes standing between him and the ocean. It is the first of many appearances of western Irish environs in the book, a setting dear to Lynch. The facing photo, “Friesans Moveen,” visually accentuates this presence.
The final two poems in The Sin-Eater introduce new perspectives and companions and intensify their language so as to ensure a resoundingly climatic conclusion to the sequence and book. “Argyle on Knocknagaroon” places the sin-eater on Knocknagaroon Hill, and its last lines become a celebration of the book’s landscape: “the broad green palm of Moveen before him,” the West Clare peninsula’s “narrowing headlands” behind him, the Atlantic on one side, the river Shannon on the other (47). The effect is rhapsodic: “it seemed he occupied the hand of God: / open, upturned, outstretched, uplifting him.” More precisely, though, Argyle arrives at this consoling spot because of spiritual struggle in the lines above. He can barely hear God’s voice among nature’s sounds (“batwing and bird-whistle,” the “hiss of tides retreating”), and he cannot readily discern the will or plan of, in a now familiar Lynchian periphrasis, “Whoever Is In Charge Here[.]” These doubts make him doubt in turn those who seem too free from doubt—those who claim “blessed assurances or certainty: / a One and Only Way and Truth and Life[.]” Yet Argyle finds it unlikely that “Whatever Breathes in Everything / mightn’t speak in every wondrous tongue;” that is, he finds it nonsense that only one narrow aspect of creation would reflect the Creator. His concluding sense of occupying God’s hand, then, is an especially reassuring moment, and the setting of Knocknagaroon hill turns the poem into scene of divine encounter, a modest corollary scene to be put beside Moses on Sinai and the disciples who witness Christ’s Transfiguration. Incidentally, Lynch experienced a moment of clear seeing similar to Argyle’s when once a flight descended from the northwest toward the Shannon estuary: “the cloudbanks opened over the ocean… and I could see the whole coastline of the peninsula” (“The Same but Different”). This passage, found in an essay on the author’s life in Ireland, now lists many of the places that have appeared throughout The Sin-Eater: Loop Head, Bishop’s Island, Goleen, and his family cottage and those of local friends. And there, too, is Knocknagaroon, and atop it twin masts “that the pilots aim for in the fog.” As with those pilots, this hilltop for Argyle becomes a site for reassuring orientation. The facing photo provides a God’s-eye perspective similar to the one that author and character have experienced. A note informs us that “Peninsula” was taken from ten thousand feet as a plane departed Shannon for New York (52).
The photograph accompanying the final poem, “Recompense His Paraclete,” is entirely different: it is a close-up of a donkey, whiskered snout and flared nostrils at the center. A note confirms the expectation that this photo, “Paraclete Moveen” is a portrait of Charles, otherwise called The Moveen Lad, “the author’s champion donkey derby racer.” We are also told that in the photo the donkey is in “solitary confinement,” a necessary quarantining because of “brutish lust” that was narrated in the poem “The Names of Donkeys” in Walking Papers (56). Lynch’s donkey’s inordinate appetite and contextual isolation in the photo makes him a well-suited doppelganger (or vice versa!) for the piebald donkey that becomes Argyle’s paraclete or comforter in this last poem. The sin-eater receives the donkey from a “sad-eyed parish priest” whose sins he “supped away” (49). This final scene of Argyle at work is curious insofar as it shows him performing his function on a priest’s behalf, rather than in competition with him, and he also does this service prior to the priest’s death. The priest makes a punning joke about everyone having at least one ass, and however worn out the punch line, the association it creates also invites the spirit of St Francis into the book’s conclusion. Francis called the body Brother Ass, and here the sin-eater and donkey seem as connected:
Argyle named the wee jack Recompense
and got good orderly direction from it.
Wherever the one went, so went the other
bearing mighty nature’s burdens wordlessly,
the brown sign of the cross across their backs.
The donkey’s leading of Argyle is comic but confirms the solidarity between the two. In Francis’s conceptualization of the body as Brother Ass they even become one symbolic unit: the donkey is the outwardly materialized body, as if separated from the still embodied soul. In an essay on Charles the Donkey, Lynch sees in the animal a “sort of cipher for the Brotherhood of Man, fraternity of miscreants,” and he describes how it was a “kind of daily office” to stand in the grass with Charles (“On the Brotherhood of Asses” 4). In this shared miscreancy both man and beast must, as Francis understood, bear “mighty nature’s burdens.” The two are increasingly alike in their having “the brown sign of the cross across their backs,” referring to the cross-like tuft of hairs on the donkey’s back that Lynch remarks upon in his essay (6). The donkey leads the man, and the man seems to assume some of the donkey’s features.
