Warm fuzzy flipside to a fidgety control freak


One reason we invented the poem
is to try to say what can't be said

For many years I worked for a man who drove me stark raving mad.
He was the worst meticulous fussy fidgety perfectionist control freak
In the history of human beings. He would rather that things were way
Late than that they were done with any hint of a mistake. We did not
See eye to eye about this, or much else. Yet no one cared more about

The work we did, and what it meant. He was subject to fits of temper,
And you never met a gentler man. He held grudges, and was the soul
Of mercy beyond sense and reason. He was a pacifist who had earned
A Bronze Star in a war. He was the worst manager I ever saw and the
Best employee. He had been a quiet drunk and when he realised he'd
Damage his new children he stopped and never took another sip. Lots
Of people knew him and no one knew him well. He wouldn't allow it.
Yet he wept easily when he was moved, which he was every amazed
Day, usually by something having to do with a child. He was so close
With his emotions that you wanted to scream but no one was courtlier.
He took his faith so seriously that no one was ever more furious about
Its crimes and lies and greed for money and power. He retired at dawn
This morning. He cleaned out his office and went home and sent email
To a few people. Even his leaving was meticulously controlled so that
No one could say farewell or tell him they admired him; I have to grin
At the sheer consistency of that. But one reason we invented the poem
Is to try to say what cannot be said, and what I want to say is that I am
So thankful for your honesty, your integrity, your patient commitment
To work that in the end was about the holiness of tall children. I won't
Forget that, as long as I live. It would have been cool to tell you that in
Person but you won't allow that, you brilliant oddity, so here's a poem.


A whopping poem

Need not be gargantuan, though, know what I mean?
It could be epic while remaining lean; terse and huge
At once, if we find the right subject. A child's defiant
Grace under duress, her adamant laughter, his tireless
Courage without the slightest reason to be brave. She
Has a bone marrow transplant today. He is once again
All too familiar with the murmur of the infusion room.
We don't talk about this much because it's just too big.
We just can't handle kids suffering — they're too small,
I think. You want to hear something huge, though? Go
Listen to a nurse or a teacher in the humming corridors
Of the floors with the most pain. They'll tell you some
Whopping stories and they only use a few small words.


Te absolvo

Of course we remember everything that ever happened to us.
Sure we do. We can easily make a concerted effort to forget,
And successfully forget from Levels One through Eight, but
You remember, somehow — at the cellular or molecular level
Perhaps, where shame and embarrassment are in cold storage.
The things you most want to forget are the things you cannot.
You can say, as I have, that you have no memory of that evil
Minute when you lied or cheated or dodged responsibility or
Worst of all pinned it on someone else; but of course you do.
One sweet thing about being Catholic is that you can politely
Ask for forgiveness, and be granted forgiveness — I mean, te
Absolvo, aren't those the two most terse glorious words ever?
But the crucial part of the sacrament that we don't talk about
Is the next part, the part after you leave the church. You walk
To the river and while you are pretending to watch for herons
You envision each person against whose holiness you did sin,
And to each you apologise, and ask for forgiveness. Some of
Them are long gone from this world but not from the Infinite
Mercy who remembers all levels and forgetteth not a sparrow.
You are absolved not when a man says so but when you have
Asked, with every fiber of your being, to be forgiven, to walk
Home clean, to start again, to be possible. What we really ask
For in the sacrament of reconciliation is to be a question mark
Again, to be a verb, to be not what we did but what we might
Yet be able to do; a map of the unknown, an unfinished song.



One day years ago a very small child said to me,
Quietly but firmly, you are not listening to what
I am saying, and ever after I have been trying to.
I bent down, that time, feeling shame, but it was
Too late. Words and miracles are swift and rude
And sometimes words are the flags or tendrils of
Miracles. I find that stories often have doors and
Windows through which you can see the miracle.
Miracles in my experience are not naked, and do
Not arrive with trumpet flourishes, and announce
Themselves, and register with the local authority,
Religious or civil. Miracles are in general uncivil,
In fact. Quite often they are an unholy holy mess;
The girl in the first line of the poem, for example.
I saw her arrive wetly in this world: what a mess!
Yet the miracle is inarguable. Many words apply,
Like cellular mitosis, but they're only drapery on
That which seems normal but is of course miracle.
Though, wait, there are naked miracles — she was.


Five poems

Well, we have already established expectations, just from the title
Of the poem, we have set them out like tent stakes, but, you know,
There's only you and me here, so let's sneak away and have some
Fun with it and see what happens. For a while let's make the poem
About five beers, or bears. Or five brothers, or five round abbesses.
What if we give the abbesses the beer, and ask them about courage?
Don't you think they would have some piercing things to say? Who
Needs five whole poems across, say, three pages, when you can say
To the abbess, Mother, speak to me of grace and mercy and humour?
I bet all the poems ever written aren't able to catch all she could say.
We forget this about poems. They're so good at catching a big story
In a few lines, or hinting at a thousand stories as they slide past one,
That we forget they are little things, and stories are bigger and older
And wilder than we could catch in a million years. Poems are lovely
Conversational sparks, though. You can go anywhere inside a poem,
Say anything, break all rules, as long as you hint at something huge;
Something you and the reader know full well between you but never
Get to say, much. Like the whole thing with the abbess. I know: let's
Take the rest of the afternoon, and all the space we would have given
The next four poems, and sit with the abbess, and talk of these things.
That will be an afternoon beautifully spent, with four poems to spare.

Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Taichi yin and yang from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, poetry



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Existing comments

Regarding your first, prose, offering here Brian, I think these lines from Mervyn Peake are probably most apt: "I cannot give the reasons I only sing the tunes..." I think you did the latter well. In relation to the gentleman you were writing of, I think he, as well as the rest of us, may well have been searching for wholeness as well as holiness. It is something we need to remember. Most of us, I include myself, fall short of this in some way. Jesus was whole as well as holy.

Edward F | 08 October 2013  

Sometimes Brian hits and sometimes he misses but these all hit me just where I needed hitting. Thank you.

Steve | 08 October 2013  

Please how/where do I get a copy of Grace Notes. Just loved the above

Judy Brown | 08 October 2013  

'Grace Notes' as well as other books by Brian can be got through Book Depository website.

Patrick Toohey | 09 October 2013  

In reflecting on these excellent poems, Brian, I would say you are a conversational (in the best sense of the word) poet. I think "A whopping poem" is a true gem. Thanks.

Pam | 21 October 2013  

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