Brian Doyle’s rivers of words

A new collection of Doyle’s nonfiction overflows with wonder.

Brian Doyle, who died abruptly from brain cancer in 2017, was a husband and father, the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the much-loved author of more than 20 books of essays, fiction, and prose poems that he called “proems.” He wrote with a rare emotional acuity about everyday life—his children, his marriage, his parents, his siblings—and about the natural world of sturgeon, shrews, and otters. A committed Catholic, Doyle also often wrote about his faith, and with the kind of honesty that draws a wide readership. This new collection of Doyle’s nonfiction is, appropriately, a wonder-filled book that includes some of his best work.

“You tiptoe back toward religion, in my experience,” he writes, “cautiously and nervously, and more than a little suspicious, quietly hoping that it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors, that there is some deep wriggle of genius and poetry and power and wild miracle in it, that it is a language you can use to speak about that for which there is no words.” Doyle’s essays often wriggle with wild miracles.

One of his favorite subjects is the heart, that “bloody electric muscle” and “wet machine from which comes all the music we know.” In one of his most celebrated essays, “Joyas Voladoras” (Latin for “flying jewels”), he compares the biology of the hearts of different animals, from a hummingbird’s, which is the size of a pencil eraser, to a blue whale’s: