Sunday, September 30, 2012

Beckett / Someone To Walk With Him Before Dinner

Someone To Walk With Him Before Dinner
The following recollection of James Joyce is collected from James Knowlson's interviews with Samuel Beckett, which can be found in a volume you can purchase here.
I was introduced to Joyce by Tom MacGreevy. He was very friendly – immediately, to the best of my recollection. I remember coming back very exhausted to the École Normale and as usual, the door was closed and I climbed over the railings. I remember that: coming back from my first meeting with Joyce. I remember walking back. And from then on we saw each other quite often.
I can still remember his telephone number. He was living near the Ecole Militaire. I used to come down sometimes in the morning from the Ecole Normale to the concierge and he used to say Monsieur Joyce a telephone et il vous demande de vous mettre en rapport avec lui. And I remember the concierge, he was a southerner. he used to say Segur quatre-vingt-quinze vingt. And it was always to do with going for a walk or going for dinner. I remember a memorable walk on the Ile des Cygnes with Joyce. And then he'd start his 'tippling.' And we'd have an appointment with Nora at Fouquet's.

beckett at greystone's, 1960s
I was very flattered when Joyce dropped the 'Mister.' Everybody was 'Mister'. There were no Christian names, no first names. The nearest you would get to friendly name was to drop the 'Mister'. I was never 'Sam'. I was always Beckett at the best. We'd drink in any old pub or cafe. I dno't remember which.
He was very friendly. He dictated some pages of Finnegan's Wake to me at one stage. That was later on when he was living in that flat. And during the dictation, someone knocked at the door and I said something. I had to interrupt the dictation. But it had nothing to do with the text. And when I read it back with the phrase 'Come in' in it, he said, 'Let it stand.'

with thomas mcgreevey, 1934

He was at the National University, of course, and I was at Trinity – but we both took degrees in French and Italian. So that was common ground. It was at his suggestion that I wrote "Dante... Bruno . Vico . . Joyce" because of my Italian. And I spent a lot of time reading Bruno and Vico in the magnificent library, the Bibliotheque of the Ecole Normale. We must have had some talk about the 'Eternal Return', that sort of thing. He liked the essay. But his only comment was that there wasn't enough about Bruno; he found Bruno rather neglected. Bruno and Vico were new figures for me. I hadn't read them. I'd worked on Dante, of course. And we did talk about Dante. But I knew very little of them. I knew more or less what they were about. I remember I read a biography of one of them. I can't remember which.

beckett's letter to cape town

I remember going to see Joyce in the hospital. He was lying on the bed, putting drops in his operated eye. I don't remember having read to him though. I used to go there in the evening sometimes, when he had dinner at home. It was at the later stage when he was living in the little impasse off the long street. There wasn't a lot of conversation between us. I was a young man, very devoted to him, and he liked me. And he used to call on me if he needed something. For instance, someone to walk with him before dinner.

on the set of 'Film' in New York, 1964

He was a great exploiter. Not perhaps an exploiter of his friends. In the Adrienne Monnier book, it's told how he did the translation of 'Anna Livia Plurabelle', Peron and I. And Joyce liked it. But he organised a committe of five, which used to meet in Paul Leon's house to revise it, including Adrienne Monnier (who was quite unqualified) so that he could talk about his septante, those five and Peron and myself. Why he wanted to talk about his septante devoted to him I don't know. I remember at Adrienne Monnier's a reading of our fragment of 'Anna Livia Plurabelle', Peron's and mine, as corrected, so-called, by the Joyce clan. But there was a reading of this with Joyce in Adrienne's bookshop, a public reading. I remember being there and Joyce was there, Soupault read it, I think.

in ireland after the war
And I brought him home drunk one night, but I won't go into that. He drank a lot but in the evenings only. I remember a party. He was a great man for anniversaries. Every year he would celebrate his father's anniversary, "Father forsaken, forgive thy son." On that occasion, he would give me a note, in francs. I don't know how many francs it would be. A note. To give to some poor down-and-out in memory of his father. Towards the end of the year, in December, the date of his father's birth was celebrated and commemorated every year and I was given on several occasions, when I was available, this note to give to some down-and-out in memory of his father. "New life is breathed upon the glass," etc.

directing longtime collaborator Billie Whitelaw

It's a poem of Joyce's. It's part of a longer poem but I remember the verse, "A child is born. An old man gone." When his father died, he was very upset.

I played the piano once at the Joyces'. I forget what I played. But he, when he had enough taken, at these 'at home' parties, receptions at home, with various friends, he would sit down at the piano and, accompanying himself, sing, with his marvellous remains of a tenor voice:

Bid adieu, adieu, adieu
Bid adieu to girlish days.

I remember myself accompanying Giorgio. When he was living with Helen. I remember accompanying him – in what? Ah yes. [He sings part of Schubert's Lieder, An die Musik]. Oh, by the way, I found the name of the street where Joyce lived when I first met him in Paris. Yes, it's a little street off the rue de Grenelle; this goes from the Latin Quarter to the Avenue Bosquet near the Ecole Militaire. It goes through the.... And just before it comes to the end of the Rue de Grenelle near the Avenue Bosquet, before it 'debouches' on the Avenue Bosquet, there' a little street on the right hand side. It was an impasse in those days. It still exists but it's a square. The Square Robiac. I remember it as an impasse. You go in to the right off the Rue de Grenelle. It was very short. And the right-hand side was the house where Joyce had his flat.

beckett with eva-katharina schultz

I admired Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. There was something about it. The end – when he is so self-sufficient in the end. He got pompous about his vocation and his function in life. That was the improved version; he reworked it.

with henri hayden in the early 60s
It was Maurice Nadeau who said it was an influence ab contrario. I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, in control of one's material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, subtracting rather than adding. When I first met Joyce, I didn't intend to be a writer. That only came later when I found out that I was no good at all at teaching. When I found I simply couldn't teach. But I do remember speaking about Joyce's heroic achievement. I had a great admiration for him. That's what it was: epic, heroic, what he achieved. I realized that I couldn't go down that same road.
Samuel Beckett died in December of 1989. You can find Whittaker Chambers' obituary for James Joyce here.

