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At an angle to the universe: Remembering Brian Doyle

  • 30 May 2017


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.

For 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