Starving to See Every Bit: A Review of Brian Doyle’s One Long River of Song

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Photo by Zach Betten on Unsplash

There’s a special kind of glory in the writing of those who bring extraordinary attention and a capacious spiritual vocabulary to the business of describing the world as it is. The Irish seem to have such glory in spades, even in the diaspora. And it certainly touched the late Brian Doyle, whose essays have been collected in a new volume titled One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder.

David James Duncan, writes in the foreword that his friend, “Brian Doyle lived the pleasure of bearing daily witness to quiet glories hidden in people, places, and creatures of little or no size, renown, or commercial value, and he brought inimitably playful or soaring or aching or heartfelt language to his tellings.” (xv) That’s certainly borne out in what follows, mainly two-page reflections on the smallest of things and moments—hummingbirds, the mystery and workings of the heart, sitting in church with your children. But in each Doyle lifts up something that, if he could, he would hold on to forever.

You see it in his encounter with a shrew, (which echoes a famous essay by Annie Dillard on her encounter with a weasel that moved me to ministry):

For just an instant I paid attention with every shard and iota of my being.

Maybe we couldn’t survive if we were like that all the time, I don’t know,

But when it happens we see that which none of us could find the words for.

Sometimes we are starving to see every bit of what is right in front of us. (6-7)

And even for someone with so rich a storehouse of words as Doyle, the words are never enough to describe what he sees or feels when he stops long enough to look. “Maybe what the word rapture really means,” he says, “is an attention so ferocious that you see the miracle of the world as the miracle it is. (139)

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Brian Doyle

You’re carried along by Doyle’s passion. He’s a sucker for love, especially of the familial variety. And he’s not afraid to share it. Sure, he knows how fraught human relationships are, but he’s not going let go of the joys because of the difficulty. In a wonderful essay on marriage and divorce titled “Irreconcilable Dissonance,” he considers the confounding contradictions of marriage and concludes, “where is it safe to stand? Nowhere, of course. Every marriage is pregnant with divorce, every day, every hour, every minute…The instant there is no chance of death is the moment of death.” (135)

That theme of death becomes more prevalent in the later sections of the book. Doyle, the editor of Portland Magazine, succumbed to cancer while mid-stride in his writing career. These later essays veer toward the sentimental, but you weep with him nonetheless for what he’s losing, despite his growing comfort with the idea of death. He reclaims the comforts of his Catholic faith and even marvels at the sight of his sons on the pew with him as adults:

Sometimes by chance I am the first one back from Communion and I watch as they [my sons] 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 this morning, quietly, as you watch the world flitter and tremble and beam. (239)

Doyle doesn’t have the expansive vision of Duncan or the clear-eyed ferocity of Dillard, two writers I would certainly include in the same conversation with Doyle. His bread and butter are small moments of relationship and warm, fellow feeling. But this collection doesn’t shrink from celebrating the incarnate pleasures of the world, and that is a gift. One particularly exuberant passage gives this voice:

Look, I know very well that brooding misshapen evil is everywhere, in the brightest houses and the most cheerful denials, in what we do and what we have failed to do, and I know all too well that the story of the world is entropy, things fly apart, we sicken, we fail, we grow weary, we divorce, we are hammered and hounded by loss and accidents and tragedies. But I also know, with all my hoary muddled heart, that we are carved of immense confusing holiness; that the whole point of us is grace under duress; and that you either take a flying leap at nonsensical illogical unreasonable ideas like marriage and marathons and democracy and divinity, or you huddle behind the wall. (177-8)

Of course, I recommend this book. How could you not want to go with Doyle anywhere he wants to go? And as a writer, I am grateful for the light he sheds on the craft. He writes for the same reasons I do:

I don’t know why I write, exactly. Catharsis, the itch to make something shapely and permanent, the attempt to stare God in the eye, the attempt to connect deeply to other men and women, because I can’t stop myself, because there is something elevating in art, because I feel myself at my best when I am writing well. Because because because. (213)

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