with martin held, 1969
with his cousins in 1959Why can't you write the way people want?
- Frank Beckett, in a letter to his brother

on the set of 'Godot' in Berlin, 1975

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Coetzee / Beckett

Although Watt, written in English during the war years but published only in 1953, is a substantial presence in the Beckett canon, it can fairly be said that Beckett did not find himself as a writer until he switched to French and, in particular, until the years 1947-51, when in one of the great creative outpourings of modern times he wrote the prose fictionsMolloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable ("the trilogy"), the play Waiting for Godot, and the thirteen Texts for Nothing.
These major works were preceded by four stories, also written in French, about one of which, "First Love," Beckett had his doubt. (He might also have queried the ending of "The End": usually a master of restraint, Beckett indulges here in an uncharacteristic dip into plangency.)
beckett and buster keaton
In these stories, in the novel Mercier and Camier (written in French in 1946) and in Watt,the outlines of the late-Beckettian world, and the procedures of Beckettian fiction generation, begin to become visible. It is a world of confined spaces or else bleak wastes, inhabited by asocial and indeed misanthropic monologuers helpless to terminate their monologue, tramps with failing bodies and never-sleeping minds condemned to a purgatorial treadmill on which they rehearse again and again the great themes of Western philosophy; and all of it will be presented in the distinctive prose that Beckett, using French models in the main, although with Jonathan Swift whispering ghostly in his ear,  was in the process of perfecting for himself, lyrical and mordant in equal measures.
In Texts for Nothing (the French title Textes pour rien alludes to the orchestral conductor's initial beat over silence) we see Beckett trying to work himself out of the corner in which he had painted himself in The Unnamable: if "The Unnamable" is the verbal sign for whatever is left once every mark of identity has been stripped from a series of antecedent monologuers.                                   

The narrative premise of The Unnamable, and of How It Is(1961), is held on to in these short fictions: a creature constituted of a voice attached, for reasons unknown, to some kind of body enclosed in a sapce more or less reminiscent of Dante's Hell, is condemned for a certain length of time to speak, to try to make sense of things. It is a situation well described by Heidegger's term Geworfenheit: being thrown without explanation into an existence governed by obscure rules. The Unnamable was sustained by its dark comic energy. But by the late 1960s that comic energy, with its power to surprise, had reduced itself to a relentless, arid self-laceration. The Last Ones (1970) is hell to read was perhaps hell to write, too.
Then, with Company (1980) Ill Seen Ill Said (1981), andWorstward Ho (1983), we emerge miraculously into clearer water. The prose is suddenly more expansive, even, by Beckettian standards, genial. Whereas in the preceding fictions the interrogation of the trapped, geworfen self has had a mechanical quality, as though it were accepted from the beginning that the questioning was futile, there is in these late pieces as sense that individual existence is a genuine mystery worth exploring.
The quality of thought and of language remains as philosophically scrupulous as ever, but there is a new element of the personal, even the autobiographical: the memoirs that float into the mind of the speaker clearly come from the early childhood of Beckett himself, and these are treated with a certain wonder and tenderness even though - like images from early silent film - they flicker and vanish on the screen of the inner eye. The key Beckettian word on, which had earlier had a quality of grinding hopelessness to it ("I can't go on, I'll go on") begins to take o0n a new meaning: the meaning, if not of hope, then at least of courage.
The spirit of these last writings, optimistic yet humorously skeptical about what can be achieved, is well captured in a 1983 letter of Beckett's: "The long crooked straight is laborious but not without excitement. While still 'young' I began to seek consolation in the thought that then if ever, i.e. now, the true words at last, from the minds in ruins. To this illusion I continue to cling."

Friday, September 28, 2012

Beckett / Quotes

by Samuel Beckett

To think, when one is no longer young, when one is not yet old, that one is no longer young, that one is not yet old, that is perhaps something.


What do I know of man's destiny? I could tell you more about radishes.


How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones.

Parents and Parenting

Let me go to hell, that's all I ask, and go on cursing them there, and them look down and hear me, that might take some of the shine off their bliss.


Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Samuel Beckett / A Terrible State

