Poets invite readers to share beauty of life and death

THE SIN-EATER, A BREVIARY

By Thomas Lynch, with photographs by Michael Lynch

Paraclete Press, $22.99

THE FOLIATE HEAD

By Marly Youmans

Stanza, $25

DESCENT, POEMS

By Kathryn Stipling Byer

LSU Press, $17.95 paperback

Thomas Lynch is a poet. He is also a funeral director in Michigan. He was featured in an episode of the PBS series Frontline called “The Undertaking,” a powerful examination of death customs in America. Part of the narrative of the program was provided by Lynch, who read from his own book, The Undertaking . It was a remarkable program.

Lynch is a Catholic, although not one without doubts and questions. He is the best sort of believer, the kind who knows that at least some of what he professes is just not plausible and other things that are part of the rote are things of man and not of God. But he is a believer, named for a grand-uncle who was a priest and who died young. Lynch talks about that in the “introit” to Sin-Eater.

His prose is as elegant and expressive as his poetry. As he explores his own family history (priests and funeral directors) he works his way to an image he saw in a movie, The Master of Ballantrae, the scene of a corpse laid out with food on the chest. A wild-looking man leaps up from the crowd and begins to eat the food.

“I knew him at once,” Lynch writes. This was the “sin-eater,” a person who in pagan societies was believed to take on the sins of a departed soul by eating a meal laid out on the corpse. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the eucharist, and Lynch acknowledges this as he sets out to give the sin-eater a voice. He begins by giving him a name — Argyle.

In “Argyle’s Vapors,” the sin-eater muses:

“The wind blew through him as if he wasn’t.

“As if he were, himself a door ajar

though which one had to get nowhere

and wanting to go nowhere, there he stood —

a spectacle of shortfall and desire.”

Argyle makes his way through the cold weather, “the dead will keep for days in such weather,” to make his feast upon “the sins of others,” as described in “His repasts:

“He ate the boiled breakfast and the fry —

“rashers and puddings, eggs and porridge oats,

“late tea with milk and sugar, every night

“he could get it, some nights a lump of goat’s

“cheese or sausage with it. Such were his habits.

“As for the dinner, long accreted sins

“served up with corpses and a gainful wage

“(in keeping with his station and remit)

“were all that ever really satisfied.

“Tough work, alas, still someone had to do it.”

Argyle might be made cynical by his profession, but he shows his true depth of understanding of both human, God and the church when he is called to attend the body of boy who has committed suicide in “He Posits Certain Mysteries”:

“No requiem or rosary” said the priest,

“Nor consecrated ground for burial,

“as if the boy had flown outside the pale

“of mercy or redemption or God’s love.

“Forgive them, for they know not what they do,

“quoth Argyle to the corpse’s people,

“who heard in what he said a sort of riddle,

“as if he meant their coreligionists

“and not their soddy, sadly broken boy.”

Then Argyle refuses their offered payment, helps them make a coffin and dig a grave.

Lynch’s voice is at once eloquent and sparse. His words are filled with the cold winds of Celtic winters and the despair of living in such a harsh environment. Yet he finds beauty there too and mercy in the gifts of God, the final one of which is death. Lynch has a powerful voice, and these two dozen, 24-line poems invite an examination of life and faith. Readers should not fear to join the sin-eater in his feast.

Pagan imagery is key to Youmans’ The Foliate Head as well. In ancient times a forest deity called the Green Man was among the pagan pantheon. When Christianity overwhelmed these beliefs, church elders incorporated some of the old beliefs into the new church.

The Green Man became a saint of sorts and his leafy image appears in art in churches in northern Europe. They are sometimes referred to as The Foliate Head.

A rarity among poets today, Yeomans writes in metered verse, sometimes rhymed. Her skill at mastering the forms is impressive. The Foliate Head is divided into three sections (the mystic number in Western lore), Powers, The Book of Ystwyth and The Green World, together comprising 35 poems.

In “To Make Much of Time,” the poet muses about fecklessness:

“Why must you fritter, twitter, play

“And want fresh hours to the day?”

Warns the muse:

“Yet soon enough the years fly on,

“Turn gold silver, dandelion

“Suns to gray-gilt clocks of hours …”

The Book of Ystwyth contains poems honoring the 60th birthday retrospective of British artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, whose images adorn the cover and some of the inside pages of this volume. Some of the imagery in the poems recall legends of more recent acquisition, such as “The Magnolia Girl,” whose tree visit is an Eden retelling.

“Could you resist his lightsome wiles,

“Or stop the arrows of his smiles?

“What was a tendency to hiss

“When set beside a glowing kiss?”

With a stint as North Carolina’s poet laureate under her belt and having previously published five poetry collections, Kathryn Stripling Byer brings to her writing the relaxed confidence that proceeds from experience. Byer looks, she sees and she writes it, be it past or present. Sometimes she is inspired by something as simple as a hat worn to her childhood church in South Georgia — “First Presbyterian”:

“Sitting in church every Sunday, I hated the hats

“I had to wear. They were small things with net

“attached. Or hard plastic fruit. They did not fit

“and sometimes they fell into the aisle or my lap

“if my mother had not pierced their velveteen

“skins with hat pins she wove through my stiff

“hair-sprayed hair …”

Or it can be a malicious rock that slithers underfoot and assaults the unwary walker’s ankle — “Some Rock Remembers”:

“First impression so sudden that I could do nothing

“but scream. The rock? She kept her cool.”

Like Lynch, Byer doesn’t shy away from meditations about death. In “Outside,” she describes the reaction to the death of “a girl with my name”:

“ … I cannot imagine the darkness

“her mother fell into. I’d rather imagine

“her father outside with his shotgun,

“aiming his grief at the night sky.

“Or a squirrel. A stray chicken.

“The mule he could not spare to grief. I imagine

“him pulling the trigger again and again

“to block sounds from the sickroom. Not hard to imagine

“he could not look into his daughter’s eyes,

“blank as the sky he could not blast with shot.”

He could not look. Byer could and does. If you peruse this book, you will look too and you will see the same beauty in life and death that so inspires Byer, one of the finest poets of our time.