Archive for the ‘Thomas Lynch’ Category

Here at the beginning of the 20thyear of the 21stcentury; in the spirit of “out with the old, in with the new”; bearing in mind the cartoon personification of the passing year as a weary white-haired fellow; in special consideration of those readers of age to shudder at Father Time; with a sympathetic nod to the male of the species who may in the present age feel unmoored and undervalued; in regards to certain 2019 Poem Elf pictures never posted; and finally, in celebration of using a year’s allotment of semi-colons in a single sentence—I offer you a few poems on men and aging.


(It’s true, I’m not the most desirable guest at a New Year’s Eve party.)


Anyway . . . as anyone who’s ever had to take keys away from an elderly male driver will tell you, this men and aging thing is fraught with loss. Loss of masculinity, status and potency. It ain’t pretty.


Full-steam ahead then.


I have six poems total and I’ll feature two paired poems per post. Today we have Thomas Lynch’s “How to Stay Alive” and Rick Cannon’s “Point of Arrival.”  Lynch is a mortician and writer here in southeast Michigan. The Undertaking, his 2009 collection of essays, is one of my favorites, and he has a new one out this year, The Depositions. Rick Cannon is a poet and teacher at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. (featured in an early Poem Elf post, link here) and not coincidentally my nephew’s favorite teacher.


I left Lynch’s poem on a bench in the New York City subway.


How to Stay Alive

by Thomas Lynch


He found he had nothing of consequence

to say about the weather so he went

noiselessly about his sorry business—

a version of himself in which he kept

pace with his neighbors but at arm’s length

because his arms were too short and he ached

in ways he thought they’d hardly understand.

So he kept his distance, and assumed the stance

of someone he’d seen one time in a movie.

The sad sack in the poem is familiar as Prufrock and Walter Mitty, those characters who ache for emotional richness and settle for nothing of value. Lynch’s version—keeping pace with his neighbors but at a distance— seems to be in a race that he doesn’t want to win. It’s enough to be in the pack, to exist, to survive. He mistakenly believes—how many of us do too?— that in order to stay alive his true self has to die.


Cannon’s “Point of Arrival” is marginally less bleak. I stuck it on a twig by a random mailbox. Apologies to the owner if he took it personally.



by Rick Cannon

He stands barefoot on the gray concrete,
the iron season cooling the blood
dull red through his flat slow soles.
He’s forgotten why he came to the garage
and stands in his shaggy robe before hammer,
awl and ratchet, dumb, blank,
as if stunned by a piece of news.

Out the window he sees the tight copse,
stripped spar and mast shrouded in pale
yards of light.

Still he stands, lost,
but beginning perhaps to sense, as dawn
will seep beneath a blind, that from far away
and through much trial he’s come
exactly here. And as he stands issuing

breath, that slow rhythm leaf by leaf,
he feels the earth shift slightly
under tonnage of wind
toward white winter.

For several minutes he stays his feet flat
on the stinging stone, a robed man
in a cold garage accepting his extremity,
seeing it had always been so:
even from the beginning he’d been,
by far, out too far to survive
more than just this little while.


A man in his bathrobe standing stock-still in his garage in the early morning is always going to worry me. Something is dying here, and it’s not just the late-autumn leaves. Will it end in suicide? Are we looking at the onset of dementia? The tools of the man’s former industriousness, the hammer, awl and ratchet, sit before him like a language he doesn’t understand anymore. He’s come smack up against his mortality. Perhaps his failures too.


I say Cannon’s poem is marginally less bleak than Lynch’s because at least this man feels connected to the beauty of nature. And he seems to be a work in progress. His acceptance of his loss, whatever it may be, happens as we watch, whereas Lynch’s man is stagnant from the moment we meet him.


Gee, welcome to Debbie Downer’s New Year’s celebration. More to come.

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poem is on the back of the menu

Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets




by Thomas Lynch




It came to him that he could nearly count


How many Octobers he had left to him


In increments of ten or, say, eleven


Thus: sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five.


He couldn’t see himself at ninety-six—


Humanity’s advances notwithstanding


In health-care, self-help, or new-age regimens—


What with his habits and family history,


The end he thought is nearer than you think.




The future, thus confined to its contingencies,


The present moment opens like a gift:


The balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,


The hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance—


All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this?


At the end the word that comes to him is Thanks.



0805 [Doris Day] DANCING_(c)_Leo_Fuchs_Photography_(www.leofuchs.com)(www.theheliosgallery.com) by The Helios Gallery


This poem has me thinking about Doris Day, and not just because I think poet Thomas Lynch is adorable.  (Imagine Jack Black balding, gray and bespectacled.)  In so many of her movies, Doris Day begins with a firm resolve–I will not fall for a womanizing phone-hog I despise, I will not fall for a newspaper editor who doesn’t respect education, I will not fall for the pajama factory foreman who won’t give the workers the raise they deserve—and then she’s duped into falling in love with the very men she and her perky principles had refused to consider.