A Terrible State
For a number of reasons, reading the letters of Samuel Beckett is an exercise in frustration. In her review of the two volumes of these epistles so far released, Marjorie Perloff called Beckett "irreverent but never cynical, and, above all, a brilliant stylist whose learning is without the slightest pretension or preciousity." This sounds good, but is wholly inaccurate. The aspidistra keeps flying; when it comes to Beckett even his bowel movements contain "astonishing wordplay." Dwight Garner even called Beckett "in fact one of the century’s great correspondents." This is a fucking lie.
We have almost none of Beckett's personal correspondence because of his explicit wishes. There is nothing than can be done about the absurd restrictions of dead men, but what is left over is both extremely precious and amazingly self-pitying. Sure, the collection does have the occasional high point, but most of what remains are simple exchanges about translations, and the Beckett that emerges is pedantic, maybe justly so, and whiny. (His favorite things to complain about were his translators and his anus.) It is a reminder that the only possible consequence of a lack of self-confidence is considerable annoyance on the part of those who must deal with you.
Instead of putting you through the trouble of bearing extended witness to his constant self-immolation, we have selected all the finer moments and arranged them in a condensed form. Enjoy. - A.C.
I know the smell you describe. The decay ingredient you omit, what you get in a cemetery. You like it because it is associated with your years of innocence. I dislike it for the same reason.
Can you recommend me an informative book on Dutch painting?
For me the position is really a simple and straightforward one, or was until complicated by the analysis, obviously necessarily. For years I was unhappy, consciously & deliberately ever since I left school, so that I isolated myself more & more, undertook less & less & lent myself to a crescendo of disparagement of others & myself. But in all that there was nothing that struck me as morbid.
You know all I wish for you.
I have had the old internal combustion heart & head a couple of nights, in the bed where I had it the first time almost exactly 11 years ago, but as little anxiety as then. Perhaps it is that the phase of impatience with one's own limitations has nearly exhausted itself. I feel now that I shall meet most of my days from now on here and in tolerable content, not feeling much at making the most of what ease there is to be had and not bothering very much about effort. After all there has been an effort. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it is Dr. Johnson's dream of happiness, driving rapidly to & from nowhere in a postchaise with a pretty woman.
American girls are irresistible, the charm of the inorganic.
I am really indifferent about where I go or what I do, since I don't seem able or want to write any more, or let us be modest and say for the moment. I suppose the prospect of Mother being left alone should have restrained me, but it hasn't.
I wanted you to think of me sometimes when you had a drink. How else would I render it likely? Have many.
Impossible to do anything with the earth, half frozen, half muddy. I long to be digging, digging over as they say here. Went for a long walk yesterday, met no one, - yes, I did, a gravedigger coming out of a cemetery pushing a wheelbarrow. Halfway along, large dump, Brower-style inn, peasants talking their heads off, drinking wine till it was time for an aperitif. An old man comes in a terrible state, his wife has just had a fall, broken her hip. "She could hardly stand before," he said, "and now..." He was trying to get a car to transport her, so as not to have to pay for an ambulance. You had the feeling that he would have liked to finish her off with a shotgun. The innkeeper, not keen to take his car out, was all for the ambulance. The peasants were vying with each other to tell about times when some similar accident had almost happened to them. I could hear them from a long way off.
I suppose it is always gratifying to know that one is missed.
There is not much to be said for me as a friend and as a correspondent even less. I read your notes with great interest and am very touched by the strange effect my work has upon you. I feel more and more something that is almost if not quite loathing for everything I have written and simply cannot bear to go back over it and into it.
Do not envy me, do not pity me.
When I was ill I found the only thing I could read was Schopenhauer. Everything else I tried only confirmed the feeling of sickness. It was very curious. Like suddently a window opened on a fug. I always knew he was one of the ones that mattered most to me, and it is a pleasure more real than any pleasure for a long time to begin to understand now why it is so. And it is a pleasure also to find a philosopher that can be read like a poet, with an entire indifference to the apriori forms of verification. Although it is a fact that judged by them his generalisation shows fewer cracks than most.
I find it increasingly difficult to write - even letters.
Very grieved that you are so unhappy, though God knows it is hard to be anything else for more than a few minutes at a time, with the help of dope, or work, or music, or the other. Stick it out for the sake of these. And if you have found someone you'll be all right. These are silly words, but not so silly as the ones they ousted.
As night fell, my father, to amuse me, set fire to the broom.
Gertrude Stein's Logographs come closer to what I mean. The fabric of the language has at least become porous, if regrettably only quite by accident and, as it were a consequence of a procedure somewhat akin to the technique of Feininger. The unhappy lady (is she still alive?) is undoubtedly still in love with her vehicle, if only, however, as a mathematician is with his numbers; for him the solution of the problem is of very secondary interest, yes, as the death of numbers, it must seem to him indeed dreadful. on the road toward this, for me, very desirable literature of the non-word, some form of nominalistic irony can of course be a necessary phase. However, it does not suffice if the game loses some of it sacred solemnity. Let it cease altogether! Let's do as that crazy mathematician who used to apply a new principle of measurement at each individual step of the calculation. Word-storming in the name of beauty.
I feel like burying myself, burying ourselves, in this beetroot-growing hole. Let some hovel turn up that I can afford and I'll disappear into it. Too feeble to go looking anywhere else. And now I know the faces round here, and the dangers - what a spineless creature. With a tenth of your vitality and courage - no, useless, I would have locked them away. Having a bad day, of course. But that's the only kind I know now.
Can't get a verse of Milton out of my mind: "Unsuperable height of loftiest shade."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Aesop / The sick lion



A Lion had come to the end of his days and lay sick unto death at the mouth of his cave, gasping for breath. The animals, his subjects, came round him and drew nearer as he grew more and more helpless. When they saw him on the point of death they thought to themselves: "Now is the time to pay off old grudges." So the Boar came up and drove at him with his tusks; then a Bull gored him with his horns; still the Lion lay helpless before them: so the Ass, feeling quite safe from danger, came up, and turning his tail to the Lion kicked up his heels into his face. "This is a double death," growled the Lion.
     Only cowards insult dying majesty.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Aesop / The wolf and the lamb


Once upon a time a Wolf was lapping at a spring on a hillside, when, looking up, what should he see but a Lamb just beginning to drink a little lower down. "There's my supper," thought he, "if only I can find some excuse to seize it." Then he called out to the Lamb, "How dare you muddle the water from which I am drinking?"
"Nay, master, nay," said Lambikin; "if the water be muddy up there, I cannot be the cause of it, for it runs down from you to me."
"Well, then," said the Wolf, "why did you call me bad names this time last year?"
"That cannot be," said the Lamb; "I am only six months old."
"I don't care," snarled the Wolf; "if it was not you it was your father;" and with that he rushed upon the poor little Lamb and ate her all up. But before she died she gasped out:
"Any excuse will serve a tyrant."

Monday, September 24, 2012

Aesop / The dog and the shadow


It happened that a Dog had got a piece of meat and was carrying it home in his mouth to eat it in peace. Now on his way home he had to cross a plank lying across a running brook. As he crossed, he looked down and saw his own shadow reflected in the water beneath. Thinking it was another dog with another piece of meat, he made up his mind to have that also. So he made a snap at the shadow in the water, but as he opened his mouth the piece of meat fell out, dropped into the water and was never seen more.
    Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Thomas Lynch / The Poetry Kit

The Poetry Kit Interviews Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch was born in Detroit in 1948 so he's going fifty in October. He was educated by nuns and Christian Brothers and then went to university and mortuary school from which he graduated in 1973 and took over the funeral home in Milford, Michigan in 1974 where he's been ever since. In 1970 he went to Ireland for the first time, to find his family and read Yeats and Joyce. It changed his life. He has returned many times since then, and now owns the small cottage in West Clare that was the home of his great great grandfather, and which was given as a wedding gift in the 19th century. He spends a portion of each year there. He married in 1972 and divorced in 84. He has a daughter and 3 sons. He married Mary Tata in 1991.

