From the Chicago Tribune review:
In the introduction to his impishly profound new collection of poems, Thomas Lynch recalls that when he finished writing the first handful, he “field-tested them at Joe’s Star Lounge on North Main Street in Ann Arbor.” The event is “a kind ofcommunion, I suppose, or potluck.”
Both images — the field testand the potluck — help rescue poetry from the notion that poems are abstract, pretentious things, little more than pretty sounds and gossamer wings and stardust. Actually, as Lynch proves in “The Sin-Eater: A Breviary” (Paraclete), there is nothing more solid or down-to-earth than a good poem, nothing that goesabout its business with quite so much gusto, doggedness and utility. A good poemis like a firm-handled shovel. Or a pot roast.
“The Sin-Eater” is a windswept assembly of 24 poems, each 24 lines long, about a mythical Irishman named Argyle, practitioner of the ancient art of sin-eating. In previous centuries, Lynch explains in his introduction, the family of a deceased person would set out bread and beer alongside the corpse, and then hire a stranger to eat the meal, thereby absorbing the dead man’s transgressions. (Fans of the TV series “Night Gallery” may recall a memorable 1972 episode in which Richard Thomas plays a sin-eater.)
The custom sounds bizarre, but then again, food has always played a big part in funeral-related gatherings. And Lynch’s verses effortlesslymingle mastication and worship: “Argyle eased the warm loaf right and left/and downed swift gulps of beer and venial sin/then lit into the bread now leavened with the the corpse’s cardinal mischiefs.”
Argyle knows he is performing avaluable service: “The weeping of keeners brought him hither/fresh grief, fresh graves, lights in dark localities —/such signs and wonders of mortality/drew him towards the living and the dead/to foment pardon in a bowl of beer.”
The Sin-Eater is accompanied by black-and-white photographs of western Ireland by Michael Lynch, the poet’s son. These images similarly mix the sacred and the secular: cathedrals and turf sheds; church cemeteries and cows grazing in flower-dotted fields.
Thomas Lynch has run a funeral home in Milford, Mich., since 1974. He has a knack for both jobs — writer and mortician — and chronicled this dual career in his magnificent and award-winning essay collection “The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade” (1997). In “The Sin-Eater,” Lynch once again brings together his intricate knowledge of thebody and the soul, and the result is a luminous, humane collection that sees religion as a question mark, not a period. “Hunger he understood, touch, desire,” the poet writes of the sin-eater. “He knew the tenderness humans could do, /no less brutalities. He knew the cold/morning, the broad meadow, the goldsunset.”