Review of "Sin-Eater: A Breviary," by Thomas Lynch
Argyle, like the rest of us, lives in-between. Thomas Lynch’s collection of poems, Sin-Eater, documents Argyle’s journey to satiate his hunger by performing the ritual of “sin-eating” on corpse after corpse in Ireland. Born of tradition steeped in myth, the sin-eater consumes bread and beer over a corpse for the price of a six-pence and takes unto himself the sins of the deceased, putting his or her ghost to rest. Hated and feared by the clergy, hated and feared by the people who demand his services, the sin-eater finds shelter nowhere, his only refuge the path he travels between the places of mourning where he earns his breakfast and dinner. As we pass with Argyle through each threshold, we are disgusted and mortified by the gravity of sin and shocked by the weight of forgiveness, hungering as he does for something that will stay.
Lynch, an award-winning essayist as well as the funeral director for a family-run mortuary in a small town in Michigan, had been preparing for this book several years before it transpired in this breviary of “a couple dozen poems, a couple dozen lines each, [with] a couple dozen photos.” Perhaps the only drawback in the collection lies in the substance of Lynch’s absorbing and abundant “Introit.” At the end of this meaty essay, I found myself unwilling for it to be over, and had some difficulty making the transition from the story told in prose to its counterpart in verse. In the “Introit,” Lynch explains how his Irish lineage, vocation, and Catholicism were the “ground and compost out of which Argyle rose . . . to become a mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings.” A mouthpiece indeed, Argyle (whose name derives from the socks as well as the homophone our guile) is the type of character we loathe to encounter as he turns our eyes and our hearts toward the truths we have buried and the fears we can no longer avoid.
Whether or not we can stomach it, Argyle invites us to bear witness to “sins against virgin girls and animals, / women bearing children, men gone blind”—unspeakable acts that awaken even Argyle’s seasoned stomach with indigestion in the night. Argyle is thereby plagued with the task of relieving the cognitive and bodily dissonance he experiences by taking upon his own conscience the sins of those he may not deem worthy of forgiveness. Plagued with observer’s guilt in addition to survivor’s guilt, Argyle makes us ask where the responsibility and burden of witness lie in our own lives. Perhaps the most moving lines in this collection surface in “Argyle’s Vapors,” wherein we experience the loneliness of someone who has been tasked with such a liminal and marginalized vocation. We watch how
Argyle stood in his doorway looking out at nothing. The wind blew through him as if he wasn’t. As if he were, himself, a door ajar.
Argyle communes with the dead—soaking up their unconfessed sins with bread and beer—so that grieving families can lay their loved ones easy in their graves. The sad irony of Argyle’s difficult work is that, through the process of his lonely communion with the dead, he excommunicates himself from the living, surely wondering along the way whose hands will dig his grave and hold his sin.
I found myself humbled and surprised by the insight that Argyle imparts as he lives between the opposing forces of “community and marginalization” even as he disgusts with his belching and flatulence. Argyle emerges as unlikely a hero as a child born in a manger, and leads the reader to redemption by the hole in the fence through which we never deigned to stoop. Each poem in the collection is integral in ushering Argyle toward a place of rest, the collection ending with the image of Argyle and his donkey, Recompense, wandering toward the sea,
flailing out gestures of blessing . . . all of vast creation reconciled in one last spasm of forgiveness.
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