The New York Times

Review of: Skating with Heather Grace

If anyone, including the Prime Minister of Japan, still thinks cultural homogeneity something to brag about, he would be wise to catch up on contemporary American poetry. One of the wonderful things about Thomas Lynch’s ”Skating With Heather Grace” is its mix of accents and settings. In his first book of poems, Mr. Lynch shows himself a master of Irish-influenced invective, an echo of brogue recalling the days when a poet’s curses meant something. ”Let me say outright that I bear you no / unusual malice anymore” he writes in ”For the Ex-Wife on the Occasion of Her Birthday”:

Nor do I wish for you tumors or loose stools, blood in your urine, oozings from any orifice. The list is endless of those ills I do not pray befall you: night sweats, occasional itching, PMS, fits, starts, ticks, boils, bad vibes, vaginal odors, emotional upheavals or hormonal disorders.

Mr. Lynch’s caustic humor is part inheritance, part the reaction to modern culture of a poet caught between two worlds. Settled comfortably into middle-class Michigan life, he visits Ireland to refresh his memory, as it were, of a time when people lived and died at one with their beliefs. What sends him back is less nostalgia than terror – the fear of death against which the present day’s lack of vision leaves him undefended. Mr. Lynch, by no means incidentally, earns his living as an undertaker; mortality is this book’s underlying theme. The dire struggle in these poems – and despite strong domestic leanings, Mr. Lynch appears driven to extremes – is balancing life’s opposing forces. It’s a dilemma he approaches with particular elegance in the title poem, in which he watches his young daughter ”widening her circles” in a skating rink. Poised and self-assured beyond all his expectations, she sets an example for dealing with uncertainty: She finds a shaky nine-year-old to skate around in counter-clockwise orbits, laughing. Is it more willingness than balance? Is letting go the thing that keeps her steady? I lean against the sideboards sipping coffee. I keep a smile ready.

A clever poet, Mr. Lynch never places too much emphasis on technique. His loose iambic lines give him just the support from tradition that he needs, while the irregular rhymes show both a love of the lyric and a crusty refusal to be tamed. Song is a recurring motif; it keeps the poet balanced, whether he is faced with the wildly exhilarating or the deadly ordinary.