His first book published by Knopf in 1987 was Skating with Heather Grace. In 1994 he published Grimalkin and Other Poems with Jonathan Cape. In 1997 he published a collection of essays, The Undertaking -- Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, with Cape and W. W. Norton in the States. That collection has been translated into several other languages. In 1998 he published Still Life in Milford, with Cape and W. W. Norton. A new collection of essays, Bodies in Motion and at Rest, will be out in 2000.

When did you start writing poetry?

I started writing poetry to publish in 1980. In university during the late 60's, I wrote two poems published in a university magazine. The next poem I wrote was in the first months of 1980.

Was it your visit to Ireland that provided the first spark?

Well, I first visited Ireland in 1970. And began writing poems a decade later. I think that being a father ( My children were born in 1974,75,78 and 80) and being a funeral director gave me a sense of wanting to put something on the record. 

Do you come from a literary family?

No, I do not come from a literary family. I'm the only writer in the crowd.

What were the books\events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?

I always read poetry. The poetry of Yeats and Berryman and Roethke and Edna St Vincent Millay and Edwin Arlington Robinson and Emily Dickinson and many many others. As for events, the first poem I wrote and published was called A Death and it was an effort to say something about the death of a young woman I'd known since childhood who died of a brain tumor. I knew her family. I was the funeral director involved with her burial -- had been for some years by then. So I suppose poetry, language, the shaping of it, was and remains for me an effort to make sense out of essentially senseless situations. I sent the poem to Poetry Magazine in Chicago. John Nims was the editor then. He took it. 

What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes and techniques?

Well the themes for me were and remain sex and love and grief and death -- the things that make us and undo us, create and destroy, how we breed and disappear and the emotional context that surrounds these events. The rest, in some way, is all attached to these. As for technique, I'd say that form or atleast a formal constraint or challenge has always been good for me. I'm lazy but generally task oriented so having a hoop to jump through means eventually I'll make the effort. 

Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?

I write every day but most often not poems. I keep a journal, have for many years. I write essays and reviews and tiny bits of fiction. Usually a poem takes shape accoustically -- a line or a pair of lines will repeat itself in my ear. I go wherever the voice takes me. And sometimes its years from the first line to the next. Sometimes only minutes, but I hear it before I begin to think it. I say it before I begin to write it down. And most days I walk, an hour or two, and most times these walks deliver something that sounds like me to myself. Of course walking has its own meter, loosely iambic, a kind of metabolic code by which your breathing and your heartbeat and your pace begins to sound like the sound of the line in your ears so a close look at my poems will turn up this line of ten or twelve syllables that sounds like footfall. If I were assigned poems I suppose I'd write more of them but it is entirely voluntary and for the most part ignored in the market sense of the word so the language to me is most intimate, most important, most sublime and most satisfying when it gets done.

Is this always the case? "One of Jack's", for instance, which appears in "Still Life in Milford" seems to be an entirely 'found' poem. And there are others that seem as if they've come from prose sources - things you've read maybe, particularly about your Irish ancestors.

"One of Jack's" is entirely found -- in the transcription of postmortem notes of one of Jack Kevorkian's1 victims/patients. I was doing some other research in these files (I come from the same county as Kevorkian and am often at the Medical Examiners office there) when I came across this stark and flawless language. It strikes me that after all the archbishops and politicos and true believers have their say on the ethics of the matter of euthanasia, bare fact sounds very compelling and very challenging. As for the Irish Ancestors, most of what I've written in The Moveen Notebook is personal history or family history as told to me by Nora Lynch. Others, like "Bishop's Island" are my own imaginations. It is true, however, that reading anything often incites images or notions for poems.

How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?

Partly because of my work and my geography -- I'm in a small town in Michigan -- I've only ever been part of a workshop once, very briefly, a few months, with some poets at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That was useful and fun and they remain great friends of mine. But for the most part I've worked alone and relied on editors and rejection slips to shape my work. So I'm probably not the fellow to put this question to because I haven't much experience with workshops. I've taught a few workshops and always caution the participants to be aware of the duty of all workshops to "work" on a poem when very often the best thing to do is nothing at all.

How do you decide that a poem is finished - that the best thing to do now is nothing at all?

Well, the acoustics are very telling. If it's made well, it will sound it. Poems seem to have a life of their own. They tell you when enough is enough.

Who do you write for? - Do you have a particular audience or person in mind? After all, it seems to be true these days that less people read poetry than write it.

I have in mind a perfect listener -- someone whose ear is tuned as near to mine as I can imagine. Sometimes I think I know who this is. Sometimes I think she hasn't been born yet and I keep hoping that poems, or a poem or a line from a poem that is recognizably my voice will survive long enough for this person to give it a listen, well after I've gone quiet.

Which of contemporary poets do you most admire?

Michael Heffernan, Seamus Heaney, Matthew Sweeney, Jo Shapcott, Alice Fulton, Robin Robertson, Carol Anne Duffy, Richard Tillinghast, Dennis O'Driscoll, Christopher Reid, Paula Meehan, Keith Taylor, Don Paterson, Norman MacCaig, this list is going to get very long -- Macdara Woods, Eilean NiChuilleanain, Mary O'Malley, Ruth Padel, Lavinia Greenlaw, Philip Casey, Robert Hass, Billy Collins, Paul Muldoon, Richard Howard, Kathleen Jamie, I'll stop there for the moment, but there are more.

Your work as a funeral director obviously comes through in your poetry, as does your Irish ancestry. Does that make you a two-track poet - or are we liable to see other facets of your life in future writings?

Well, I never thought of it that way -- I think I'm really a one track poet, and the track is language, the possible applications of the language. In terms of subject matter, I think of my themes as sex and death, but then what poet doesn't. Everything happens between those two: life, memory, love, fear, history, longing, loathing, desire, everything. But poetry is a way of language, it is not its subject or its maker's background or interests or hobbies or fixations. It is nearer to utterance than history.

1. Jack Kevorkian: Controversial Michigan pathologist who has, since 1990, been involved with the death of over 100 people in what he calls "assisted suicide", by use of a device designed to deliver a lethal dose of potassium chloride.

