We’re honored to share U.S. Catholic’s collection of selected poems by Brian Doyle, who wrote essays and “proems” that graced our pages for decades. He passed away in May 2017.
Doyle’s work regularly found a home in our magazine as he never failed to make us think differently about our faith, our selves, and the world around us. His writing—often humorous, ever touching, and always introspective—reveals what regularly goes on in our minds.
Whether he channeling a curious young boy fumbling with a new rosary on his First Communion (Your First Rosary) or expressing furious emotions after a horrific mass shooting (A Prayer for our Daily Murder), Doyle’s poems are sure to soothe your soul and give a voice to the quiet thoughts and emotions we don’t always know how to put into words.
Lucky for our souls, Doyle did.
About Brian Doyle
Brian Doyle served as the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland in Oregon and authored several books of essays, stories, “proems,” and nonfiction.
In addition to U.S. Catholic, Doyle’s writing appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The American Scholar, Orion, Commonweal, and The Georgia Review, among other magazines and journals, and in The Times of London, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Kansas City Star, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Ottawa Citizen, and Newsday, among other newspapers. He was a book reviewer for The Oregonian and a contributing essayist to both Eureka Street magazine and The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia.
Use the arrows at the bottom corners of the screen to navigate to the next article in the collection. Or, use the menu bar in the top left corner. We will continue to update this page with pieces we’ve run in the past as well as new pieces from Doyle.
Cover art: Evening, 1907 by Frederick Childe Hassam
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Your grandmother gave it to you for your First Communion. It came in a hinged box just like the one in which engagement rings crouch importantly. She handed it to you after the epic Mass at which you received Your First Communion. You were still dressed in your awkward uncomfortable first dark suit in which you looked like a tiny businessman or your rustling uncomfortable white dress in which you looked like a tiny debutante. Your new shoes were slowly grinding blisters the size of quarters into your heels. There was a reception in the sunny chilly back yard with savory foods you and your brothers and sisters only ever see at weddings and wakes. Some aunts and uncles gave you envelopes with cash. Two aunts gave you envelopes with holes cut in such a manner that you could see the faces of Abraham Lincoln on the five and Andrew Jackson on the twenty. Your uncle who was usually the most testy and snide handed you an envelope with a face you did not know peering out of it. Your older brother looks over your shoulder and says that is Ulysses Grant and you are now a rich man. You had never seen a fifty-dollar bill until that moment, and you have not seen one since, and there is a small shy part of you that wishes powerfully even now that you had saved that fifty-dollar bill.
You might have saved it in the pages of the Bible you received from your mother and father that day also. Your father selected it from the plethora of Bibles available in the bookshops of the city, and your mother had wrapped it carefully in shining white paper, and when you opened it you felt your father’s right hand on your left shoulder, and saw your mother staring at you with the sidelong half-smile you had loved your entire life since you became aware of it as an infant and thought of it as what people meant when they used the word love.
The rosary was blue glass, or rose glass, or black plastic, or white bone, or a deep burnished russet glowing bronze oak or mahogany. It nestled in a bed of crushed translucent paper. The beads were strung on infinitesimal metal links or tightly beautifully braided string. The crucifix had a tiny lean gaunt sagging Christ with His head fallen onto His chest in utter weariness and despair. You always felt bad for Him when you saw Him like this but it was hard to discuss this with adults because if you said something like the poor guy they would launch into apologetics or hermeneutics or muddled theology or a speech about how His death was actually Glorious, and He was Resurrected, and Our Holy Mother the Church Says, and etcetera and etcetera in the endless murky religious blather of adults who are not listening to what you mean, and all you meant was that you felt bad for the poor guy, all battered and bereft and alone. Sometimes you dreamed of being a warrior hero in the ancient Irish mode who could go back in time and punch out the imperial soldiers with deft powerful sharp blows and break Jesus out of jail and the two of you would sprint into the hills and He would put his bony hand on your shoulder when you were safe and say thanks brother instead of sagging to death alone and haunted on a blunt cross on the Hill of Skulls.
