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by Jeff Munroe
Brian Doyle had me at The whole weasel question. (As opposed to “You had me at hello.”) I was undone by the powerhouse poem, which ends with his dying brother asking, “And what was it you did instead of paying attention?”
Brian was a prolific poet, novelist, essayist, and the editor of Portland magazine. His exuberant writing is marked by strings and strings of adjectives (“like arrows of flashing trout in a river,” he said), enough adjectives to make “omit needless words” Strunk and White roll over in their respective graves. Consider this trio from his poem God: “This blistering perfect terrible world.” Blistering perfect terrible says it all. That poem is about seeing God in the shape of seven kids on a kindergarten bus and also includes the line: “and all this crap about God being dead and where is God / And who owns God and who hears God better than whom is the most / Egregiously stupid crap imaginable . . . “
In November, 2015, I attended a lecture and writing workshop led by Brian in Chicago, sponsored by The Christian Century. He was delightful, fun, funny, insightful, emotional, impish, grinning, and above all incredibly Irish in an “I live in Portland now but am really from Queens” kind of way. He cried talking about 9/11 and then had us rolling on the floor when he spoke about meeting the Dalai Lama (not recognizing his holiness, Brian addressed him as “Bub” and got into an argument with the Dalai Lama about whether basketball or soccer was a better game). Our homework included several writing prompts, and I was inspired afterwards to try to write a prose poem in the style of Brian Doyle. He had encouraged us to email him, and after endlessly revising my poem for the better part of a month, I worked up the courage to send it to him, hoping he would consider imitation the most sincere form of flattery.
He sent a reply that popped onto my computer screen an unbelievable seven minutes after I had emailed him. He said my poem was “lovely and funny and honest and awful.” (In this context “awful” was a compliment.) He suggested I send the poem to US Catholic magazine, and I figured since he’s a Catholic who publishes in mainline Protestant outlets, why couldn’t a Protestant put a poem in a Catholic magazine? They accepted it and printed it in their May 2016 issue.
Last Thanksgiving Brian announced he had an incurable form of brain cancer. When his fans and friends wrote to ask what they could do to help, he wrote back: “Hear all laughter. Be tender to each other. Be more tender than you were yesterday, that’s what I would like. You want to help me? Be tender and laugh.”
Brian Doyle died at the age of 60 on May 27, surrounded by his wife and three children. He was that rare poet who had a happy childhood and enjoyed his parents and siblings, then had a happy marriage that produced wonderful children, and approached the end “gaping in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere at every moment and weeping with joy that he had been given the gift of being alive.” He was alive, fully alive. He enriched our lives with dozens of books, essays, and poems, but his passing leaves the world less literate, less joyful, and less human. I miss him.
Here’s my attempt at a Brian Doyle poem.
There was a fitness center next to the fancy hotel pool and
maybe my daughter was ten and my son eight, and my
son, a leap-before-you-look sort of kid, jumped on a
treadmill and got it going but then the treadmill had a
mind of its own and kept getting faster. One second my son
was smiling and the next second he looked terrified, yet
even as his fear filled the fitness center I stood frozen,
puzzling over that treadmill like it was a complicated long
division problem. Why didn’t I just grab my son and lift him
off that demon machine? Finally, I began pushing buttons,
but those stupid buttons just made the console display
useless stuff like heart rate and miles per hour and my little
boy was running like a madman trying to keep up. An
image popped into my head, a scene from The Jetsons of
George stuck on a treadmill, perhaps forever, when boom
my son fell onto his knees, and only then did I sort of grab
and tackle him and the fronts of his legs were exposed and
running red because he only had on his swimsuit. I carried
him out to a reclining pool chair where he sat sobbing
because there wasn’t any skin on his knees anymore and it
hurt and I didn’t cry but I wanted to, not out of empathy
but because of my own failure. I’d stood slack-jawed in
a Jetsons fog while the save-the-day moments whistled past.
What sort of pathetic dad does that? Occasionally on
Sunday mornings we use that old form Prayer of
Confession that says forgive us our sins of commission and
also our sins of omission and maybe most of the
congregation doesn’t understand what omission means
but the word slays me every time, because what you don’t
do can be worse than what you do. My son’s skin grew
back, but how to fix the deeper wounds, to his psyche and
mine, that still fester because one day when my son
needed his dad to act I stood thinking about a cartoon? For
that I fall to my knees and pray again and again, over and
over, Father and son please forgive me.
Jeff Munroe is Vice President for Advancement and Operations at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.