But of course the sin-eater and donkey are not one and the same literally, for that would deny the donkey’s role as paraclete, and the companionship that Argyle receives only at the very end of the sequence. It is no less important for being humble in nature. Lynch’s own experience mirrors his character’s. Describing his own solitary “monk’s life” in Ireland, he praises his donkey’s “insuperable calm” that made it “the perfect confessor and scape-ass” able to bear burdens (“On the Brotherhood of Asses” 5). Lynch’s description of “scape-ass” plays on the word “scapegoat,” which is what Argyle is in his role as sin-eater. There is a suggestion here that the donkey, by sharing burdens, can now be a scapegoat to the scapegoat Argyle. The naming of the donkey Recompense further verifies its value as a companion. The word, in its noun form, means variously “reparation,” “atonement or satisfaction for a misdeed or offence,” “compensation or return for trouble, exertion, services, or merit,” “compensation for a loss or injury sustained,” and “compensation for a defect or imperfection” (OED s.v. “recompense” def. 1, 3, 5a., 5b.). Psalm 18:20 can be surprisingly applied here—“The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness; According to the cleanness of my hands he has recompensed me” (NAS)—and the Authorized Version uses the word when Boaz asks that Ruth be blessed: “The Lord recompense thy work…” Truly, all of these meanings arguably apply to the sin-eater’s history, and his and the donkey’s relationship, and the attendant aspects of fulfillment and equal standing may be most important of all. The last half of the poem turns in a distinctly eschatological direction, even as Argyle’s earlier restlessness—his ambulations, his walking “aimlessly” with “neither mule nor map” (Sin-Eater 19)—reoccupies the foreground in a more refined, end-minded way. “The last was ever seen of them was headed west, / a tatterdemalion and his factotum—” In other words, Argyle the ragamuffin and motley walks off into the sunset and toward the sea with his burden-bearer Recompense, although they do not drift quietly off the page.
Instead, they go, wildly, loudly, and as if celebrating, “braying and flailing out gestures of blessing / over hedgerow and hay-bales, man and beast / alike[.]”Argyle becomes more like his forebear, the missionary monk St. Columba, referred to in earlier poems. The world, at least in this honoring recessional of Lynch’s, is set right, or “rectified[.]” The donkey becomes here what Lynch calls him in his aforementioned essay, “Everyman and Fellow Traveler” (4), just as in the earlier poem “The Names of Donkeys” Lynch repeatedly expresses “kinship” between man and beast: “driven by selfsame hungers and desires”… “bearing his crosses, keeping his own counsel, / much as I figured I myself was doing” That poem ends with a vision of “all those gone / before” being distinctly donkey-like: “who stood this ground in their own times, and bore their burdens” (Walking Papers 52, 58). Yet here, in “Recompense His Paraclete,” the world they bless is primarily an animal world—“cats pardoned, curs absolved, tethered cattle loosed, / and all of vast creation reconciled / in one last spasm of forgiveness.” For better or worse, Argyle seems more content amid the animals and free of human relationship or partnerships of commercial necessity. In hindsight, the last few poems and photographs have prepared the way for the eleventh-hour introduction of Recompense and Argyle’s current situation. There was the figurative “animal christening” earlier in the sequence, a photo of kittens identified as “supplicants” in its title, and most relevantly, another photo, “Piebalds at Feed,” not only of Lynch’s donkey Charles, but of “Three of the author’s piebald donkeys,” as the note explains (52). Argyle’s and Recompense’s casting of blessings among all creation has to it an apocalyptic, messianic quality, but afterward the pair does quietly exit, again with a suggestion of unity and shared direction: “where the road turned toward the sea they turned with it.” The lack of punctuation here enacts a seamless, effortless following of the path, even as the sea as destination suggests an endgame. Perhaps, at last, Argyle feels at home in the world, or perhaps he anticipates soon leaving the world. Either reading of the ending seems equally feasible.
