March 31 2010 12:00 AM

Poet Thomas Lynch tries his hand at fiction


Author Thomas Lynch thinks sex and death are part and parcel of all writing.

Referring to his most recent book, “Apparitions & Late Fiction,” a collection of short stories and a novella, Lynch says, “I have no corner on the market.”

He dares readers to find any Shakespearean writing that doesn’t involve sex and death.

Readers who have been following the writing of the undertaker from Milford know he has experience in death, but will have to speculate about the other half of the equation while reading his new book.

At the very least, they will have to agree he has an active imagination.

His newest collection of fiction is a departure from his previous books which were collections of essays and poetry. And, although Lynch is currently working on a longer piece of fiction, he said if he didn’t use poetry as a daily exercise he wouldn’t write.

That would be a terrible loss.

He told a standing-room-only audience at Nicolas Books in Ann Arbor this past week that his journey into fiction has been an interesting road as he delved into the lives of a trout bum, a casket salesman, an embalmer, an academic poet and a randy minister, among others, in his first book of fiction.

“Fiction requires day-to-day concentrated work. Writing characters and narrative requires more blocks of time. Poetry and essays are portable — you can work on them whenever.”

Lynch’s devoted followers will not be disappointed with his recent work. Those who gorge themselves on his collections of essays, “The Undertaking” and “Bodies in Motion and Rest,” will recognize his reoccurring themes, in which death is not only a sinister stranger waiting on a corner, but is just as often an old friend.

As with all great writers he draws heavily on the authors who have gone before him, but he doesn’t hammer you with their style. His opening short story, “Catch and Release,” has overtones of Hemingway throughout as the character travels the river to release his father’s ashes at the altar of nature. Images of Raymond Carver and James Agee float in and out of his work with ease.

Likewise, in “Matinee de Septembre” he parallels the voice heard in Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” but switches the gender of the protagonist and moves the setting to Mackinac Island and the venerable Grand Hotel.

When asked about the role of clergy in his writing, Lynch told his Ann Arbor audience he is especially considerate of the clergy. Lynch has seen many men and women of the cloth forging a bond with grievers in his 35 years as an undertaker.

“Nobody brings his B-game to a burial with a corpse on the premises,” he said. “They bring their best. They are heroes to me. They try to make sense of unspeakable things.”

Dressed in modified mortician garb — a dark blue blazer, jeans and a dark navy shirt — Lynch is masterful at reading his own work. His quiet voice, with a hint of an Irish lilt, picked up from grandmother and time he spends in Ireland at his ancestral home, is mesmerizing.

He says he writes his sentences as if they are going to be heard, much like his poetry.

In person he reminds one of an Irish Garrison Keillor and as he takes you through a scene or two in “Apparitions” he breaks into the Beatles song “Let It Be,” which he has incorporated into his novella.

Lynch will be giving the keynote address at A Rally of Writers, a workshop being held Saturday, April 10, at Lansing Community College West Campus. He will speak at 9 a.m. and, although the conference carries a $70 fee, his talk is free and underwritten by the Michigan Humanities Council.

Lynch said his final short story, about the poet vacationing on Mackinac Island, was the most difficult to complete.

First, he said there was a disagreement with editors who wanted a male protagonist; he wanted a female. He won out and his character, Aisling Black, is an academic grieving the loss of her husband. While spending four weeks on Mackinac Island she becomes enamored with a Jamaican servant. Although it closely follows Mann’s original work it takes its own twists and turns.

Those in love with Lynch’s poetry should not despair. Later this year, he will issue another poetry collection titled “Walking Papers.” Lynch said the title is derived from his daily stroll.

“The images are ones that came to me when I was walking,” he said.

His new book of shorter works of fiction is also a walk — a walk on the wild side, and quite a surprise for a first work of fiction.