From our breakfast nook during these days of isolation, we watch hummingbirds flitting atop the blooms of the lion’s tail, leonotis leonurus, that my wife planted from tiny seedlings in the fall that now stand six feet tall winding into the branches of a decrepit crape myrtle.
The bright orange blossoms provide a feast for the two hummingbirds that suck its nectar in the early morning hours before the heat of the day shrivels up the flowers and the diners pack up for the day. We hoped the hummingbirds might build a nest somewhere in the garden, but the squirrels that endlessly scurry through the trees have thwarted that. The rodents rule over the garden mercilessly, taunting our old Manchester terrier, who harbors the frustrated notion that the garden is her domain. But the murder (how seldom one gets to apply the term this way) of crows takes the dog’s side, driving the squirrels away.
You notice these little things as the springtime of confinement moves into summer and there is plenty of time to observe things that normally get lost in the quotidian busyness that normally occupy us.
The art of the essay is a way to explore the richness in small things and perhaps through the small things finding a new way of looking at bigger subjects: love, friendship, mortality.
While watching the work of our hummingbird friends I thought about Brian Doyle’s essay “Joyous Voladoras,” which I discovered in the Norton reader several years back and assigned to college freshmen, many of whom had never read an essay but were suddenly asked to write one of their own in response to that of Doyle’s.
I recently ordered a copy of One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, a collection of Doyle’s essays selected by his wife, Mary Miller Doyle, and published by Little, Brown and Company in 2019. “Joyous Voladoras” (so named by the first white settlers to the Americas), fittingly, the lead essay in this wonderful and lovingly compiled book by a writer who passed too soon. Doyle died from a brain tumor in 2017 at just 60.
Doyle published a number of books of essays, novels, and volumes of poetry. He was for many years editor of Portland Magazine, the alumni publication of Catholic University of Portland, which Annie Dillard called “The finest spiritual magazine in the United States.”
Doyle’s writing ranged from the religious to secular, but his work often examines the spirituality in small things.
Its emblematic of the respect that his work engendered that the masterful essayist and vocal atheist Christopher Hitchens was an admirer of Doyle’s. His writings appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper Magazine, American Scholar and The Best American Essays.
In one essay, “The Final Frontier,” Doyle ruminates on the idea of humility. “When we are young we build a self, a persona, a story in which to reside,” Doyle writes. We concoct either a single story, or “several selves in succession, or several at once, sometimes; when we are older we take on other roles and personas, other masks and duties; and you and I both know men and women who become trapped in the selves they worked so hard to build, so desperately imprisoned that sometimes they smash their lives simply to escape who they no longer wish to be; but finally, I think, if we are lucky, if we read the book of pain and loss with humility, we realize that we are all broken and small and brief, that none among us is ultimately more valuable or rich or famous or beautiful than another; and then, perhaps, we begin to understand something deep and true about humility.”
I read to try to figure out the world around me and I write, essays in particular, for the reason that Joan Didion cites: to try to figure out what I think. Brian Doyle is unlike me in many ways. He was a sports enthusiast and a devout Catholic. But I like the way his mind works and his several enthusiasms, for his family, his work, his writing. In one delightful piece titled “The Wonder of the Look on Her Face” he writes of meeting a nine-year-old girl at a reading in an old wooden church in the far north of New York. She introduced herself as a fellow writer. She had written a book about bears and another one about her grandfather’s fishing boat. She had some questions to ask him about writing—particularly about fiction.
“Could you write a book if you didn’t know what would happen in it? “I said yes, that, in fact it seemed to me that the writing was a lot more fun if you were regularly surprised and startled and even stunned by what happens. I said that maybe a good way to write a good book was to just show up ready to listen to the people and animals and trees in the book and write down what they said and did.”
He told the young girl that he had no real formula and that her way was probably as good as his. He told her he always kept a good pen in his pocket in case an idea for starting a book came to him at any given time. He took a pen out of his shirt pocket and gave it to her and, he writes, “She accepted the pen gingerly, with great care, with a look on her face that I wish I could express in words. But even excellent words like astonishment and joy and gravity and awe and reverence do not quite catch the wonder of the look on her face.” Perhaps that gifted pen would lead to the start of another inspired book by the young girl.