© Thomas Lynch, Ted Slade 1998

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Thomas Lynch / Liberty from Porcelain

Thomas Lynch

Sorting through the piles, stacks and heaps of books waiting for shelf space at Raymond’s house in Baton Rouge is a search guaranteed to uncover yet another outstanding read. I’ve done a lot of that in the past week or so, but until Monday morning missed the third pile to the left of the window, next to a shelf of biographies in front of an easy chair and under an end table in front of a box of grandbaby toys. Thanks to the gift from Raymond of a book of essays a while back, I have become a great fan of Thomas Lynch’s writing.


Lynch is an undertaker in a small Michigan town, but also a writer of international renown and author of poetry, essays, a memoir and a collection of fiction. His work has appeared inThe New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and the The London Review of Books. The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (2009) was a finalist for the National Book Award. His other work includes Still Life in Milford: Poems, Booking Passage, Bodies in Motion and at Rest, Grimalkin & Other Poems and most recently, Apparition & Late Fictions. Lynch lives in Milford, Michigan, and West Clare, Ireland.

His poem “Liberty” is included in the 1998 collection, Still Life in Milford. Lynch’s unusual mix of occupations—running a family mortuary and writing—has enabled him to observe the human condition without the distraction of sentimentality, a style reflected in his 1987 debut book of poems, Skating with Heather Grace, and in the essays from The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. The poems in Still Life in Milford speak of Lynch’s family history, the death of his father, and the recently departed residents of Milford.


Some nights I go out and piss on the front lawn
as a form of freedom—liberty from
porcelain and plumbing and the Great Beyond
beyond the toilet and the sewage works.
Here is the statement I am trying to make:
to say I am from a fierce bloodline of men
who made their water in the old way, under stars
that overarched the North Atlantic where
the River Shannon empties into sea.
The ex-wife used to say, “Why can’t you pee
in concert with the most of humankind
who do their business tidily indoors?”
It was gentility or envy, I suppose,
because I could do it anywhere, and do
whenever I begin to feel encumbered.
Still, there is nothing, here in the suburbs,
as dense as the darkness in West Clare
nor any equivalent to the nightlong wind
that rattles in the hedgerow of whitethorn there
on the east side of the cottage yard in Moveen.
It was market day in Kilrush, years ago:
my great-great-grandfather bargained with tinkers
who claimed it was whitethorn that Christ’s crown was made from.
So he gave them two and six and brought them home—
mere saplings then—as a gift for the missus,
who planted them between the house and garden.
For years now, men have slipped out the back door
during wakes or wedding feasts or nights of song
to pay their homage to the holy trees
and, looking up into that vast firmament,
consider liberty in that last townland where
they have no crowns, no crappers and no ex-wives.

The line near the middle, ‘on the east side of the cottage yard in Moveen’ refers to the poet’s home in Ireland. Moveen is a townland on the westernmost peninsula of County Clare, where Lynch keeps a cottage that once belonged to his great-great-grandparents. It was there his great-great-grandmother planted the whitethorn between house and garden.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Thomas Lynch / An Interview

photo of thomas lynch

Thomas Lynch
Thomas Lynch is a writer and a poet. For more than 30 years he also has been the director of the Lynch & Sons funeral home in the small town of Milford, Mich. It has always been a family-owned and -operated firm, founded by Thomas Lynch's father, Edward Joseph Lynch. The Milford location is one of six Lynch funeral homes in the state. This is the edited transcript of interviews conducted with hin during the winter and spring of 2006-2007.

What does your funeral home represent for this town?

In many ways we represent the place where whatever conversation people want to have about death and dying and grief and bereavement. Whether in the most abstract sense or in the most particular, this is a safe harbor, a place they can have that conversation. And oftentimes I'm impressed by how people will wrap their existential concerns about a dying parent in the prearrangement conference. They need to talk to someone. And for those who are unchurched or unfamiliar in any tradition that gives them sort of the framework for this, a funeral home is still a safe place to talk about matters mortuary and matters of mortality.
So people come in to talk about arranging their parents' funerals or their own. They come in to talk about what to do with a child who's grieving because a schoolmate died, to talk about what will happen in the event of their own death, how to handle a dying parent, nursing home arrangements, elder care. All these things are part of the ongoing conversation that we here have.
What age were you when you really seriously thought you might become a funeral director, and how much of your dad's influence was a part of that decision?

