For my last birthday my wife, Krystyna, gave me a book that she had read and that she especially treasures. She thought I would benefit from reading it as well. And she is right. It is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary person.
One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder by Brian Doyle is an intellectually and spiritually enticing collection of essays, columns, short articles, and various bon mots that speak with a special eloquence to the heart.
Before reading the book, I had never heard of Doyle, and I am embarrassed to say so. A prolific figure who wrote scores of books—nonfiction, poetry, and fiction—he spent most of his life as an editor of Portland Magazine in Oregon. But his reach was wider than that. For whatever reason, he was not on my radar screen. All the more reason for my indebtedness to Krystyna for giving me One Long River of Song.
The book was published posthumously—Doyle died in 2017 at 61—and the tone is both elegiac and celebratory. This was a man who wrote viscerally about being a husband, a father, a friend, a brother, a Christian aching into holiness. He turned his poetic eye on the ordinary and revealed the extraordinary; he relished memories and storytelling and saw them as acts of ritual that deepen our humanity; he read deeply but was drawn not to the abstract, the theoretical, but to the simple human epiphany. Speaking of the rapturous, Doyle notes:
Maybe what the word rapture really means is an attention so ferocious that you see the miracle of the world as the miracle it is. Maybe that is what happens to saints and mystics who float up into the air and soar beyond sight and vanish finally into the glare of the sun.
And speaking of mystics.
In a startlingly illuminating piece on the poet and visual artist William Blake—“Billy Blake’s Trial”—you can see Doyle’s special ability to unearth the profoundly human emotions at the core of things. Like Doyle, I share a lifelong interest in Blake (the role of Blake on the thought and life of Thomas Merton was my doctoral dissertation) and I am familiar with the primary and secondary literature in the field. Doyle doesn’t provide a commentary on Blake’s Swedenborgianism, his arcane mysticism, his intricate and often baffling mythology and his not easily accessible epics. What he does in this moving essay is reveal the human in the genius, the mortal artist, beleaguered, misunderstood, and flailing about, and in so doing Doyle unearths Blake’s loveableness.
Throughout the book we have snippets and shards of insight grounded in his capacity to react: to 9/11, to struggling companions, to familial deaths. And through it all, his abiding Catholic faith. In “A Prayer for You and Yours,’ written near the end of his life, he reflects on his life as a parent, a loving partner, but also as a Catholic in a post-conciliar and secular world:
You tiptoe back toward religion, in my experience, cautiously and nervously and more than a little suspicious, quietly hoping that it wasn’t all smoke and nonsense, that there is some deep wriggle of genius and poetry and power and wild miracle in it, that it is a language you can use to speak about that for which we have no words; and in my case, as in many others I know, this was so, and I saw for the first time in my life that there were two Catholic Churches, one a noun and the other a verb, one a corporation and the other a wild idea held in the hearts of millions of people who are utterly uninterested in authority and power and rules and regulations, and very interested indeed in finding ways to walk through the bruises of life with grace and humility.
One can certainly hear the ecclesiology of Pope Francis in these sentiments. And one can rejoice. As one can rejoice in the gift of creation, the gift of communion, the gift of friendship that percolate with such fecundity in the writings and witness of Brian Doyle.