And so with this poem.  The poet who refuses to write sonnets has written a sonnet.


Granted,  “Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets” is not technically a sonnet.  From what I gather, a sonnet has four defining characteristics:

  1. has 14 lines
  2. has a specific rhyming pattern, depending on whether it’s Petrarchan, Spenserian, or Shakespearian.
  3. usually written in iambic pentameter
  4. operates on what is called “the turn.”  The first part sets forth a question, emotion or issue, and the second half responds in some way, resolving or contradicting.


Lynch’s poem misses two of the four criteria.  “Refusing” has 15 lines and has no rhyme at all, beyond the clever consonant rhyme of “think” and “thanks,” the two words which end each section of the poem.


But Lynch has something up his sleeve here.  The poem is written mostly in iambic pentameter, and 15 lines is so close to 14 that methinks he doth protest too much.  If a poet were really intent on not writing a sonnet, he would likely come up with something more like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, pages and pages of long, loose lines.


Besides, it’s “the turn” that’s at the heart of a sonnet, and the turn here is so clear it could be marked with flashing lights and a “Street Closed” sign.  The poem physically separates at the tenth line; the verb tense changes from past to present; and most important, the mood changes from resignation and dread to gratitude.


In the first stanza, a man who seems to be a poet wonders how many years, at age 52, he has left to live. He tries to count them but numbers so overwhelm him that he loses count of his sonnet and writes nine lines instead of eight.  His overthinking about the future (remember that this stanza ends with “think”) keeps him in the grips of a morbid mood.


The turn in the second stanza moves into the present.  He gives a wonderful description of October:

the balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,

lines which describe himself and his mood as well.


From the month, he moves to the week, then the time of day, and finally to the very moment (the minute’s passing glance) within which he exists.  Only then is he able to move beyond his fear of death and feel gratitude for living.


If you’ve ever escaped from a health crisis or scare, a sudden brush with death, or as in the case of this poem a self-induced death watch, you understand the gratitude expressed at the end of this poem.  All the sudden you realize that right now at this moment you’re alive.  You get up from your knees, from your trembling and nauseau, and you can’t believe how wonderful the world is.  Life is so great!  Wake up, wake up!  you want to say to everyone who complains about  little things like dreary weather, inconveniences, annoying people.  Life’s a marvel, even the falling leaves, the rain clouds, the dark mornings. So great!

QUE BELLO ES VIVIR by mueredecine


But because the poet is not George Bailey pulled back from the bridge all wild-eyed with happiness, but Thomas Lynch, wry and bemused, the turn in this poem is quiet.  Thanks.  Emotion is contained.  The containment is partly because Lynch is Irish, and the Irish are champs at containing emotion, but also because sonnets are champs at containing emotions.  Writing a sonnet places limits on the writer—limits of line length, meter and structure—and those limits allow an expression of deep emotion that is very civilized.  Would that all problems could be so contained.


“Scorn not the sonnet,” Wordsworth wrote.  I’m sure Lynch would agree, so what to make of his refusal to write one?  For one, he seems impish and doesn’t like to do what’s expected.  He counts by elevens rather than the standard ten.  He writes 15 lines instead of 14, perhaps because he wants more.  The first stanza is about the limits of the years he has left on earth.  He wants to go over the limit.  Life is too big, even at 52, to follow prescriptions.


(Interesting that another meditation on the same themes of autumn and death, Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall to a Young Child,” is also, at 15 lines, an almost-sonnet.)


Anyone writing about Lynch has to figure out how to put a fresh spin on the fact that he’s an undertaker and a poet.  There, I said it.  Lynch himself draws the best parallels between his two professions.  In an interview he once said, “It is the same enterprise: to organize some response to what is unspeakable. We need a way to say unspeakable things, and funerals do. So do poems.”


I have a special feeling towards Thomas Lynch.  I’m inclined to like anyone who shares my background, that is, Irish and Catholic, but he’s also a funny and wise writer, and a native of Detroit.  He went to the same high school my son just graduated from, and his book of essays, The Undertaking, is a favorite of mine.


Born in 1948, Lynch splits his time between his hometown of Milford, where the funeral home Lynch and Sons still operates, and County Clare, Ireland.  He’s won a number of awards for his poetry and his essays.  If you ever get a chance to hear him read, go.  He’s entertaining as only the Irish can be.


Okay, enough with the Irish.


I left the poem in a local watering hole.  It was a dark place, with all the trappings of a man’s gathering space, big screen televisions, wood paneling and brass rails.  At the bar three or four men slumped in front of their beers.  It all felt sad to me, and I found only irony in the lines which appear under the poem in my photograph:  “Great places, good times.” But then again I’m Irish and inclined to darkness.

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