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James T. KeaneOctober 10, 2023
Brian Doyle in 2012 (CNS/Tim LaBarge)

Late last week, my colleague Kevin Clarke shared a poem from Eureka Street, an online journal published by the Australian Jesuits. The poem, “If we ever got to be what we so want to be,” is a powerful reflection on finding the beautiful and the divine amid life’s struggles. It was also a reminder of a literary voice lost too soon: Brian Doyle, who died six years ago.

Like many of his readers, I was first exposed to Brian Doyle’s writings through Portland Magazine and Notre Dame Magazine, two university journals in which he published often. Doyle was for many years the editor—no, the Svengali, but in a good way—of Portland Magazine, where he attracted prominent artists and authors and consistently won awards for the magazine’s content and design, including the 2005 Sibley Award, given by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, as the top university magazine in the country.

He also contributed to America many times over the years, one of many journals in which his work appeared, in prose and poetry alike. Sometimes the poems more felt like prose, a style he called “proems”; sometimes the titles themselves were the length of a poem, as in his 2007 submission, “On Cleaning Out a Friend’s Refrigerator After His Exile to the Old Priests’ Home.”

Brian Doyle's manuscripts, wrote Kerry Weber in 2017, were "filled with grace and unconcerned with grammar.”

Years later, while an editor at Orbis Books, I had the chance to work with Doyle on a book of such proems, How The Light Gets In. (Yes, he wanted the Leonard Cohen reference: “There is a crack, a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.”) I have lost our correspondence, which is a shame, because his emails were their own literary genre.

But it was in his prose essays that Doyle’s literary gifts shone through most clearly, and America was graced by many of his best. Proust may have had his madeleine, but Brian Doyle’s capacious memory could be jolted by the sights and smells of a Catholic school gym. Essays on faith and fatherhood were intermixed over the years with reflections on everything from scapulars to the beauty of the smallest gestures at the Easter Vigil. He could be unconventional in topic and style, but he didn’t often miss the mark in capturing a perfect tone of wonder.

It was a delight to edit Doyle’s prose,” wrote America executive editor Kerry Weber in 2017. “His unique style and tone created texts so tight that his manuscripts often were left relatively untouched by our editors, save some added punctuation intended to break up his paragraphs, which were filled with grace and unconcerned with grammar.” (“I get teased a lot for my style,” Doyle admitted in 2015. “People are saying, wow, a sentence will start on Tuesday and it doesn’t end ’til Friday. But I want to write like people talk. I want to write like I’m speaking to you.”)

Doyle also authored more than two dozen books, including short story anthologies, essay collections, poetry and novels, including Mink River, The Plover and Martin Marten. He was awarded the Pushcart Prize (for literary achievement in a small press) three times, and also received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award.

Born in 1956 in New York City into a family of storytellers (his father, a journalist, was at one point the executive director of the Catholic Press Association), Doyle attended the University of Notre Dame. He lived for many years in Portland, Ore., the setting for much of his fiction and non-fiction alike.

In November 2016, Doyle discovered he had what he called a “big honkin’ brain tumor” and underwent surgery shortly after. He noted at the time that his diagnosis was terminal, and the surgery and ensuing chemotherapy were meant only to give him a year or two more. He died six months later in May, aged 60, leaving behind a wife and three adult children.

Proust may have had his madeleine, but Brian Doyle’s capacious memory could be jolted by the sights and smells of a Catholic school gym.

In a tribute to Doyle in America a month later, James M. Chesbro quoted the astonishing final line of Doyle’s essay, “Joyas Voladoras,” a sentence so evocative the reader forgets that it runs on for the length of a paragraph:

You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

“Doyle found ways to write about humanity with punch and vibrant courage and sentences that sometimes lasted for days, but his artistry granted us, his readers, access to the human condition we would not have had without his narrative prayers,” Chesbro wrote. “He left them for us to read.”

In an America essay this past May, Lindsay Schlegel noted that Doyle’s most powerful work often reflected his fascination with the lives (and viewpoints) of children. “Doyle’s fatherly love and joy shine throughout his work in every form,” Schlegel wrote. “Here is a man who understood the beauty, the irreplaceability, the gift of even the shortest life, and who stood in awe and humility before this grace without ceasing.”

Doyle’s writing, she wrote, “has the potential to stir this generation and the next to put down their smartphones (unless they’re using them to read Doyle) and gape at every life with childlike wonder, to pause and see the more magnificent thing, the more tremendous gift toward which each tiny miracle points.”

A trip through ourarchives brought me to Brian Doyle’s first contribution to America, a 1994 essay, “Naming,” about his toddler daughter’s exploration for the names of things—and his own thoughts on names in general. He closed the essay with a quintessential Brian Doyle coda, where it feels like the words are dancing:

Some months ago Lily and I began to talk about God, whom she calls Gott. Usually she refers to him by name, but one night, when I asked her who takes care of Lily and Momma and Daddy, she thought for a moment and then smiled as sweetly and broadly as a dawn and I suddenly realized that her smile is the true name of God, which is a word that may be said silently and which names more things than we will ever know.

“Here is a man who understood the beauty, the irreplaceability, the gift of even the shortest life, and who stood in awe and humility before this grace without ceasing.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Letter to Myself While Learning to Read,” by Laurinda Lind. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, this summer the Catholic Book Club is reading and discussing Mary Doria Russell’s novel, The Sparrow. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Sibley Award is administered by Newsweek. It is administered by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

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