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Book cover

Still Life in Millford
Thomas Lynch

Still Life in Milford
Thomas Lynch
Jonathan Cape
London 1998
0 224 05159 8

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To read Lynch’s latest collection of verse is to acknowledge the centrality of impressions swiftly created, sharply observed and vividly reported. A humorous twist is in evidence from the beginning as, tongue in cheek, he cites Brettell: ‘It is difficult to make moral or intellectual claims for any arrangement of fruit or vegetables on a table…’ The banality of such superficial simplicity is rarely borne out as Lynch makes it his business to render the multi-faceted ‘ordinary enterprise of daily life’ through the catalyst of a single vision:

In his first poem, ‘Art History, Chicago’, that vision is articulated:

that bits of light and colour […]
[…] become the moment caught,
verbs slowed to a standstill, the life examined.
We step back wide-eyed for a better look…

From the miniature of the painting Still Life in Milford by Lester Johnson, which adorns the book cover, to the final poem, which takes the town, the painting and the poet for its subject, an apparently diverse collection is rendered part of a tightly crafted, polished product, for:

the act of ordering is all the same —
the ordinary becomes a celebration.

It is not so much the subject matter that is significant to this poet but the method of revelation. Consequently, episodes are lightly drawn yet frequently devastating in impact. ‘Aubade’ (meaning sunrise song) is a poem as startling in its brevity as in its contet:

When he was finished hitting her he went
to work. She woke the boys, sent them to school,
then hung herself with a belt she’d bought him
for his birthday. He would never get it.

Later, ‘Local Obits’ speaks of the tenderness of union in the unlikeliest of circumstances:

It was the Alzheimer’s made Maurice sweet
those last ten years […]

God’s Will is what his only daughter called it,
To see that awful, angry man gone soft,

‘You take the good with the bad,’ she reckoned.
‘He didn’t know me at the end, but he approved.’

The Michigan-based poet’s pride in his Celtic ancestry bursts forth through images of red-haired malefactors, fiery sin-eaters and the garrulous priesthood. Despite an unfortunate tendency to out-Irish the Irish in his struggle to assert authenticity, ‘Bishop’s Island’ and ‘Argyle’s Return to the Holy Island’ prove to be challenging evaluations of Catholic sanctity:

a legacy of zealotry, God-hunger,
genius and the occasional idiot
that worked its way down blighted centuries
of monks and anchorites and sin-eaters.

However, endings are what Lynch does best, whether of life, love, or a pint. Thus ‘The Riddance’ unites the mundane with the momentous in its description of death’s aftermath:

It was only after
the casseroles had been
returned, the borrowed chairs,

that she sat in the chill parlour
of her new widowhood
remembering the bruises,
the boozy gropings
and sad truths…

The strength of this collection lies in the poet’s ability to open tiny windows into other people’s lives and to shut them again just as quickly, leaving us disturbed by possibility; surrounded by an unknown, and an unknowing, myriad existence.

Reviewed by Mari-Hughes-Edwards


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