The mixed vision of The Sin-Eater’s final scene—part pilgrim’s persistence and fulfillment, part welcomed entering into oblivion—is natural enough as hybridized attitude, combining as it does the notion of death as a journey and the Christian hope of a heavenly arrival, of being restored and made whole. The language of travel hooks itself into the Church’s end-of-life terms. It is there in the Franciscan “Transitus” that Argyle earlier contemplated, and is likewise present in the viaticum, the Eucharist given to the dying, a last supper for one about to set out on a journey. This connection was present in Lynch’s poetic imagination at a very early phase. In his first book, for example, he presents a scenario similar to Argyle’s in “A Dream of Death in the First-Person,” which, not incidentally, is also set in the Irish countryside: “I’m coming the coast road into Moveen” (Skating with Heather Grace 24). The speaker realizes he is dreaming, and recalls a specific dream where “great soaring gulls” coax him “to join them in the air beyond the land,” inviting him, that is, into a more personal transmutation of the Ovidian variety. This transformation, a flight into different form, inverts the descent-oriented transition from life to death represented by funeral and burial. It also looks ahead to the souls freed by Argyle’s sin-eating work soon “reincarnate as gulls or plovers” (The Sin-Eater 23). Lynch’s story “Hunter’s Moon” also features a protagonist, the grieving widower Harold Keehn, who imagines journeying toward destiny: “On the best days he could imagine himself walking all the way to Cheboygan, on out the Straits Highway at the north end of town, along the edge of the big water to Mackinaw City, over the bridge to the Upper Peninsula and into whatever oblivion God had in mind for him” (Apparition & Late Fiction 56–57). Of course all geographies are personal: James Atlas in an essay on aging quotes his California grandmother’s referring to death as “going to Chicago.” Lynch’s character’s itinerary assumes greater personal importance shortly afterward, when the character confesses that time is for him a kind of geography as well. He thinks of north as the future, his time remaining, and in his imagined journey, he marches northward, as if to consume what time remains to him. Metaphors of journey and pilgrimage are central to Lynch’s writing, then, and for the author the metaphor is meant as an inclusive, even universal one: even the priests involved in the Church’s abuse scandals Lynch calls “defective fellow travelers” (Wolfe 59). Arguably he envisions most extremely his own mortal journey, seeking to equip the living by speaking rhetorically from beyond that journey’s terminus. In “Tract,” one of his most powerful prose pieces, he counsels his surviving family on his funeral. “So do what suits you,” he says. “It is yours to do. You’re entitled to wholesale on most of it” (The Undertaking 196). Mainly though, he guides these mourners and survivors toward and beyond this particular difficult stop on their own journeys: “Go now, I think you are ready” (199).
With its memorable title character whose actions associate him with priest, undertaker, and poet, The Sin-Eater represents a thoughtful, dramatic meditation on Lynch’s careers, as a writer of several books and as one who has buried some six thousand of his townspeople. From the compiled nature of the project to the creative powers freshly brought to bear on familiar themes, it is a culminating book, and as such is a fitting volume, and a fitting moment, from which to consider Lynch’s writing up to this point. It is easy to imagine Lynch’s work enjoying ongoing interest among readers. I think of that scene in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, where the colonel and battery commander Vershínin asks what life will be like in three hundred years. Baron Túzenbach, a lieutenant, replies. He envisions flying machines and different-style jackets, but is convinced that life will not have really changed. “It will still be hard and happy and mysterious,” he says. People will still go around complaining that life is hard, “and they will still be afraid to die, the same as they are now.” This fear of dying, our own obsessions with sex and death, these primal outlooks will ensure that Lynch is an author of relevance for a great many years, and that many readers will continue to find his insights greatly rewarding. Wandering across western Ireland, Argyle in The Sin-Eater gives shape and voice to Lynch’s imaginings on vocation and salvation, whereby “everything is reconciled” (xxii). It is a poet’s vision, mixed with shabbiness, flatulence, kindness, and blessing. It is a vision that points ahead to his (Lynch’s), his (Argyle’s), and our hope.
Brett Foster is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College. He is author, most recently, of The Garbage Eater: Poems (Triquarterly 2011).
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Klein, Jeffrey. “Body Language: Desire and Polemic in the Corpus of Thomas Lynch.” Religion & Literature, Vol 38, No. 4 (2006): 87–110.
Lynch, Thomas. Apparition & Late Fictions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.
_____. Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
_____. “Channeling the Sin-Eater: An Undertaker’s Calling.” Commonweal (12 Aug. 2011): 14–18.
_____. “Dead and Gone.” The Christian Century (14 November 2001): 6.
_____. “Good Grief.” The Christian Century (26 July 2003): 20–23.
_____. “Grave Affairs.” The Christian Century (2 November 2004): 18–23.
_____. “His Ambulations.” Poetry (February 2011).
_____. “On the Brotherhood of Asses.” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 11.2 (2009): 1–16.
_____. Rev. of The Eternal Pity: Reflections on Dying, Richard John Neuhaus, ed. Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3 (2000): 130.
_____. “The Same but Different.” IMAGE 45 (2005). Web. 2 Aug. 2012.
_____. The Sin-Eater: A Breviary. Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2011.
_____. Skating with Heather Grace. New York: Knopf, 1987.
_____. Still Life in Milford. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
_____. The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.
_____. Walking Papers. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.
“Questions for: Thomas Lynch.” New York Times Magazine (29 June 1997): 13.
Smith, Dinitia. “Matters of Life and Death; A Prizewinning Writer Holds Onto His Day Job as a Funeral Director.” New York Times (8 June 2000).
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