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 of communion, I suppose, or potluck."
Both images — the field test and 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 goes about its business with quite so much gusto, doggedness and utility. A good poem is like a firm-handled shovel. Or a pot roast.
Lynch's book is one of two excellent new collections, both of which have strong and important Midwestern connections. The other is "Kindertotenwald" (Knopf) by Franz Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose father James Wright (1927-1980) also was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who wrote evocatively about his youth in Martins Ferry, Ohio.
"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 effortlessly mingle 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 a valuable 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 the body 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 gold sunset."
The prose poems in Wright's "Kindertotenwald" are more about brutality than tenderness. The poet's work can easily put you into a kind of wounded stupor, stumbling around in a haze of temporary despair. In collections such as "God's Silence" (2006) and "The Beforelife" (2001), his poems are about life, death, substance abuse and the exploitation of children, and if you bolt them down on an empty stomach — or whatever the intellectual equivalent of that state might be — then you're in trouble. If, however, you take your time and read them a bit more carefully, you realize that they are ultimately about joy and grace and the possibility of redemption, about coming out whole on the other side of emotional catastrophe.
Wright has resided in many places and now lives in Waltham, Mass., but his father's Midwestern origins haunted his imagination in previous books and continue to do so in "Kindertotenwald." In the poem "Home for Christmas" he writes, "Before I can blink I am parked out front of the unbelievably small, unlighted house. I've got my finger on the buried bell, nothing. For hours I've been walking around, and I hate to be the one to tell you this, but no one is home in Zanesville, Ohio. … But one of these days I'll arrive; I'll go down to sit with the father."
This collection, like all of Wright's work, combines familiar, colloquial phrases — the daily lingo you hear everywhere — with the sudden sharpness of a phrase you've never heard anywhere, but that sounds just as familiar, just as inevitable. These pieces are written in closely packed prose, like miniature short stories, but they have a fierce lilting beauty that marks them as poetry.
Reading "Kindertotenwald" is like walking through a plate-glass window on purpose. There is — predictably — pain, but once you've made it a few steps past the threshold, you realize it wasn't glass after all, only air, and that the shattering sound you heard was your own heart breaking. Healing, though, is possible: "Soon, soon," the poet writes in "Nude with Handgun and Rosary," "between one instant and the next, you will be well."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun