At an angle to the universe: Remembering Brian Doyle

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Writer Brian Doyle, aged only 60, has died in far-off America. I never met Brian, but still have a great sense of loss, and I feel sure that same sense is shared by many individuals in all parts of the world.

xxxxxFor Brian was a communicator par excellence, and an award-winner: a poet, a novelist, and a storyteller who admired great masters of story such as Hawthorne, Kipling, Conrad and Stevenson. People of all ages responded to Brian, his teaching and his writing, for he was very gifted. But he was also a deeply spiritual man, and quite simply an all-round good person.

I was one of the people who responded to Brian in a very literal sense; we were both writing for Eureka Street, and thus emailed each other every so often.

Brian thought it was great to be in touch with a person in Greece, and I couldn't quite believe I was writing to the editor of Portland Magazine, University of Portland, Oregon. But there we were, discovering we had various interests in common: the poetry of Greek Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy, for one.

E. M. Forster famously described Cavafy as 'a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe'. Well, Brian was Irish-American rather than Greek, I never discovered his taste in headgear, and similarly never thought of him as being absolutely motionless, for he seemed to me to be a maverick spirit who resembled quicksilver more than anything else. But there remains no doubt in my mind that he stood 'at a slight angle to the universe'.

One has only to check the Eureka Street archive to hear Brian's unique voice speaking through his many contributions there, to become aware of the slant his view often took of significant matters. One recent piece, for example, was entitled 'All the way to Mass is Mass', and it is writing that shows his originality of thought. It was published after he had received the diagnosis of his illness.

Brian's work was always notable for many things: firm yet subtle control, the great tumbling yet disciplined lists of perfectly chosen adjectives, the elevation of the quotidian, the appreciation of the natural world and its creatures, but in its sheer love of life, this piece reaches new heights.

As I re-read it now, I find the references to the 'lovely bride' and 'the house wolf' almost unbearably touching, and comments offered at the time of publication show that Brian's public felt much the same. One reader, for example, wrote that he was not initiated into Brian's 'grand mysteries', but that the joy and awe conveyed rang out with love and goodwill. How very true.

 

"We are only here for a minute, we are here for a little window, and to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story." — Brian Doyle

 

That inimitable voice last spoke in Eureka Street in a piece posted on 28 May. The piece, aptly entitled 'Pay fierce attention to the holy of everything', was followed by a brief announcement of Brian's death. This last article, with its title, seems an entirely appropriate farewell one, a declaration of a life-long credo. Brian seems to have been an inspired teacher, and here he recounts being in a classroom with young children. His puckish sense of humour is well to the fore as he describes the teacher wearing a familiar expression as she tries to reconcile her doubts about Brian's approach with the clear evidence that the children are having a whale of a time.

Brian's lesson expands the title: love and laughter, imagination and humour, attempts to see the holy in everything, are ways in which we can combat the fearful strength of lies and blood. His last thoughts here are with stories, big stories that have the power to vanquish the other stories of ugliness and threat. Let the man himself have the last word, expressed elsewhere: 'We are only here for a minute, we are here for a little window, and to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.'

And what a story Brian wrote.

Read more: The Storycatcher — 17 of the best of Brian Doyle

 


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Brian Doyle


 

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A lovely tribute, Gillian. I came across Brian's writing before reading his work for Eureka Street. It was an essay "Shatter" in a book titled "Peter Kennedy: The Man Who Threatened Rome". An excerpt: "I suggest that my church will always be a struggle and a mess, will always be a human yearning and failure, will always be striving and falling, will always be a house for wonder and woe, will never be what it wishes to be; but will be closer to the spirit of its astounding and miraculous birth, in the years to come, than it has been in two millennia. And that, my friends, is a miracle."
Pam | 30 May 2017


To live in the hearts of others is also never to die. RIP Brian.
AO | 30 May 2017


I am stalled as I read this wise piece from Gillian - thank you. Even though I had loved and re-posted Brian's 'Pay fierce attention to the holy of everything' piece, I had not twigged that he had died. It has been a constant pleasure to read Brian's work, prose and poetry, and I have often laughed out loud at his insights into life, his humour and virtuosic handling of the English language. Now I find myself in tears at his abrupt departure. My best to his family and loved ones.
Barry Gittins | 30 May 2017


Brain Doyle was one of my favourite Eureka Street authors (as is Gillian Bouras). His writing was like the best sermons - short, filled with a sense of fun and love and to the point with a thoughtful message one could remember. It was distressing to hear of his untimely death. I am sure he leaves an enormous gap in the lives of many family and friends in Portland as well as his loyal Eureka Street readers across the world.
Jenny Edwards | 31 May 2017