When you grow up in funeral service, you always have a job. But at some point it becomes more than a job, and I can see this happening to the young people who have come here to work as high school students on work-study programs. I've seen it happen to Sean [his son], where you're swinging the door at night, helping people with their coats, directing them one place or another, carrying flowers, doing all the innocuous little things that add up to taking care of a family during visitation. But when some widowed person comes out and takes you by the shoulders and said, "Thank you, I couldn't have done this without you," and all you did was be there, or answer the call, or show up, there's this deep sense of having been of use to people at a time of need. And that's very seductive, because, I mean, it's human-to-human contact.
So what I find is that before people bring their expertise as an embalmer or as a manager or as an executive or as a director, before any expertise, you ante up your humanity, you know? If you're playing human to human, you'll do fine. But you have to do that first, because people will sense if you're not willing to do that, if you're just sort of going through the motions. People will know that.
So for me, I can remember swinging the door all through my teen years, and I think it was 1973 -- I was probably 24 or 25 years old [when I decided].
In terms of the practical details, what are some of the things you learned from your dad?
Well, we wear black for funerals -- people have to know who the directors are, who to ask -- and white shirts and gray ties. And my father did have a sense of formality and tradition when it came to funerals. He liked the idea that the culture had sort of organized these wheels, in some way liturgically, in some ways socially. But he said, "When a death occurs, people feel so helpless, it's good to have some of these things already invented." He would have probably had a difficult way of managing some of the changes that we see nowadays. He would have thought much of it ridiculous and much of it sublime. He would have figured that out, but I think for him the funeral, the procession, was part of the process.
I think he was keenly aware of the fact that a good funeral is not about what we buy or what we spend; ... that a good funeral is very much about what we do when someone dies. He always knew that the real traffic was between the living and the dead, and it is in managing that and emboldening the living to deal with their dead that you do them the most service. So it's not like you do things for them as much as you do it with them and embolden them to do for themselves. He had a very good sense of that.
Give me a sense of the changes in attitudes toward death in America.
I think we're among the first couple generations for whom the presence of the dead at their funerals has become optional, and I see that as probably not good news for the culture at large.
Up until a couple generations ago, humans were the species that dealt with death, the idea of the thing, by dealing with their dead, the thing itself, so that the way we processed mortality was by processing mortals from one place to the other, one station to the next in this little pilgrimage between as they were to how they are to what we hope they'll be. And this movement, emotionally, is mirrored by a physical movement. The bearing of it is so very, very important.
Sometime in the mid-60s, probably having a lot to do with Jessica Mitford's book [The American Way of Death] and a lot to do with other social factors, there was sort of the triumphalist American sense that we didn't have to deal with any discomforts. We saw people start organizing these commemorative events to which everyone was invited but the dead guy. The finger food was good, the talk was uplifting, the music was life-affirming; someone, usually the reverend clergy, could be counted on to declare closure, usually just before the Merlot ran out, and everyone was there but the one who had died.
And we come away from these memorial events, these celebrations of life, with the increasing sense that something is missing. And something is. What is missing is the corpse: the thing itself, not the idea of the thing.
Are social changes the reasons that we are more fearful and reluctant to deal with death in our everyday lives?
I think we're all complicit in the banishment of the dead to the peripheries. In some ways it is a culture that's based on convenience and cost efficiency. It's a culture that doesn't like to be reminded of mortality.
And why do the rituals of a funeral matter? Where is the meaning?
I think we act out things that are hard to put in words. People will sometimes ask me about the connections between poetry and funerals, and I do see this huge connection between the use of language in the two of them and how both rely on ritual and symbol and metaphor. Both [are part of] this effort to say something about something unspeakable -- great love, great loss, great hope, great fear, great doubt, the fist we shake in God's face, asking him, "What did you have in mind here?"
And when we talk about "the procession," what is the meaning of that?
I like the connection, the sound of the word "process"; it suggests movement, a pilgrimage. You can read in history books about the way a funeral procession was laid out -- which civic group, which ecclesiastical group, which fraternal group, which family group -- how everybody was lined up, so that as people walked in, there was this rise and fall of relationship and grief, and people know this, that good, orderly direction that was assumed by this process, this ritual. I think it suggests that we're going to get from one place to the other, whatever it is that we have to do to process this new reality, to get the dead to the edge of their changed role and get the living to the edge of this new changed life that they're going to lead without this person in their lives anymore.
So this pilgrimage, this journey that we go on, replicates in many ways other journeys that we see in life, from infancy to toddlerhood, from toddlerhood to teenagers to adulthood, the journeys we take in life in our heart, in the life of our mind, the life of our spirit. In many ways they're all replicated by this journey that we take between the living and the dead when someone dies, this procession.
Sometimes it's as simple as going up the street, down the block, into the church, out of that building, over to the bridge, over the river, over to the graveyard. In doing this, in accompanying the dead, getting them where they need to go, we get where we need to be. And I've seen it work, I've seen it work. It's a kind of theater, I suppose. ...
And the things we have to do in that period of two days or three days, that's also largely what you do for us, is that right?
I don't know what my part of it is, except it's duty, detail: Show up, do this, do that, be sure the car starts, keep it clean, you know, that type of thing.
But it's not just my job. I'm the guy that has the hearse, but there's someone else in town who is making a strawberry rhubarb pie to bring to the luncheon afterward, and that's what she's doing on the day. And there's somebody else digging the hole in the ground. And there's somebody else trying to get the choir to sing in tune. And there's somebody else arranging the flowers. And there's somebody else doing this, that. And somebody else is pressing somebody's clothes.
It's ridiculous, it's mundane, it's stupid, but at the end of the day what we are trying to do is assemble all our metaphoric weapons to do battle with this hurt, this still thing. And it works; it does work. I mean, there are good funerals. I've seen at the end of the day people walking upright away from graves, people walking upright away from fires, as if they were going to survive it.
And they won't forget, and that's the thing. I mean, if it was just a matter of forgetting, we would do that. We'd just say, "Well, let's not think about that anymore." But people will go home, and they will look at pictures of the dead; they'll look at movies of the dead; they'll quote the dead to one another; and they will weep and laugh and carry on. They'll survive it. All to the good, I say.
And is that the purposefulness in the ebb and flow of a wake and a funeral?
Oh, yeah. Isn't that awful? "Life goes on!" I mean, that is the terrible, terrible part. I know as a person who has grieved before, and I also know as a person who has been next to people in grief, that one of the awful messages on the day is "Life goes on." The stores are open. The till still rings. The stock market is open. Everything is going on, and here we are. So yeah, it is the good news and the bad news. It is the ridiculous and the sublime. It is that everything changes and nothing changes. Yeah, it's a mystery.
And what about the formalities, the particular traditions and customs that are a part of the funeral?
