The Undertaking

By Thomas Lynch

UndertakingThomas Lynch describes himself as an internationally unknown poet, though my impression is that is fake modestly for the sake of the mild joke, since from his own accounts he seems relatively well-regarded in poetry circles. More importantly to this memoir-of-sorts, he is a third-generation undertaker in a small Michigan town. I was looking for some insight into how undertakers view death when they deal with it daily and in such a practical way. Lynch kicks the book off with a treatise on funerals that can be summed up with his repeated phrase, “the dead do not care.” It is occasional humorous, but more often, uh, bracing, like cold water or a slap in the face. It isn’t really a pleasant read, but it is an interesting one.

That is, until he goes off on tangents on wider subjects, and his old-white-maleness starts showing. Sympathizing with a friend’s divorce, he bemoans how the ex-wife seemed to just callously stop appreciating poetry idolizing her body. I started side-eyeing the author a bit there, but he really gets going at the end of the book. A lengthy screed against assisted suicide, stemming from a more interesting description of his brother’s post-mortem cleanup service, veers way off course into anti-abortion territory with a wide variety of willfully ignorant arguments that made me dislike the author quite heartily. The glib snarkiness that had seemed darkly funny at the beginning became pretty nasty towards the end.

Gabriel: A Poem

By Edward Hirsch

Perhaps I should add a tag for “mourning” here? I feel like I readreadread as much escapist nonsense as I can take in, but then suddenly get jerked to a stop by some book that looks like it might address my reality in an important or useful way. I saw this headline from NPR on my facebook feed: “A Poet On Losing His Son: ‘Before You Heal, You Have To Mourn’”, and I thought, that sounds promising; I don’t feel like I’m healing much at all yet – maybe I just need to mourn some more.

I’m actually not that big on poetry, either; I have great respect but little understanding for it. The following excerpts caught ahold of me, though:

Some nights I could not tell
If he was the wrecking ball
Or the building it crashed into

*****

Like a spear hurtling through darkness
He was always in such a hurry
To find a target to stop him

Turns out this…was not an easy read. It has taken me two months to get through 78 pages of short lines of poems (and an additional month to post about it). I’ve been reading other books, too, of course, because I couldn’t bear to take this one on my commute with me. So, I read a few pages at home until I needed to stop and then I waited until the next day.

I truly don’t really get poetry. Even reading this, I don’t understand how Hirsch has managed to capture so much of what I’ve been going through more accurately in like 15 words than the various prose books have in pages and pages of text.

Hirsch dedicates the majority of the poem to describing Gabriel and their history together. And there were so many similarities: Gabriel was adopted like Thomas, was raised in an upper middle-class and highly academic family, and had serious teenage rebellion that included drug use and short stints of homelessness.

Toward the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his own mourning, and there were even more similarities: the desperate practicalities that have to be done even though you are barely holding yourself together, the agonizing over what you were doing the exact moment your loved one died, what you were doing just before that when you could maybe have done something to prevent it instead.

Yeah, this was a tough read, but a lot of the lines continue to echo in my head, and I know that I will read it again in a year or two, as well, when hopefully things are a little better.

—Anna

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

the_prophetThe Prophet
By Kahlil Gibran
1926

This is a really gorgeous piece of writing. The version I read was also a beautifully illustrated version, with Gibran’s own illustrations. The text also happens to be available online for free.

It is essentially a collection of poetry essays addressing a variety of issues regarding life and faith and living life in a spiritual manner.

While it’s relatively short (less than 90 pages in the version I read), it is not a quick read. It is made up of 28 chapters and it’s the kind of text that you can read a bit at a time and spend a lot of time thinking about. The wording is beautiful, the imagery is beautiful, and the philosophy is beautiful.

In many ways, it reads a bit like the very best of Bible passages, but while it’s clearly deist, it’s not any one religion. I highly recommend it to pretty much everyone ever.

While it’s gorgeous in it’s own right – to the extent that I have a hard time describing it without making it sound significantly more schmaltzy than it is – I would also recommend it to anyone who has to give some emotional speech. If I ever need to give a speech or a toast or something at a wedding, a graduation, a funeral, or whatever, this will be my first go-to book for inspiration and quotes, before either Shakespeare or the Bible.  (I am clearly not the only person to have this thought, though, since I recognized several quotes from it.)

But anyway, I highly recommend it. Go forth. Read it. Or listen to it. Whichever.