- The Sin-Eater: A Breviary
Readers of Thomas Lynch's fifth book of poetry, The Sin-Eater, need not be undertakers, Catholics, or even descendants of Irish immigrants to America, as Lynch himself is, to appreciate this artful collection of twenty-four poems and twenty-six black-and-white photographs of western Ireland, incomparably prefaced by an essay the author calls "Introit." This beginning prose piece reveals how the poet-undertaker became who he is—and in the richness of telling almost makes the reader become him too.
Who is the sin-eater? Not the poet but his primitive creation, Argyle, who has appeared in Lynch's earlier collections from time to time, drawn from a haunting figure in Irish folkways. Lynch tells how he "met" this strange man once while his sons were watching an old swashbuckler on television. The boys' father, half dozing in his chair, woke to a startling scene in which an odd and tattered fellow, "part pirate, part panhandler," stood over a laid-out corpse, then "swilled beer from a wooden bowl and tore at a heel of bread with his teeth." For this act, which "ate" the heavy sins of the dead, the man was given a sixpence for saving the deceased from burdened wandering. Now Argyle is the one who wanders, walking from funeral to funeral, meal to meal. Lynch tells how he learned more about this figure in a classic history of funeral directing, and how as reader he developed a kind of haunted kinship and sympathy for the scruffy pilgrim "trying to find his way home."
The book's striking cover photograph of a dark tower-house perched above the sea seems to bid readers to come into the poems if they dare, to listen to the inner voice of Argyle as rendered by his re-creator. The first poem of the twenty-four, all of which speak with an easy iambic lilt and lovely plainness, introduces the sin-eater at work in his calling after a death in the town. He is "a narrow, hungry man whose laughter / and the wicked upturn of his one eyebrow / put the local folks in mind of trouble."
The poems that follow reveal Argyle variously "vaporous and sore at heart . . . a spectacle of shortfall and desire," balanced by dreams of both youthful lust and future death. He is a friendless wanderer in the poem "Argyle's Retreat," taking a much-needed rest by the sea where "Great hosts of basking sharks and shoals of mackerel" swim together like brethren, not like predator and prey. Argyle sees "signs and wonders everywhere," and in another poem beseeches the ancient Irish saint-in-exile Columba to "intercede with God to send a Sign that I might know my bilious ministry / serves both the sinner and The Sinned Against!"
Inevitably, Argyle represents superstition to jealous priests. He is even [End Page 169] "inquisitioned," according to Lynch's playful diction, until the sin-eater talks back, grinning, with a couplet: "You keep your pope and robes and host and chalice. / Leave me my loaf and bowl and taste for malice." But in truth, Argyle suffers from "God hunger," asking himself, "What makes this aching in the soul?" He gets no answer except an unexpected baptism by what he calls a "churchdove" flying out of fog. After a journey to the Holy Isle of Iona in Scotland, he wears one of its green stones around his neck as ballast, as anchor, to calm his inner storms as he roams the "outposts and edges, . . . much scorned by men, put upon by weather." The sin-eater plods on in "Argyle at Loop Head," mulling over his task:
The bodies of the dead he dined overnever troubled Argyle but stilltheir souls went with him into exileand, reincarnate as gulls and plovers,dove from high headlands over the oceanin fits of hopeful flight, much as heavenwas said to require a leap of faithinto the fathomless and unbeknownst.
Perhaps the central poem in this collection is...