Thank you for saying it for me ,Gillian. How can we be so sad for the loss of someone met just once years ago and who was a "word friend" for so long. Rest in peace dear Brian. Much love to his dear family and all those who treasured Brian in their lives. We will all try to be tender , laugh and share the story.
Celia | 31 May 2017


I'm devastated by this young death of a wonderful, bright, clear spirit I came to know through Eureka Street (thanks kindly) and on ABC radio. I so admired him and his sublime spirituality in a difficult age. Vale poet of the people and a man of peaceful thinking.
Peter Goers | 31 May 2017


Like many others, I shall miss reading Brian Doyle's easygoing wisdom in Eureka Street. His kind and quirky sense of humour is what I remember most. He often took the trouble also to comment in useful ways on essays I wrote, often on the subjects of asylum-seekers and our obligations to protect their lives and dignity. I will miss you, Brian.
Tony Kevin | 31 May 2017


Thanks Gillian for your tribute to such a creative and insightful man. I still remember how one week spent in a hotel in Fitzroy led to a wonderful series of essays on the people he met on the street, shops and trams. In many ways Australia with his friendships with many writers and his support for the Geelong Football Club was his second home. I'm ever grateful for a beautiful poem he wrote for my wife.
Garry Eastman | 31 May 2017


Thank you. I have loved the essays and devotions of Brian Doyle for years and first came to know of him through Guideposts Magazine and Daily Guideposts as well as SUN Magazine. I never met him or communicated with him, but I also feel a very deep and great loss. I found Eureka last year while searching for instances of Brian's work. Thank you for your tribute from an American girl in South Florida (still America, just different!).
Arie Strobel | 31 May 2017


Sad news and a fitting tribute, Gillian. Thank you. RIP Brian.
John | 31 May 2017


Very sad to hear of Brian Doyle's passing. Back in 2004 I wrote a review of his book "The Wet Engine" for 'Eureka Street' saying in part: "One of the joys of my reading this year has been the discovery of this editor of Portland magazine. In this book and his earlier work, Leaping, he is clearly a spiritual writer of the first order, someone who uncovers grace and its first cousin love in every aspect of life." Farewell for now, Brian. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris' review of The Wet Engine can be found here: https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=543#.WS5K1hN95E4]
Chris Gleeson | 31 May 2017


Like Gillian, I never actually met Brian. I know nothing of his family, if he had one. He was not a great admirer of the Ascendancy in Ireland and I took issue with a story of one British atrocity he reported second hand and asked him about it. He answered with unfailing courtesy and I agreed to leave it at that. I believe the University of Portland is Jesuit run so I suppose he was part of that network. Whether he was a great writer or whether his poetry will be remembered only posterity will decide. He certainly enjoyed himself, was invariably courteous and always ready to learn. I think we could all take a leaf out of his book. I hope he is 'Up There' and that his family are consoled.
Edward Fido | 31 May 2017


Six years ago, I was visiting Brian Doyle’s home turf – Portland, Oregon. He made contact and wanted to catch up. I knew we both wrote for Eureka Street. We met in glorious sunshine on a brisk morning. It was as if we had been friends for life. We talked for an hour or two. Brian asked me lots of questions about different aspects of church life and life in Australia. But he had the art of gentle conversation. He was not the journalistic type. I would proffer an answer on his chosen topic and this would prompt his own reminiscences and insights, sharing American as well as Australian experiences. I am one of those Australians who is often a touch overwhelmed and underwhelmed contemporaneously by the bigness, brashness, and self-assuredness of things American. Brian was one of those Americans who gracefully displayed learning, humility, wry humour, and empathetic interest in the ways and foibles of smaller nations. His humour crossed cultural divides, which meant he enjoyed our Australian humour in return (which many Americans find an acquired taste, like Vegemite). I sensed that he enjoyed the isolation of the west coast from the big business and intellectual race of the east coast, and he relished the proximity to Canada where folks like him were just so different and yet so much the same. There was a glint in his eye when he boasted his international Jesuit contacts in the presence of the Holy Cross rector of his university. He loved difference and the light shimmering on rustled waters. That’s where he found grace and revealed it to anyone happy to read him or meet him. May he rest in peace.
Frank Brennan SJ | 01 June 2017


I exchanged text messages with Brian the morning of his surgery and the last words I formally had from him when I asked him what I could do for him, he said simply, sing me. In the ways of his Irish Ancestors and the ways of his writing that still reverberate through the eyes and ears of the heart. That's what Brian has done for so many. You will be missed friend, and thank you for the way your writing made so many, including this friend in Fremantle, feel less alone, and a bit closer to the divine. Eternal rest grant unto him, and a good choir to greet him. Amen.
Tom Gannon | 01 June 2017


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