You are supposed to put your new rosary back in the special celebratory box but there is something tactile and sinuous and riverine and finger-friendly about it, and you thumb the beads for a while quietly, and one aunt sees this and thinks you are praying and she spills her wine but we are out in the yard so it does not matter. Later she will tell your mother that she thinks you are chosen by the One to be a priest or a nun because she saw you fingering the rosary and your mother will try not to laugh although it’s a close call.
One of your small cousins reaches for your new rosary but you know that it will break into a thousand glittering pieces if he touches it because he is the Destroyer, and his slightest touch can drain batteries and snap spectacles and deflate basketballs, so you slip the rosary into your jacket pocket, or your new white shining plastic purse, and fend off the Destroyer with the arrow of your elbow, and he goes off to break a bicycle or a door-jamb, and the uncles all have a second beer, because it’s a special occasion and they are not driving and it’s sunny, which is why God made beer, to be enjoyed on sunny says, Saint Augustine said so, you could look it up.
Much later, late at night, when you are in bed, and your brother or sister across the room is snoring like an asthmatic badger, same as usual, you suddenly remember your rosary, and you get up stealthily, and retrieve it from your pocket or purse, and tiptoe back to bed, pausing briefly to wonder if a gentle kick will stop that horrendous snoring, and you huddle under the blankets, and create your tight little cocoon in which warmth is trapped and you can hardly hear that awful snoring like someone sawing a table in half with a butter-knife, and you finger the rosary again for a while, with complicated feelings. You want to be cynical about the whole thing, because you are cool, but it’s also a gift from your grandmother, who can be flinty but she means well under her glowering mask, and your dad had his hand on your shoulder, which is Dad Language for I love you, and your mom shone that sidelong half-smile at you like a bolt of light, and the rosary is a river in your hands, and you do feel bad for the poor guy, and ever since you were little there has been something alluring and mysterious and ancient about the rosary being chanted and mumbled and muttered and sung, on the radio and in church and in the house sometimes, when there is tension; the unutterably old music of call and response, the back and forth, the twin halves of the Hail Mary, the forthright honest litany of the Our Father; and you finger the beads, glass or bone or plastic or wood, and you whisper a few Hail Marys just to take the rosary out for a spin, as it were, and then somehow without meaning to you say a decade, and then another, and just as you are dimly trying to remember which Mysteries are Joyful and which are Glorious, and what conceivable difference could there be between them, you fall asleep.
Exactly one hour later, to the exact second that you slid into sleep, your father comes up to check on the kids, and he sees you with the rosary tangled in your fingers, and he silently goes downstairs and gets your mother, whose hands are soapy as she turns toward him questioningly from the sink, but she knows him, and she rinses her hands and dries them on that old blue towel, and she comes upstairs too, and they stand over your bed for a few minutes, in the moonlight. Neither of them says a word, but they never forget those few moments, and even now sometimes, for no reason at all, all these years later, one of them remembers, and says something quietly to the other, and they both smile and feel a pang of joy and glory and sorrow. As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen.
The active pallbearers will wear a white rose in their left lapels.
Please allow the funeral director to pin them to your suit jacket.
Please gather on the south side of the foyer and wait as a group.
When you process to the altar be aware of the carpet underfoot;
Gentlemen have stumbled and fallen. You will sit in the first pew.
The honorary pallbearers, pinned with red roses, sit behind you.
You sit in front because you have been chosen by the bereaved
To be final companions representing various aspects of the life.
When the Mass is finished, we process out in similar formation.
Form two descending lines of three on the steps of the cathedral
And wait for my signal. You may use one or two hands to carry.
Do not spend too much time contemplating the finality of death.
Remember, if you are Catholic, that this is a celebratory moment,
That the one who has died is at home in the Hand of the Maker.
Remember that the coffin is significantly heavier than you expect.
Remember you have work to do, and it must be done with grace.
I am stationed at the head of the coffin to guide it into the hearse.
Often one or more mourners grow overwhelmed at this juncture.
Do not turn away from the deceased to succor and comfort them.
