Poems about death (and life)

Unless they add guitar, drums and a melody, or a catchy hip-hop beat, poets don't usually make a living writing poems. I'll accept some of the blame for that. For all my enthusiastic lip service to the work of poets, it's rare that I actually read what they write. Like a lot of you, I suppose, the only poems I read in school were in textbooks, and I only read them because I had to. What I learned in high school English class is that I don't get poetry.

But in grad school I met some real poets, friends who read and write poetry because they love it, and they introduced me to some poets I can actually understand, poets like Thomas Lynch. Lynch's day job is undertaker, but he's best known for his essays and fiction, both of which display his poetic sensibilities.

As with nearly everything else he writes, a lot of Lynch's poems are about death. The title poem, "Walking Papers," is quintessential Lynch: "Listen - / something's going to get you in the end. / The numbers are fairly convincing on this, / hovering, as they do, around a hundred / percent." He confesses his doubts, listening to sermons from "hooligans" who are, like him, "no more beatific than a heap of bones, / lost and grinning for no apparent reason."

But he admits, too, he's haunted by glimpses and inklings, even in the words of his own poetry: "My late father, for instance, my dear mother,...they often reappear in lines like these / as if they had a message meant for me...Life goes on. Forever."

For all his ruminations on mortality, it's not all death and dying here. In "The Names of Donkeys," he pokes fun at politicians, naming his asses Charles, Camilla, George W., and Sarah P., and "Dear Messrs. Attorneys General" uses farm-life metaphors to shed light on global politics.

"Alchemy" is a quick little poem about the tune of love we sing by heart, the tune we learned, "before the household and furniture ,/ before the children and the mortgage and the pets, / back when it was only the two of us."

And even though I'm not a poet, an undertaker, Irish or Catholic, Lynch's deeply personal poem "Calling" strikes a chord with me: "Belief is easy when God speaks to us. / The ordinary silence - there's the thing / The soul-consuming quiet, the heavens' hush/ That sets even the pious soul wondering."

Here's my suggestion for alternative summer reading: buy Walking Papers, and take it with you to the lake, in the car or outside on the deck. Find a comfortable seat, read it out loud - start to finish, one poem after another, the whole thing - to the person sitting next to you, or if they're not interested, read it out loud to yourself. You might be surprised to discover that, after all these years, you really do, in fact, enjoy poetry.

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