His Ambulations

On shanks’ mare Argyle talked to himself.
Alone, he’d carry on whole colloquies
en route to some poor corpse’s obsequies—
these dialogues, the way he kept his wits
about him, body and soul together,
fit for the wretched work of sin-eating.
Sometimes he counted words or parts of words
as if they amounted to something more
than sound and sense attuned between his ears,
as, for example, how coincident:
the way grace and gratis, wherefore gratitude
partook a kinship such as cousins do,
singing the same tune in different voices,
much as grave and gravitas, then gravity
kept one earthbound, grounded, humble as the mud—
the humus, so-called, God wrought humans from.
Or how from Adam’s rib was fashioned Eve—
bone of his own bone, flesh of his flesh
whom he got gravid by implanting seed,
in her unfathomably fecund Eden.
The memory of a woman’s company
would bring his ambulations to a halt
to aim his gaping face due heavenward,
the dewy air her touch, her taste, sweet salt.

Sin-eaters were common functionaries at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century funerals in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. They would take unto themselves the sins of the dead by consuming bread and beer over the corpse. In addition to the feed, they charged a fee for this ritual scapegoating. Like undertakers, they were needed but not much appreciated, and not infrequently reviled because of their proximity to the dead and their miserable stipend. Their place in the ceremonial landscape of death put them at times at odds with the reverend clergy. —TL
Source: Poetry (February 2011)
More Poems by Thomas P. Lynch