It is really helpful on the day your mother dies or your father dies or, God help us, a child dies, to have a certain part of the wheel already invented. If I'm an Italian Catholic or an Orthodox Jew or a Baptist African American, I don't have to wonder what's going to happen, because I know that my community of co-religionists, of ethnic fellows, my neighborhood, whatever, they've organized a plan so that I don't have to spend the first several hours or days or weeks trying to figure out what to do next because it's already been told by tradition, by custom, by culture, by form. And most good customs allow for some wiggle room, you know. ...
I have often noticed the difference between the first day that a family will spend here and the next day. When my father died, I was not prepared to put him in the ground then. But by the time a couple days later he went in the ground, it was exactly the right thing to do. I'm certain the same thing holds for people who put their dead in the sea or the fire or a tomb -- that we need time to disengage. I think they used to call that "social death"; that actual death happens like that. We get to say when people are dead to us, or dead enough, so that we can let them go.
Are most Americans still being buried?
Burial was the norm in the Western world probably until the mid-60s. But cremation has increased since then by about 10 percent in every decade. I think the national rate now is right around 38 percent. Here in Milford we're around 40 percent, and there are places where it's 60 percent and places where it's 16 percent. But there's no question that cremation has become normative in a way that it used to be exceptional.
And does the rise in cremation in America parallel changes in demographics?
I think cremation very much is like us. It follows the changes in our species, certainly in our culture. We are less grounded than our grandparents were. We are more mobile, more portable, more scattered. So in a sense, cremation suits us in that way.
What we have missed, however, in cremation in this culture is all the powerful metaphoric values provided by fire, its elemental worth. Whether a person is consigned to the earth or the fire is, at the end of the day, no difference. Whether we consign our dead to scavenger birds, as they do in Tibet, or to the sea, as they do when the sea is around them, or the tree, as our Native Americans did, it doesn't make any difference. The oblivion is the oblivion wherever it is. The elements are the elements.
For many people I know, when families are cremated, they feel as if they've in some sense kind of disappeared. ...
Well, if you ask any group of ordinary citizens, "How many here have attended a cremation?" there are very few hands raised in the room, because cremation is often shorthand for disappearance. It's something handled by "them" offsite, elsewhere, and I think that's problematical.
It is a sadness and a shame that cremation, the fire in this context, is seen as an industrial process instead of an elemental one, in the way that earth is elemental. I see no difference in the machinery it takes to dig a hole [and] the machinery it takes to build a fire. Humans figured out both before they had backhoes and retorts. But we are much more willing to go stand next to the hole in the ground than we are willing to stand next to the fire. And I think this has to do with our notions about fire itself. We'd be wise, as a culture, to examine some of these things.
When families come in and have their loved one cremated, do you talk to them about going with you to the crematorium?
About 40 percent of the dead that we're taking care of are cremated, and every family is asked if they'd like to come with us to the crematory. Some do. Most say, "No, go ahead and take care of that." And that's unfortunate. But more and more, when we say to them, "You may, and maybe you ought ..." or, "Maybe someone in your family should be designated, just to go in as your proxy, to say, 'Everything was done as it should be done,'" they do it.
When families have gone to the crematory, has it made a difference?
The crematory we use is impeccably run by ethical people, people we inspect, unannounced, a couple times every year. We make appointments for cremations because we have to go and watch the placement of the body in the retort and the beginning of the process, the identification process that's part of that, and we retrieve the ashes.
But when people go with us, it's at the back end of an industrial park in Lavonia, near a railroad track, so it's unlike the kind of commemorative surroundings that we have in our local cemeteries -- more is the pity. All the same, 100 percent of the people that have gone with us are grateful that we invited them to go. I can only take from that the sense that we're on the right track there.
The open casket, it is something that's often mocked.
I've sat with families who said, "Well, we want a closed casket," and I've often asked them, "Well, had they not died yesterday, would you not want to see them today?" The question is not meant to mock; the question is to say: "What is it you don't want to see? It's not that you don't want to see your mother or your father or your sister or your brother. It's not that you don't want to see them dressed up or laid out or with glasses on, or too much makeup or their hair done in a clumsy way. That's not what you don't want to see, because we can fix that all." What we don't want to see is our mother or our father dead, and that is the part we need to see.
Does it affect the nature of the grief if someone was present for the dying of the loved one?
What you're looking at [in the case of someone being there during that time] is everything's in order. Everything seems to fall into place. Everything assumes its natural order. So yes, the hurt is there, but the hurt does not overwhelm.
So what you've seen is what I've seen: that people who deal with their dead deal with death better. It's the people who, in many ways, try to put on the smiley face, that brittle grin you see so often that says, "We're going to be happy." It's that white-knuckled, socially enforced celebration [where] oftentimes the dead are absent from it, because that would be too compelling; that would be too much of a challenge.
So yeah, I do find that people who have dealt with their dying -- whether it was taking them to their chemotherapy or sitting those weeks through hospice care, or checking in those weeks through hospice care, because we can't always be physically present -- those people who were thoroughly engaged with this are thoroughly engaged with the rest of it. Does it make it easier? Do they get through it better? I'd have to say yeah, they do. Everything seems to fall into place. And yeah, everything plays its part in that.
The custom of eulogy, what is its meaning?
It has to do with the gift of language. It gives us a way to get some little mastery over these uncontrollable things by giving it a narrative thread. And a narrative is nothing other than a journey. ... And Mrs. Verrino's eulogy, her narrative of what she and her husband and their child were going through, was a way of sort of mastering this journey.
Her testimony is like all testimony -- it is a combination of gratitude and grief, and that the gratitude does not trump the grief, nor does the grief undo the gratitude. They can coexist.
The trouble is, in our culture we try to have one or the other -- either/or -- and it's both and then some in real experience.
With your own mother and father and their funerals, what were the moments that had meaning for you?
Well, both my parents were buried like Irish Catholics were buried, so there was this sort of tribal and religious language that had been developed over centuries for how we do this. There is a comfort when you don't have to reinvent that wheel, when we know we have to be at church at a certain time and that these prayers will be said and not those, and that this is accustomed behavior and this is outside the pale, and this is where we go.
So we had those advantages. Still, as every grieving person knows, we have to reinvent the wheel in which we are now orphaned. We are now without a mother or without a father. That is a wheel we can only invent at the time it happens. We can't prearrange that. Even though we can plan it and pay for it and all that, we can't really get that wheel to turn for us until it turns itself.
My mother died on the 27th of October and was buried on the 31st of October, so it was the Eve of All Saints. It seemed like an appropriate time for this sainted woman. But I remember coming home after the mass and the burial and the luncheon, getting back to her house -- it was about 3:00-ish in the afternoon -- and thinking, "The trick-or-treaters are coming." I have children at home; my wife had taken them home from the luncheon.