I ask you politely to focus on the matter at hand, which is difficult.
Gentlemen have mentioned they feel impersonal or unempathetic
In situations like that, but I note your first duty is to the deceased.
The close attention you bring to your appointed task is respectful.
I will remove the small crucifix from the top of the coffin myself.
In my experience, that last step or two will be the most awkward.
Once the coffin is secure you may step back among the mourners,
As your task is accomplished. We are all grateful for your service.
Or here’s a story. A man and a woman have two kids
Together, a girl and a boy, three years apart, and then
The mother walks out the door one day when the kids
Are five and two and never ever comes back. The dad
Does his best to raise the kids, and he does a good job,
Says the daughter who is now thirty, but then she tells
Me one little detail that gives me the shivering willies.
Every year on her brother’s birthday she forged a card
From the mother to the son. Every year. Sixteen years.
That sixteenth year when he opened the card he stared
Up at his sister. This kind of thing happens every other
Minute in every country on earth. All you can do is say
Nothing with your heart open for all the little kids who
Are staring at their sisters just now right now just then.
Once again the tiniest thing that is not tiny at all:
This time a girl, maybe age five, maybe walking
To kindergarten with her dad, whereas she has a
Backpack and is skipping a little as she holds his
Hand, and he is fatherly of mien and wearing his
Work uniform and trying to sip his coffee just as
She executes a total whirling which requires him
To lift his hand at the exact right instant like they
Are on the dance floor and then there is the thing
That gives me the shivering willies: she takes the
Ring finger of his right hand, just that one finger,
And holds onto that. Just that lucky finger. I saw
That, sitting in my car at the stop light, and when
The light changed I made the first turn I possibly
Could and pulled over and just sat there thrilled
And sad and laughing and maybe perhaps crying,
Although as you know there are times when tears
And laughter are lovers. I would give anything at
All, anything, I say, to have my daughter hold my
Finger again like that, as we walked up to school.
You know, there will come a day when I am near
Demise, and one of the last sights I will see is my
Battered bent scarred hand, and I pray I will have
The wit to smile at the brave old tool and whisper
Kids held onto us, man, wasn’t that just amazing?
Bizarrely enough, a priest friend of mine says,
What I remember clearest from my ordination
Is that when we were all sprawled on the floor
Face-first and silent and awed before the One,
My nose was freezing. I think every single guy
Felt the same way. There we were, soon to join
The Order of Melchizedek, priests of The Lord
Until we breathed our last on this lovely planet,
And we are all thinking Lord, hurry the bishop!
I mean, you have to laugh. I have often thought
In these years here at the end of my priesthood,
How exactly right and holy and human the start
Was, though, as a priest. Everyone was suitably
Awed by the vow, and the ritual, and the smoke
And ancient tradition of it; it’s very real, and he
Who would make fun of it is missing the power
And glory of the promise -- we were mere boys,
Taking a really unimaginable leap into wild lives,
Not knowing anything, really, of long loneliness,
Or how you can be given a sort of clan and tribe,
As a priest, of friends and parishioners, and kids
You baptize – I think I have twenty godchildren.
But my point is how very human the first minute
Is, sprawled out on the floor, not thinking of awe
Or prayers or promises, but of your ice-cold nose.
That’s the exact right honest human way to begin.
Proof number fifty thousand that there are no small stories,
Only vast gaps in our perceptive nets for revelatory stories:
A monumental old maple tree on campus suddenly cleaves
Itself one afternoon, no ostensible reason, no rain, no wind,
Half of it just sheers off with an epic rending moaning sigh,
And soon thereafter two quiet chain-smoking tree surgeons
Appear and slowly calmly efficiently slice up the fallen tree,
And then slowly lop the rest of the creature leaving a stump
They sculpt into a redolent shimmering rooted wooden pew.
They disappear every scrap and curl of shaving and sawdust,
And I watch as a puzzled squirrel wanders around the bench.
It’s the not-thereness of the maple that’s the most astounding
Thing, you know what I mean? The light bends in new ways,
The plants and animals are startled, people walking by pause
Confused but not knowing quite what’s changed in the scene.
