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Poetic Genius

Rarely do you come across a book, or a book of poems that is shaped by a keen sensitivity to language and a profound story. The Sin-Eater by Thomas Lynch is 24 carefully crafted poems focusing on the life of Argyle, a sin-eater in Ireland. As other reviews have noted, a sin-eater is a man who comes to funerals for a six pence and stands over the deceased eating a loaf of bread and drinking a bowl of beer and thereby taking the sins of the dead upon himself. In doing this the sin-eater alleviates the dead from undue time in purgatory. Much like the scapegoat in the OT, the sin-eater was a wanderer after the act of sin-eating was done, roaming for the next place to act. Even though the subject matter can be at times grotesque and morbid, the poems were brilliant because they captured the culture and geography of Ireland, but more importantly they sought to bring together the internal struggle of a man caught between the church (its priest and rites) and the people he cares for. This kind of ongoing struggle with the stature of the Catholic church and Argyle is connected to the author's experience in very concrete ways. In the opening chapter, Lynch describes his spiritual angst by saying, "I'd come to love the sound of religion-its plain chants and Gregorians,...the magic of Latin spoken and sung...But I'd begun to question the sense of it all-the legalisms and accountancy by which glorious and sorrowful mysteries were rendered a sort of dogmatic and dispassionate math" (xvii). This is perhaps part of Argyle's irreverence, being seen by the clergy as 'a pretender to the throne of their authority (xvii). Yet, there is a large part of Argyle who is mystified by the cadences of religion, by the hope of a better place.

The twenty four poems are the story of Argyle, from his inner dreams about loving women to his struggles with the parish priests. In many ways, these poems reveal the soul of a wanderer who is never really welcome but who desires to sit back with his feet up at the table of others. At one point in the poem about a young boy who threw himself off a cliff, Argyle posits to that family, "Your boy's no profligate or prodigal," "only a wounded pilgrim like us all. What say his leaping was a leap of faith, into his father's beckoning embrace?" (43). Finding no comfort in the priest who for him had flown 'outside the pale of mercy or redemption' Argyle offers a bit of grace and tenderness to the family in great comfort. The beauty of this poem and many others in the book are Argyle's rough attempt by his sin-eating to actually bear up under the burdens both literally and physically of those whom he meets. In doing so, Argyle begins to become more human, more open to the possibility of life being a pendulum between loss and gain, freedom and restriction. Yet, as you work through the poems Argyle does not seem much different than the people we come into contact everyday. Argyle dreams the dream of close contact with 'female flesh' and yet wakes up alone, 'blaming the weather' (7). The delight of companionship Arygle could not know, but only the bitter taste of other's sins.

In some of the poems, within the heart of Argyle wells up a great hatred and anger toward sins too terrible to dwell on. At one point Argyle dreams, "But then he'd dream the girl-child again, defiled by some mannish violence who threw herself to death..And when the parish house refused her requiems, her people sent for Argyle to come....But Argyle knelt and prayed..."God spare my hunger till that churchman's dead" (11). Not only is the heinous nature of the sin pointed out, but also the failure of all involved (the church) to do their part in dealing justly with the situation. It is almost as if these grave sins mark Argyle and his very body physically to the point of utter exhaustion. Not too often do I find the very feelings of a character so aptly described as in this work. It almost as if when reading the author plucks the words right from my mouth.

I really thought this collection of poems was remarkable. The use of description to the internal struggle that Argyle has displays the careful work that Thomas Lynch has done for his readers. By taking a concept and a culture and bringing it to life through various conflicts and struggles, Lynch has opened up the life of Argyle for his readers. Even more, telling the story of Argyle through poetry gripped the nature of some very tough subjects in a new way. I hope these poems will be widely read and circulated. It was a delight to read these poems, and even more to learn about the sin-eater.

Much thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy of The Sin-Eater.


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