I went back to my father's house, and I remember thinking, "But life goes on." And that is the cruel part, and that is the good news and the bad news all at once -- that things are happening even so. I remember it hitting me there in the house: She actually died; we actually buried her today; she's actually not coming back here; she's actually gone.
And so I think of widowed people who must go through that when they're folding a sweater or cleaning out a drawer or looking for the power drill that their husband used to use to fix this drawer or that one -- these little mundane reminders that life is changed utterly and yet utterly the same.
So we learn to live with it. And I suppose this is the message at every graveside: They stay, we go, until we come to that point in which we are brought there, and we stay and they go.
So yes, I think all of these things help to sort of "fix" us in the firmament of where we are at any given time with our youth and our age, our well-being or our infirmity, our dying, our death and our remembrance. I see it all as part of the one journey, all as part of the one pilgrimage.
Months after my father died, I can remember this wave of feelings that would come over me, catching me at the most unpredictable times, this wallop of him being dead, him being gone. And it was over, oftentimes, the most mundane of circumstances.
And you have mentioned the range of feelings and emotions at a funeral. ...
I've always been touched by the fact that there seems to be as much laughter as weeping at the big life events. At weddings people are forever weeping at what is supposed to be a joyous event. We're celebrating love, huh? And yet someone's weeping because of the changed life that we're seeing before us. A daughter is no longer the daughter only or the son no longer the son only. So everything is weakened; weakened and tightened at the same time.
So we weep and we laugh, we laugh and we sing, and we try to work our way around this changed reality in much the same way a death in the family articulates this changed reality. And we laugh sometimes at all those good memories and all those silly things the person said and all those wise things that that person said and all their foibles.
I do find this recent push for every funeral to be a celebration of life as, in a way, a kind of a cruel joke on people who are in acute grief. So I like the word "funeral" for what we're doing here, because it doesn't require me to feel this way or that. It gives me room to do either, all along this sort of emotional register.
There's been a sort of national conversation about funerals over the years. What is your sense of what's driven and shaped that conversation, and what, if anything, has been missing from that public view of it all?
I think it's always been the case that funerals in general, and funeral directors in particular, provide an easy target for cartooning, because there is so much about what we do that can be held up for ridicule. It's an easy target; it always is -- you know, the Digger O'Dell [the "friendly undertaker" character in the 1950s television series Life of Riley]. And particularly when you see the transaction which involves this rather impressive life-or-death event with the rather mundane mercantility of it all. There is a fee. We do have a charge for our caskets. Money is involved. So it's easy enough. And I'm, along with the next guy, as interested in those cartoons as everyone else is. But when the entire conversation circles around and around about how much it's going to cost or how can you prevent this charge, I just find it silly after a while.
Whether someone comes into the funeral home insisting on the least expensive or the most expensive, I see in both cases an effort to assign value to cost, and I just think in my own experience it's never had much to do with it. It just doesn't work out that way. People will say, "I'd like something simple and inexpensive," and I want to say, "Well, over here we have simplicity; over here we have cheap." It's not always the same thing, and for everyone it's different.
But maybe with the fact that 75 million baby boomers are working their way up to the bar of mortality now, it's dawning on them that this could happen to them. Maybe because it's happening to their parents or their siblings and some of their friends now, suddenly I see the cultural conversation changing from "how much?" to "how come?"; from "what are we going to buy?" to "what are we going to do?" And I find that latter conversation much more compelling and much more difficult, because it's not as easy as dollars and cents. The till doesn't ring as precisely, and what works and where the values are require more discernment.
So I'm interested in it. I see my sons now working through this, and their generation. And the components of a funeral sometimes change. For some people it's not the open casket and the three-day wake and the roses and the limousines and the Panis Angelicus. For more and more people it's a trip to the crematory and some variation on the wake where people pay different types of witness. So it's interesting times we live in that way.
And are you a cremation or a burial man? I know it won't matter, it will be others, but do you see yourself as the fire or the earth, or --?
I've come to admire the earth, the wind and the fire. I really don't care. I've really come to the point where I can see in a fire all that release; I can see the Holy Spirit in it, you know. But I have graves at Oak Grove; I have graves in West Clare [County, Ireland]. I really think my people will know what to do when the time comes, and these are details I won't have to worry about.
How different is confronting death without faith?
I think of disbelief as a faith of its own kind. I was watching [author and cultural commentator] Christopher Hitchens the other day. He had a new book out about God not being great. There are days I can get behind that theory and have. But then I can read the work of Barbara Brown Taylor or St. Paul or C.S. Lewis, and I think, how would you get by without it? On any given day, it's up for grabs.
But I don't know of anybody who has come in here entirely angry at the prospect of God who has done well with this type of thing, with deaths in the family.
But you've seen people come in that are agnostics or --
But even people who do not believe or claim no religiosity or no particular faith, they are not without some text, some book they regard as, if not holy, it is the handle they're trying to hold onto to get through this.
Will you care after your death if they take care of you in death as you did your dad? Will that matter?
Whether or not my family is involved with the care of my body, that's their business. I'll be the dead guy, and the dead say nothing. This is a sign to me that they don't care, that heaven is not having to worry about these things, so I'm determined not to worry about them either.
But, you know, we used to say to my father, who directed a fair few funerals, "What do you want done with you when you're dead?," and he'd say, "Well, you'll know what to do." I think mine will know what to do, too, not because I've said, "Do this or that," but because they have seen life as I have seen it, and they sort of know me and I know them. And so they'll know what to do.
And yet you write that beautiful essay Tract in your book, The Undertaking, which is in some way a map, is it?
Well, read it closely, and what I've written is that as long as they deal with it, I don't care what they do. I do not care but that they do it honorably. That they do it for themselves I think is very important. So yeah, I enjoyed writing that piece. And I do think that while the dead don't care, the dead matter. The dead matter to the living. And at least so far as my experience is concerned, the living who bear those burdens honorably are better off for it.
Bearing witness one way or another, that's a key ingredient.
Well, it's showing up and just being there is worth an awful lot. There's this wonderful essay that was written -- I have it framed in the hallway there; the woman's name, I think, is Sullivan who wrote it. She talks about how in her life the difference was not between doing good and evil. It was just doing the next right thing.
I needed to read that piece because I'm disinclined -- when someone's sick, when someone's out of sorts, when someone's dead -- I'm disinclined to be around that. I mean, it's uncomfortable, and I don't know what to say any more than the next guy, and I don't do strawberry rhubarb pie. But I find that if you just show up, if you just walk in the door, people think you're a hero. And I have found that, whether I'm walking in the door with a stretcher and one of my own to help carry their dead out, or if I'm going to the hospital to visit a sick relative or friend, or if I show up for a funeral at another place, you know, at a distance, they thank you for that.

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