You can get absorbed completely just by the surgeons’ skills,
Or by what must have been a century of memory and witness
In whatever tongue and consciousness maple trees are issued,
Or by the painful comedy of the completely confused squirrel,
But what gets to me as I watch the squirrel explore cautiously
Is the thorough, inarguable absence of what was so adamantly
Present. The light bends in new ways. There’s a hole in the air.
You flutter your hands where there used to be a living creature.
You can say as long as you remember and tell stories it’s alive,
But it isn’t alive, and no one knows what happened to anything
Other than the skeleton which ended up as firewood and a pew.
I guess in the end we either believe what was alive is still alive,
In ways that we will never be able to understand, or we believe
In the persistent production of extraordinary pews. You choose.
A priest prone, his face to the floor, his arms stretched like broken wings. The chapel silent and expectant. Thorny-voiced Isaiah: “He was despised and forsaken; he was pierced for our transessions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” Then the voices from all around the chapel-the young priest near the altar, a girl high in the balcony, a boy in a deep dark corner:
“What is truth?” says Pilate.
“Hail, King of the Jews.”
“And they struck him repeatedly.”
“We have no king but Caesar!”
“Behold your mother.”
“And bowing his head, he gave up his spirit.”
The congregation sinks to its knees as if stricken all at once.
“We swim in an ocean of tragedy,” says the priest quietly, “and around us there is death and despair, Columbine and Oklahoma City, war and disease and death. But light defeats darkness. Christ defeats death. Death has no dominion over us. We are not a Good Friday people but an Easter people.”
And we pray, for the Jews, who were first to hear the Word, and for the pope and bishops and priests, and for unbelievers, and for the sick, and for travelers, and for us all, every one, and then the young priest walks over to the massive wooden cross and hoists it aloft over his head, straining with its oaken weight, and then he hands it to the altar boy and the altar girl, and they prop it up between them, and the most extraordinary hour of the Catholic year begins for me: the Veneration of the Cross.
The ritual is ancient, having originated in Jerusalem shortly after the supposed recovery of the cross of Jesus in the fourth century. From the Holy City it spread across the early Christian world with the spread of relics of the cross. By the year 750 it had found its way into the liturgy of Good Friday in Rome, and from the Eternal City it spread to every corner of the Catholic world, even unto this small cedar chapel at the edge of the New World at the edge of the 21st century.
The slow, poignant shuffle begins. I sit in the balcony and weep, overcome by the prayer and poetry of these faces from every walk of life, men and women and children of every shape and size and state of disrepair, a microcosm of the entire church itself walking slowly toward the symbol of a gaunt man’s murder many years ago-to kiss it, touch it, remember him by it.
An old man who cannot bend. His wife who bends.
Twin girls, teenagers.
A priest with cancer. A teacher whose father died Tuesday.
A girl in overalls. A girl with loud shoes. A boy all long bones.
A man, seven feet tall, who folds down to touch the crosspiece. A woman with an infant in arms. The infant stares fascinated.
A woman with a walker whose walker hits the cross as she turns away.
A girl, sobbing.
Some bend in to kiss the cross as tenderly as you would kiss a child.
A girl who leans her head against the cross for an instant. A priest, barefoot. A small boy who kneels some feet away, awed.
Some touch it with one finger, two fingers, one hand. One man embraces it.
A blind man whose steps shorten carefully as he senses the cross before him. A girl with her leg in a cast.
A girl with a hole in her jeans. A man who carefully removes his glasses and closes his eyes before he kisses the cross.
A woman helping her aged mother. A man with a cane.
A girl who leaves a lover’s kiss.
A weeping man.
A very large man who stays long on his knees.
The choir, one by one.
The musicians-oboe last.
A gaping girl, led by her mother.
The young priest, the altar girl, the altar boy.
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.
