Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Review: SKATING WITH HEATHER GRACE – Thomas Lynch [Vol. 4, #10]

A Review of

Skating with Heather Grace: Poems.
Thomas Lynch.
Hardback: Knopf, 1987.
Paperback Reprint edition: Carnegie Mellon UP, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Bob Zender.

He may disagree vehemently, he may take this a professional affront, but Thomas Lynch writes poetry that can be enjoyed by people who typically run screaming from the stuff. His work is grounded in real life, with its troughs of sadness and piques of beauty and joy. To Lynch, death, sex, depression, struggle, sudden loss and slow decline are the prime materials in the work of human-being; worthy of the honor and thanksgiving he gives in Skating with Heather Grace.

His poetry springs from personal experience and keen observation. Lynch has a unique perspective on death: for more than 30 years he has served as his town’s only funeral director and, as he explains in The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, he buries several hundred of his townspeople every year. Death limits life and gives it meaning. From “Learning Gravity”:

Who knows how all things alter in the seed?
From shoot to stem to full bloom then to seed,
clumsy with their own invention until they see

that everything that breathes requires death.
A fierce affection is a thing like death.
Love begets love, then life, then death.

The power and meaning of funerals are for those left behind. What lies beyond this life is truly unknowable, and will always remain the great mystery of existence, but Lynch remains hopeful. In a culture that is paradoxically death-denying and nihilistic, his work honors the commitments we make in life that cannot be defeated, even in death.

His style is earthy, honest and unflinching. If you prefer to think of your love as “a red, red rose” you may find Lynch’s words impolite or moderately embarrassing – the kind of discomfort you feel conversing with your grandfather next to his collection of Picasso nudes. Here is Lynch describing an overture from husband to sleeping wife, in a poem titled “Marriage”:

He wanted to approximate the effort of a snowdrift,
to gain that sweet position over her repose
that always signaled to her he meant business,
that turned them into endless lapping dunes.
He wanted her mouth to fill like a bowl with vowels,
prime and whole and indivisible, O…O…O…

Lynch has deep reverence for the building blocks of human life – the hard and sometimes fatally flawed work of husband and wife, the bitter and the sweet that comes with raising children, the simple dignity of rising every day to provide life’s necessaries. Skating with Heather Grace gives witness to the loveliness and the pain of earthly life.

Lynch also possesses an exceptional wit and is often hilarious. He can be flip: “I want this to sound like a print from Monet, to seem French and unfinished and best at a distance;…” (“Woman Gardening”), slapstick (“O Canada”), and scalding (“For the Ex-Wife on the Occasion of her Birthday”).

This book, first published in 1986 and recently reissued, was Lynch’s first public work. Skating with Heather Grace was followed by another book of poetry and then The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade[1]. Reading these two books together is recommended – the reader will appreciate interwoven themes and recurring characters. They are a wonderful introduction to a contemporary American writer who stands on the side of life (versus nihilism), faith (versus certainty), and experience (versus dogmatism).

[1]His full bibliography includes four poetry collections, three books of essays, and in 2010, his first work of fiction.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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One Comment

  1. Nice work, Bob. u00a0I’ll need to grab a copy of this.