Best Of 2010: The thirty good priests


First published in Eureka Street 13 July 2010

National caricature: a note
In Fitzroy, in Melbourne, in the wild Southern Hemisphere,
I got to talking one day to a young man who ran a bookstore.
We started out talking about great writers from our countries,
Which led to fine writers people inside the country knew but
Outsiders generally didn't, the sort of writer that speaks right

To his or her fellows but somehow doesn't translate too well,
Which led to a discussion of national characters, and we both
Considered most talk of national character to be total silliness,
Which is why so much cultural portrayal of national character
Is mere caricature, right? Your Rambo, our Crocodile Dundee,
He said. The tram groaned and squealed and grumbled outside.
But a caricature needs seeds of truth, yes? We are both bloody.
Independence too much of a virtue, frightened former colonies,
And there was always so much land still to snatch and harness,
Until there isn't, and then what? Reinvention takes a long time.
Maybe that's why we love some writers who aren't so famous,
Because they are trying to grow new things from the old seeds.
The most famous writers are famous because they manufacture
What you want, not what you didn't know you wanted. Maybe.
One thing I have learned selling books is that I don't know any
Thing at all about why people buy books. But I have had folks
Right here in the store telling me about a book that nailed them,
That really cut into some deep new place inside them — so often
About here, you know — about this place and people, about how
The ways we used to be might grow into ways we will get to be.
So you want to buy something? Ever hear of Roger McDonald?
The Thirty
One time I was sitting on a high hill in Australia,
This was a year when my marriage was teetering,
And a priest strolled out of the nearby monastery
And sat down companionably on the cedar bench
And didn't say anything, for which I was grateful
Beyond words. Parrots rocketed by and a possum
Scrabbled in a pine tree. The brush-tailed possum,
Said the priest finally, while dedicated to its mate,
Devotes a good part of its time to solitary pursuits,
The speculation among scientists being that this is
Healthy for both partners, who come to each other
With fresh information, as it were. I didn't answer
Him directly and he didn't press the point, and our
Talk turned to rugby and oysters, and off we went,
Each to his own pursuits; I never forgot that bench,
Though. For every greedy evil rapacious liar priest
I think maybe there are thirty great and subtle men.
We forget this. Certainly we should dangle a rapist
From the pine tree by his nuts, but those other men,
The men who know what not to say, who hand you
Their ears without cash or expectations or religious
Claptrap, who spend their days as patient witnesses,
Who bend their time to singing the holiness of it all,
Who wake alone quite early and don their vocations
Willingly like a thorny endlessly tumultuous prayer,
Those are the thirty this poem turned out to be about.
On the difficulty of translating the American writer Brian Doyle
First of all, the style is incomprehensible; what was he thinking
With these elephantine rolling sentences? Is he afraid of periods
Or what? And then the addiction to semicolons and ampersands,
Did he read only Blake and Gibbon as a child? What sort of guy
Uses words such as howsobeit and inasmuch and heretofore and
Whereas without wearing tights on stage in an Elizabethan play?
And what kind of horse's ass invents words once a page, driving
His translator stark raving gibbering insane? See, gibbering, he's
Getting into my head, and soon I'll be saying capacious and deft,
And whipping along headlong on the page like a nutter careering
Downhill with no brakes and a case of the crazy little-kid giggles.
See, giggling, there's another word, and snickering, and snortling,
He wrote that recently — meaning snorting & snarling & chortling,
I guess, and o my god I am using ampersands! And see, even that,
The sudden shouting, how do I make that into any sort of sensible
And orderly communication with the reader? And a guy who says
He laughed so hard he passed a weasel, how am I to translate that,
I ask you? That kind of deliberately ridiculous and illogical image
Is what he trafficks in as the normal course of affairs, and it seems
To me that he savours this, that language for him is a vast wild toy,
Something to play with, something to start like a journey and then
See where it goes, something he walks into rather than commands,
Something that will reveal more of himself than he knew he knew,
Something that here and there is a wriggle or shiver for all readers,
And I have no words for that either — that sudden electric plummet
As an essay opens itself, or the startle of a reader recognising a joy
He or she has felt like a mysterious hand. Maybe we will get better
With our words, maybe that's what he is trying to say, maybe there
Will be better words the harder we try to write about what we can't
Write about very well; or maybe he's just a nutter with a typewriter. 

PoetBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices.

Topic tags: brian doyle, National Caricature: a Note, the thirty, On the Difficulty of Translating, American



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Existing comments

What an extraordinarily moving poem! It gave me a shiver of joy to hear that a truly spiritual person had picked up exactly on what needed to be said. The right moment, the right words, to the right person, with the right impact. With no paperwork or preamble. Just the workings of the Spirit, between humans who are open to it. Great priests are worth their weight in gold. Most of all, what a joy to have this acknowledged! Thankyou Brian for this amazing poem, which reminds us all of the many who rarely receive accolades, and who don't need accolades, to keep doing the pastoral work they do.

Sage | 04 January 2011  

Brian. And there are Ninety wonderful lay women who each day devote all their energies, understandings and strength to the people hurt by the greedy, evil rapacious liar priests. These women go unnoticed by the poets and the male only focus of many skewed authors of an unobservant male.

Laurie Sheehan | 05 January 2011  

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