In “Billy Blake’s Trial” he writes about the poet and artist William Blake’s trial for assault and treason at the age of 47 in 1804. A drunken soldier had wandered onto Blake’s property in Felpham. According to an ostler who was called as a prosecution witness Blake had physically removed the soldier from his property while shouting seditious epitaphs denouncing King George III and professing support for Napoleon, against whom Britain had recently declared war.
Friends raise money for Blake’s trial, but when he is taken to court, and his lawyer falls sick and no witnesses are allowed in his defense, he faces possible deportation to Australia or even hanging. Doyle recollects the words of Blake’s: Every Night and every Morn/Some to Misery are Born/Every Morn and every Night/Some are Born to sweet delight/Some are Born to sweet delight/Some are Born to Endless Night.
The poet is acquitted but life doesn’t get easier for him. He writes prolific volumes of poetry and illustrates his poems with his equally remarkable watercolors. His beloved wife Kate, who he taught to read, is his editor and partner in their engraving business. Doyle finds that the couple long lived in poverty mostly in a London that was dirty, smoggy, and backward by the standards of most European cities of the day.
Doyle says in the essay that he worked on the piece for more than a year, researching it off and on for five years. During the course of his immersion in Blake’s life he wondered what compelled him to write and what led Doyle himself to write: “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 help myself, because there is something elevating in art, because I feel myself at my best when I am writing well…. Because this essay is my way of befriending and comprehending Billy Blake, whom I greatly admire in absentia.”
And he asks himself why he admired Blake so much. “Because he told the truth, because he shoved an insolent leering soldier down the road and scoffed him through a doorway, because he saw angels and saints and talked openly about his visions. Because he was a tender and difficult and solicitous friend…. Because when he knew he was going to die he lay in his bed singing softly.” When he was dying, he told his wife that he was going to the country that he had always wanted to see but that he would also always be there with her. When she died four years later, Doyle writes, “It is said that she died with one of his pencils in her hand.”
For the journal Smokebox in 2002 Doyle conducted a mock interview with himself in which he asks how he would rate Brian Doyle as a writer. He replies, in part, that he “has made a handful of really fine essays; maybe ten, if we stretch a little. Addicted to fragmented and cascading sentences, lists, semicolons, and bang endings. Windy bastard. Best when forced into a small space. As an editor, I keep a sharp eye out for his tendency toward sentimentality, schmaltz, the scraping of badly ruined violins… I think he is going to keep trying to make small perfect pieces of prose that get smaller and smaller until he finally stops writing altogether and ends his days pondering a single word, or a single letter of the alphabet, poor bastard. I’ll visit him in the nuthouse.”
Blake talked of exploring a world “in a grain of sand.”
In “Joyas Voladoras” Doyle builds an accretion of details around the hummingbirds, which I didn’t know live only in the Americas and have such evocative names as bearded helmetcrests, booted racket-tails, violet-capped woodnymphs, purple-crowned fairies, glittering-bellied emeralds and Andean hillstars, and who can dive sixty miles an hour and cover 500 miles without pausing to rest. Their large hearts are the size of a pencil eraser and beat at a ferocious rate to keep their metabolism moving and wings flapping so fast that we can’t see them.
“They suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature,” Doyle writes. “It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine.” I never considered this, but he writes that “Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise, and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”
Midway into the piece, Doyle shifts to the blue whale, whose biggest of all hearts weighs more than seven tons and is as big as a room that a child could wander through. The valves, he says are as large as the swinging doors in a saloon. While there are maybe 10,000 blue whales and they are in every ocean on earth, we know very little about them—their mating habits, their social structure, their language, their stories. We do know that they travel in pairs and have “penetrating moaning cries” and a “piercing yearning tongue [that] can be heard under water for miles and miles.” But we gradually see that the essay isn’t really a study in biology as much as a meditation on what creatures gigantic and small might carry in their hearts.
“So much held in a heart in a lifetime,” he writes. “So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart.
“When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn…. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possible can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath,…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.”
I would add that we can also be felled by the words of a writer that reach into you and in ways small and large may change you forever.Michael Moreau is a frequent contributor to Neworld Review
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