Friday, July 17, 2009

Skating with Heather Grace -- Poems by Thomas Lynch

Skating with Heather Grace
Poems by Thomas Lynch

This book has been on my shelf for a number of years. It was a collection I occasionally pulled down in passing, read a poem or two, and then returned to its ledge among the other titles in my library. Recently I took it down and carried it with me for several days, reading it from cover to cover a few times. It is something I should have done long ago.

Published in Knopf’s Poetry Series in 1986, this is Thomas Lynch’s first book. As such, the biographical information doesn’t say anything about his poetic career but highlights the fact that he makes his living as an undertaker. Although heavy-handed in pointing this out, it clearly informs every poem.

Robert Frost’s cool philosophical understanding of poetry as a momentary stay against confusion is here heightened to a pitch to hold off despair in the face of death and loss. Lynch has an almost desperate desire for cohesion.

sing the same song over and over
because the sound it makes keeps me intact.
(“Noon on Saturday”)

This is the ars poetica of these poems. But it’s not an existential cry, as Matthew Arnold saying, “I am fragments.” It is not his psyche he fears will disintegrate, but his actual body.

I’m frightened witless at the prospect of
some bomb or cancer out there with my name on it.

What underlies these poems is an acute feral vulnerability, a profound awareness of how tenuous our hold on life really is.

you and your song rise in the leafy air
chancy as bass spawn in a mallard’s underwings.
(“A Clearing in the Woods”)

All of this plays into his adroit manipulation of rhyme, assonance and repetition. There may be the occasional and slight drift away from thematic elements in favor of a phonetic choice, but never enough to spoil the tone and eventual progress into these meditations that are rooted in earth and blood. Considering the tack taken in his poem “A Note on the Rapture to His True Love,” the identities that comprise its rhyme scheme work in conjunction with the idea that the rapture will bring a second life to those taken, a kind of repetition that the poem subtly rebuffs with the final identity being broken where “leaves” is not repeated but transformed into “left,” the final word. It plays on the double-entendre of “left” allowing those who are not taken up in the rapture to find their own salvation in moments of transcendence, which, in the end, like everything else, are finite.

All of these poems are full of the longing for the ethereal, a life beyond the earthbound and what birds, and gulls in particular, in the collection come to symbolize:

out where the gulls glide on the edge of weather
songs in praise of rootlessness and wayfare
(“Learning Gravity”)

And in another poem there is the desire to

join them in the air beyond the land
and make my life with them diving between islands.
(“A Dream of Death in the First-Person”)

But this cannot be. We are all bound by

whereby things rise and fall, arrive and take
their leave according to their gravity.
(“Learning Gravity”)

Those birds and what they represent and everything beyond them are finally

a new life form light-years removed from me.
(“I Felt Myself Turning”)

Or as Lynch puts it in the penultimate poem of the collection

we, none of us survives
our awful will to live or will to die.

It’s said that every elegy is really written about the writer’s own fear of death. This may be the case, but for Lynch, an undertaker by trade, he sees death as random and omnipresent, an ever looming threat against everyone. When, in the poem “Damages,” he invokes the collective pronoun, it’s not to summon an authority he doesn’t have, the way a bad poet might. Instead, it’s to truly touch on something affecting us all. It’s why what is so attractive in these poems is their deep compassion. They are heartbreakingly compassionate. And in this context, other elements, the moments within life, those transcendent but doomed moments, are prized in their fragile brilliance, such as where he tries to remember the naked body of a friend he once slept with years ago, or he watches his young daughter skate and realizes he will gradually need to let her go as she gets older. These are the moments of meaning, of history, of personal significance that are given such deep poignancy against the relentless and inevitable triumph of the meaningless. It saddens them but increases the attention given to them.

Skating with Heather Grace is one of those collections where the poet faces our common abyss and it is a more honest collection than you will typically find because it is not angry but worried, concerned in the way one is when you know such terrible things happen daily, when you see that everyone around you is standing at the edge of the same inescapable end. Here, the resigned faith that “life goes on,” is a poetic principle, it is an amor fati that demands we sing and sing loudly. To paraphrase Roethke, who is invoked in the longest poem, it is the kind of shaking that keeps us steady. It is the precarious balance between two polarized dreams. It is where we live and where these poems take place. This is not only a collection worth reading, it a collection worth rereading.