To say that Brian Doyle was a writer, poet, novelist, and editor is to say that Tom Brady called plays and threw footballs. It’s part of the story, but you’re missing something big if you miss how they did what they did. Doyle said he set out to lasso “the music in and through and under all things.” So we asked Devin Kelly, himself a writer and poet who revels in the beauty and music of language, to dig into Doyle’s work. Here’s what he discovered there: grace and wonder.
I would define myself as a fairly lapsed Catholic. This is perhaps an odd way to begin this essay — especially for a Catholic platform — but maybe it explains why at this moment in my life I have found myself wondering so often about grace.
The word entered into my mental vocabulary a year or two ago, and it never left. When I was an ardent Catholic — and I was, as a boy, attending Catholic school and voluntarily going to daily Mass every weekday of my senior year of high school — the word grace wasn’t even something I considered. I was more concerned with myself, and my future, and the idea of impending doom or salvation.
Now, so far removed from that, and so far removed from the very practice of faith, I find myself longing for grace — both in how I treat myself and in how the world interacts with the rest of itself. When you center grace, you find the absence of it everywhere. If grace might be defined as an allowance for what you do not understand rather than an immediate judgment of it, it is hard to notice such allowance in any discourse of society.
As I write this, I’m sitting on my favorite thing I can call my own. It is a chair that once belonged to my great-grandmother. It has a soft, blue-paisley-patterned cushion, and this latticework on the side that is beyond frayed. I put it right next to my window, and on that same windowsill I keep the books I have grown to love. There is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Home, too. And Housekeeping. And The Essential W.S. Merwin. And lately, as I have come to know and adore him, I have placed a copy of Brian Doyle’s How the Light Gets In.
When I read the writing of Brian Doyle, I find that the very ability to witness grace is dependent on our ability to be open to the possibility of it. And that means grounding our lives in a kind of incessant wondering — something that the Oregon author specialized in.
In one poem — “The Window Through Which to Whisper” — he writes:
one thing I
Have learned in life is to be quiet and listen and
Out will pour real honest naked hard holy grace
In Eight Whopping Lies, a collection of little essays, Doyle ends one piece with a beautiful, nearly page-long sentence that begins with the idea that “angels and bodhisattvas are everywhere available for consultation if only we can see them clear.” He describes such luminaries of grace as things that are “unadorned, and joyous, and patient,” before stating that the experience of witnessing something or someone in that ballpark of beauty is “to be graced beyond measure or understanding.”
If the messengers of grace are “everywhere available,” how do we adopt the kind of wonder that helps us “see them clear”? Doyle’s writing is a romance both of and with grace, so if we’re serious about this question, we’ll find in his words a sort of field journal from a keen, grateful, deft, fearless, generous, and irreverently reverent observer. In another poem — “Miraculum” — he writes:
I find that stories often have doors and
Windows through which you can see the miracle.
That miracle Doyle mentions — it’s many things, I think. And it is everywhere.
Just today, before I sat down to write this, I was sitting in a bar slightly above the street, watching the snow fall just outside the window. I couldn’t stop looking at the streetlight, and the way it almost caught the snow — the same way that sunlight catches a mote of dust — and held it there a little longer than perhaps possible. I think that was a kind of grace beyond measure. It was like watching the world love itself.
It’s almost awkward, reading Doyle’s work today. It feels like the stuff of some time that no longer exists, when listening was something beautiful and stillness was a setting we all had the capacity to live within. In other words, reading Doyle feels — especially if you have been hurt or betrayed by society — a little like a cliché. Listen, you might mock. Be open, you might mock. You might make fun of the seeming-simplicity of such romantic ideas. Even Doyle himself writes, in one poem, that it sounds “condescending / And trite and boringly paternal” when he speaks to his children about how proud he is of them. But Doyle’s work reminds me that such things — listening, being open — take actual work. In other words, grace is not the stuff of platitudes.
The work of grace expounded upon by Doyle reminds me of another poet, Ross Gay, who, in The Book of Delights, reminds us that “in almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking.” I love the way that the phrase if we pay attention is set off by commas. It reminds us of the importance of such an act, and also the difficulty. The whole passage hinges on that conditional. If we do not pay attention, Ross Gay seems to be saying, then none of this really applies to any of us at all. You can ignore the whole text, which is another way of saying you can ignore the whole world. To pay attention is to invite the opportunity of snow falling through a streetlight.
As I sit here writing this, I think of all the voids that exist in my life. Voids that have to do with the security of the future, its safety and its ability to hold compassion in its heart for all people. I think of how hard it must be to be anyone in this moment — to be a parent not knowing if their child should or should not go to school, to be a teacher (as I am) not knowing if they are safe, to be any person trying to live along the delicate balance of risk and uncertainty. Life, as it is now, is both unbearable and unbearably precious. It is steeped in the anxiety of never feeling like you have a single good decision to make.
One thing I miss about the practice of faith is the way in which it centered uncertainty in my life, the way it, as Thomas Merton once wrote in a letter to the poet Czeslaw Milosz, pushed me to “start with a good acceptance of the dark.” Doyle’s poetry reminds me that the centering of uncertainty can actually be a beautiful thing. “What if there was a poem,” he asks in one poem, “That didn’t know what it was about until it got / To the end of itself?” It seems like a lovely, though playful, question, until one realizes that it is a question one might take — as a living, breathing human being — to the grave. Our lives are enactments of uncertainty. We wrestle with ourselves our entire lives, trying to figure out who we are and why we are. We are like poems — not knowing the meaning of ourselves, but still writing out our years, line by line.
In this sense, Brian Doyle’s poetry shows us that the act of wonder can fill the void of our uncertainty, and can do it through different forms. To say I was wrong is a kind of wonder. To stand in stillness and listen is a kind of wonder. To not know, and admit your not-knowing-ness, is a kind of wonder. And, if a cliché is simply something that gets repeated to such an extent that it loses its inherent meaning, then maybe wonder is not a cliché at all.
I keep thinking of one of Doyle’s poems, “You Never Know,” and how he keeps repeating the word maybe, forever engaged in an act of self-correction. I love that word, maybe. It is a word that opens up another door or another window every time it is uttered. It is a word that reminds us that light might come from any angle, at any time. It is a word that enacts a sense of turning.
I began this piece by saying that I am a lapsed Catholic. I still am. That has not changed. But sometimes I miss the foothold provided by faith, the way that it offered me a ledge to stand on when I needed a foothold amidst the windy bluster of the world. That is perhaps why I have a soft spot in my heart for grace, for the work of it, for the way that Brian Doyle reminds us that it takes practice to be open, to admit you are wrong, to dwell within uncertainty. The work of recognizing and receiving grace these days is a lot like the practice of faith. It requires some resistance to urgency, a willingness to prioritize care over ease. While the world rushes by, grace reminds us to find moments of stillness while we can, and to sit within them, to cherish them for the rarities they are.
If we are each poems, and if poems are — as so many seem to be — testaments of mystery, then we are each still in the long lines of our living. We are not at the end of ourselves. We are always waiting on the void of the next line, and we are always wondering — I hope — toward the next word.
Devin teaches high school in New York City, and writes a weekly newsletter on poetry that will open your eyes to the kind of wonder and grace played with here — subscribe to Ordinary Plots for these revelatory missives. The best place to begin reading Brian Doyle is with the collection of his essays, One Long River of Song.
Our senior editor, Josh Noem, was a friend of Brian Doyle and worked with him in Portland before Doyle died in 2017. Check out the conversation he shared with Devin about Brian’s work, the craft of writing, and the discipline of noticing small things.