Brian Doyle

2 posts

“Maybe the Greatest Miracle Is Memory”

A great fan of the writer Brian Doyle’s—taken by brain cancer in 2017—I was happy to see the posthumous release of his essays, One Long River of Song, by Little, Brown, and Company (2019). I did not realize that Doyle was first and foremost an essayist, though also an accomplished novelist, poet, and “proemist” (his playful term for a hybrid version of prose and poetry).

Reading the collection, I quickly bonded with Doyle’s “voice” and felt akin to him and his. To give you a flavor of his style (he is a big fan of anaphora and polysyndeton, for instance), here is an essay anyone who has brought kids to church can identify with. It is called “What Were Once Pebbles Are Now Cliffs.”



“I am standing in the middle pew, far left side, at Mass. We choose this pew when possible for the light pouring and puddling through the stained-glass windows. The late-morning Mass is best because the sun finally made it over the castlements of the vast hospital up the hill and the sun has a direct irresistible shot at the windows and as my twin sons used to say the sun loooves jumping through the windows and does so with the headlong pleasure of a child.

“They used to be small enough to choose different sun-shot colors on the floor and jump from one color to another, my sons. They would do this before Mass and after Mass and occasionally during Mass on the way back from being blessed by Father John in the years before their own First Communions. Sometimes they would rustle and fidget impatiently in the pews and fiddle with missals, and fold up parish newsletters into ships and trumpets, and bang the kneeler up and down, until they were arrested by the wither of the maternal glare, but then came Communion, which meant Father John bending down from his great height like a tree in a storm and blessing them with his hand as big as a hat on their heads. They loved that, and loved whispering loudly Hi Johnny! to him, which would make him grin, which they counted as a win, to make the sturdy dignified celebrant grin like a kid right in the middle of Communion!

“When they were three and four years old they used to stand on the pew next to me and lean on me as if I were a tree and they were birds. Sometimes one would fall asleep and I would sense this through my arm and shoulder so that when I sat down I would be sure to haul the sleeper down safely. Sometimes they would lean hard against me to try to make me grin like Father John grinned during Communion. Once I discovered that they had conspired before Mass to lean on Dad so hard that they would squish Dad! and he would get six inches taller right there in the church!, wouldn’t that be funny? Sometimes they would lean against me just from a sheer simple mammalian affection, the wordless pleasure of leaning against someone you love and trust. But always I was bigger and they were smaller, then.

“Then came years during which there was no leaning because generally they were leaning away from their parents and from the church and from authority in all its figments and forms and constitutions, and generally they sat silent and surly and solitary, even during the Sign of Peace, which distressed their parents, which was the point.

“But now they are twenty and one is much taller than me and the other is much more muscular. One is lanky and one is sinewy. One is willowy and the other is burly. And the other day in Mass I leaned against one and then the other and I was moved, touched, pierced down to the fundaments of my soul. What were once pebbles are now cliffs. They are tall and strong and stalwart and charming and at the Sign of Peace people in all directions reach for them smiling. When I lean against them they do not budge and now I am the one leaning against men whom I love and trust and admire. Sometimes I lean too hard against them on purpose just to make them grin. Sometimes by chance I am the first one back from Communion and I watch as they approach, wading gracefully through the shivered colors of the sun streaming through the windows. Time stutters and reverses and it is always yesterday and today. Maybe the greatest miracle is memory. Think about that this morning, quietly, as you watch the world flitter and tremble and beam.”

Brian Doyle: Pro at Prose Poetry


Note: It is with sadness that I report that a few short months after I wrote this post, Brian Doyle passed away from a brain tumor. To lose a writer of his talent is a loss for all of us.

I first discovered Brian Doyle when I read his imaginative novel of the sea, The Plover, a few years back. The good ship Plover makes a cameo in Doyle’s earlier book, Mink River, which I just finished reading yesterday,

Doyle is a prose writer with poetic blood coursing through his veins. You need only look at his inspirations to learn why. In the back of Mink River, Doyle includes among his “lodestars, compass points, emotional touchstones” while writing the book these stalwarts: The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake and The King James Bible. He also tips his hat to that poetic essayist Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being.

Blake and the KJV especially are quoted early and often in this book. The crow is partial to the Psalms. The doctor likes Ecclesiastes. And Blake words just jump willy-nilly, followed by the one-word nod, “Blake.”

Among the poet’s bag of tricks, anaphora and polysyndeton and alliteration are three favorites. Doyle’s disciplined rambling brings a small Oregon town to life slowly but surely. In episodic chunks, we meet a cast of characters, Winesburg, Ohio-like, including a speaking (and thinking) crow named Moses. The book walks the line between real and surreal at times, but a gentle approach to surrealism always seems to carry it across the suspension bridge of disbelief. And before you know it, gentle reader, you have favorite quirky characters. Or quixotic ones, maybe. All cued up.

So what does this poetic prose look like? Let me copy a bit from the text as an example of Doyle’s delights. If you like it, perhaps a whitewater raft trip down the Mink is in your future. Or a trip at sea on the Plover, if you prefer.

And even if not, it’s fun to watch a writer having fun, luxuriating in words, turning in them and breathing them like oxygen for the creative lungs. Here, then, is a dash of Doyle:

“New trout, having never seen rain on the river, rise eagerly to ripples on the Mink. Some windows close against the moist and some open for the music. Rain slips and slides along hawsers and chains and ropes and cables and gladdens the cells of mosses and weighs down the wings of moths. It maketh the willow shiver its fingers and thrums on doors of dens in the fens. It falls on hats and cats and trucks and ducks and cars and bars and clover and plover. It grayeth the sand on the beach and fills thousands of flowers to the brim. It thrills worms and depresses damselflies. Slides down every window rilling and murmuring. Wakes the ancient mud and mutter of the swamp, which has been cracked and hard for months. Falls gently on leeks and creeks and bills and rills and the last shriveled blackberries like tiny dried purple brains on the bristles of bushes. On the young bear trundling through a copse of oaks in the woods snorffling up acorns. On ferns and fawns, cubs and kits, sheds and redds. On salmon as long as your arm thrashing and roiling in the river. On roof and hoof, doe and hoe, fox and fence, duck and muck. On a slight man in a yellow slicker crouched by the river with his recording equipment all covered against the rain with plastic wrap from the grocery store and after he figures out how to get the plastic from making crinkling sounds when he turns the machine on he settles himself in a little bed of ferns and says to the crow huddled patiently in rain, okay, now, here we go, Oral History Project, what the rain says to the river as the wet season opens, project number …something or other … where’s the fecking start button? …I can’t see anything … can you see a green light? yes? is it on? damn my eyes … okay! there it is! it’s working! rain and the river! here we go!”

I’ll miss the book and the next one will suffer a bit by comparison. Is there any higher compliment you can pay an author?