If you Google the name "Thomas Lynch," the first listing that comes up is the title and cover image of a book called The Undertaking. The second is Lynch's personal website, which lists his occupations like a business card: poet, writer, essayist, funeral director. In his native Milford, Michigan, Lynch runs the business started by his father, Lynch & Sons (motto: "A Family Tradition of Dignified Service"). He's quite possibly the only person to have ever been a featured speaker at both poetry conferences and undertakers' conventions. And he's a gorgeous stylist who brings a lilied scent of death and a generous sense of life to everything he writes.
Lynch has written three poetry collections full of ornate beauty. He writes the kind of poems that would be the perfect balm for the reader who fell off the poetry wagon back in 10th grade while feverishly trying to memorize "O Captain! My Captain!" for a graded test. From Lynch's "A Note on the Rapture to His True Love": "From a sunlit room/I watch my neighbor's sugar maple turn/to shades of gold. It's late September. Soon.../Soon as I'm able I intend to turn/To gold myself." It's just the kind of stately image that you'd expect from an undertaker.
But then, later in the same poem, after the death imagery, comes the lust: "Anyway, I'd like to get my hands on/you. I'd like to kiss your eyelids and make love/as if it were our last time, or the first,/or else the one and only form of love/divisible by which I yet remain myself."
The poems are revealing, but it's Lynch's three books of essays that illuminate why he's so devoted to two of the most thankless jobs in the world. The quiet revelations that blossom throughout his poems are in the essays, too—"The poor cousin of fear is anger"—but the essays are where he writes more candidly about his Irish roots, his job as a shepherd of grieving families, and his very Irish alcoholism.
It shouldn't be a surprise that a funeral director, someone whose entire livelihood revolves around carrying a mortal burden for people heavy with grief, would be a generous and abiding poet. The two occupations have their similarities, and funerals generally incorporate poetry, one way or another. But just as it's impossible to have a death without a birth, you can't have birth without a messy bit of ecstatic ridiculousness.
Lynch wanders far from the graveyard. He's a writer who's made as excitable by language as a man half his age: "Among the highest and best uses of poetry, third only perhaps to the poxing of our enemies and the commemoration of the dead, is the wooing, outright, of our darlings."
Thomas Lynch will receive the fifth annual Denise Levertov Award Tues April 22 at St. James Cathedral, 804 Ninth Ave, 622-3559, 8 pm, free.