Imagine this: You are standing at the stove, first thing in the morning,
And the dog is sprawled too close to your feet, as is his usual custom,
On the off chance something good to eat will fall from the sky (bacon
That one time, which he never forgot, surely the best day he ever had)
And there are just enough coffee beans, and miraculously there is milk,
And there is a subtle mysterious unknowable woman in the other room,
Her unknowability probably being the very font and essence of interest,
And there are three children sleeping like logs, and you have a job that
Doesn’t feel like work at all, and the heat grumbles on when you ask it,
And no one is shooting at us, and the water is crystalline and abundant,
And the electricity works, and the roof doesn’t leak, and an osprey flies
By, so my question is this: isn’t this the wealthiest man who ever lived?
It occurs to me that he is. It occurs to me that occasionally he realizes it.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, and I am totally wrestling with feeling bad about sinning, which I do a little and then don’t at all – I’ll explain. Yesterday a guy walked into a classroom in my state and shot nine people to death and shot up ten others so bad that they’ll limp and be in pain in a dozen ways every hour the rest of their lives. A cop shot the shooter and now the shooter is dead. But this all happened too in Columbine and Aurora and Sandy Hook and Charleston and Norway and Dunblane and Tasmania and on and on and need I go on?
And what is my sin? I’ll tell you, Father. Lean in a little here so no one hears. I wanted to shoot the shooters. In the head. I did. And then when I calmed down I wanted to punch the idiots who immediately started shouting that this doesn’t have anything to do with gun control. And then I wanted to thump the people who excoriated the school for not having armed guards on duty every fifty feet around the perimeter. And then I wanted to afflict everyone issuing comment and opinion and advice and soundbites with laryngitis that would last a month. And then all I could see were bodybags and people sobbing. The mother and the father of the shooter sobbing and speechless.
And I was ashamed of myself, Father, because I wriggle with violent impulses, and I have punched and thumped and shouted, and in me is the same squirm of lashing violence as in every other man and probably most women, if they were honest. So I come to you, Father, to see if you can help me.
I need you to tell me this will end someday. I need you to tell me Christ was right and turning the other cheek will not always mean getting a knife slash on the other cheek too. I need you to tell me that this has nothing to do with easy useless labels like Satan and Evil and Insanity and everything to do with the brooding shadow in every heart. I need you to tell me that shadow will be dispersed and disseminated someday and not by fiat from the One but by us working our asses off to make violence something that you visit in the war museum. I need you to confirm that it’s us who can solve our daily murder. I need you to confirm that Christ is in us and we can do this if we stop posturing and preening and labeling and actually do something about lonely idiots with brains full of worms.
And we are not just talking about addled lonely boys with squirming brains, are we? Aren’t we also talking about arrogant pompous blowhards like bin Laden and Hitler who are sure they know what’s best and right for everyone? Aren’t we talking about slimy wannabe caliphs who want to own a desert where they pretend it’s the seventh century? Aren’t we talking about everyone who thinks they knew best? Aren’t we talking about that jagged splinter of bloody bile in every man’s heart, and probably most women, if they were honest? Aren’t we talking about your heart and mine, Father?
What’s my sin, really? Deeper than the rage I feel with people who murder innocents, people who close up their brains as they open their mouths? My sin, down deep, is that I often despair of us, Father. I do. At night. I don’t wake my wife. She has enough to deal with. But I lie awake and think maybe we are exactly the same savage primates we were a million years ago, and culture and civilization are mere veneer, and we will always be pulling triggers in so many ways – pistols, rifles, cannons, drones, bombers, warheads, whatever brilliant murder tool we come up with next. We’re so creative, eh, Father? Always looking for a new way to blow the other guy to bits and then drape righteous excuse over the bloody dirt. So that’s what I wanted to tell you, Father. I rage, I despair. I am ashamed of that. Both are small. I want to be big. I want us all to be big. I want Christ to be right. I want the word shooter to be forgotten. I want us to outwit violence. But I am so often so afraid that we will always be small and Christ was a visionary whose words will drown in a tsunami of blood.
I know you can’t forgive me, Father. I know the drill. But I ask that you join me in intercession to the One for hope, for endurance, for a flash of His love like water when we are so desperately thirsty we think we will never find water again. Amen.