after Paul Gruchow
in memory of Brian Doyle


Is it just that I like the sensation of my skin snagged on those sentences, the breathless anticipation of what he’ll do, the next “sharp sentence where the dagger enters your heart and the essay spins on a dime like a skater, and you are plunged into waaay deeper water, you didn’t see it coming at all, and you actually shiver, your whole body shimmers…” to surface, spluttering, grateful for air? Is it that I simply appreciate the writerly bravery of splintering rules of sentence logic to create a physical relationship between the reader and the page, a literal breathlessness in the face of unspeakable pain and suffering and wonder and the universe and Augustine’s proclamation that if you understand it, it isn’t God?


When Brian Doyle passed away on May 27, 2017, it was the verbs that stood first in mourning, the verbs that leaped and wept against a sense of loss for a writer I never met in person but in whose sentences I love to get lost, waiting for that moment when I wonder if I’ll ever find my way out. Doyle wrote his world into creation, because in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God: but “Forget the word. It’s only a word. It has a past; it comes from the ancient Hebrew word gad, which means to crowd upon or attack or overcome. So the word we use today for the throb under and in and through all things is a verb. Sometimes we do things right” (The Wet Engine 93).

Essayists attempt to create an understanding of our place in the universe and in Doyle’s case, he never lost sight of the heart of the matter. In The Wet Engine (2005), he attempts: “but what verbs they were when they were working, what amazements, what miracles, what stories!” (128).


Doyle himself lays out his syntactical style in “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” when he writes that “the next three paragraphs walk inexorably toward a line of explosive Conclusions on the horizon like inky alps. Probably the sentences get shorter, more staccato. Terser. Blunter. Shards of sentences. But there’s no commentary, just one line fitting into another, each one making plain inarguable sense, a goat or even a senator could understand the sentences…”


Consider simple, static sentences, the kind that writers abandon when they grow up and discover active, dynamic, fantastic verbs, compound complex sentences, gerunds and participles, the kind of sentences that, were they diagramed, might look like Yggdrasil. Consider the is. The listing of facts. Consider describing people in staccato bursts.

The Wet Engine begins in this way: “My son Liam was born nine years ago. He looked like a cucumber on steroids. He was fat and bald and round. He looked healthy as a horse. He wasn’t” (ix).

In “Dawn and Mary,” “Her name was Dawn. She had two daughters. Her husband had proposed to her five times before she’d finally said yes, and they had been married for ten years. They had a vacation house on a lake.”

In “Leap,” he chronicles what people saw that day at Ground Zero.

The purpose for such style appears in The Wet Engine: “I don’t know about you, but when I am really frightened by something, really filled with fear, really terrified, I find myself getting utterly absorbed by the tiniest details. I think it’s an emotional defense or something—if you can focus on the infinitesimal, then the vast can’t get a good grip on you, can’t get its hooks in, can’t get its pincers into play” (12-13).


In the relationship of a sentence, a verb must have a subject. And good nouns, if they bite and chew and devour and pig out on their vegetables, they can grow up to have adjectives strung together without any kind of expected punctuation, as if Doyle cannot even pause for commas for the emotion that chokes him.

In “Leap” he writes, “I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers but I keep coming back to his hand and her hand nestled in each other with such extraordinary ordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love” (emphasis mine).

“How much longer are you going to do this? I ask. Not much longer, he says, in that brisk direct straight honest friendly crisp way of his” (The Wet Engine 148, emphasis mine).


And yet,

“You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant…” (“Joyas Voladoras,” emphasis mine).


“But Liam didn’t die. He spent the first year after the first stage of his Fontan operation guzzling milk from his mama and belching like a barge and learning to sit up and developing a face as round as a planet and developing a ferocious yen for Cheerios and pears and learning to stand up and walk around the room holding on to couches and chairs and tables and people and then learning to sail off on his own waddling and shuffling and then walking and then running here and there and occasionally smacking his face on something or other and occasionally smacking his twin brother and once or twice his older sister although he quickly proved his intelligence by grokking the fact that she was stronger and meaner and quicker when it came to blows rained down upon the boys who were suddenly crowding her existence which heretofore had been filled with fawning parents and now appeared to be filled with Chaos and Hubbub, which is what her father called her brother so often that occasionally visitors were under the temporary impression that indeed such vaguely Hebraic names had been inflicted upon the squirming boychiks” (The Wet Engine 61-62, emphasis mine).


“At the funeral I said a prayer in Gaelic, so that the language of his parents would wash over his body one last time, and then I held up my hands and talked about the way his huge strong bony gaunt gentle hands had cradled a football and hammered his brothers and tickled his sister and cupped his mother’s face and clapped his father on the shoulder and wielded a shovel and pumped saws through firs and cedars and skimmed over the supple sweet skin of his wife and cupped his children and worked concrete and stone and wood and plaster and paint and were plunged in sand and sliced through ocean and cleaned and washed and folded and dried and cooked and prayed, and weren’t his hands the story of the man?” (The Wet Engine 121, emphasis mine)


In their most proper and most potent context, the stories and prayers and love that drive each of Doyle’s essays is a verb. Stories only truly exist when they are told. Prayers only exist when they are prayed. Love only exists when it is active. There is no such thing as a passive story, a passive prayer, or passive love. In “Dawn and Mary” and “Leap,” he gives agency to four people who had the end of their lives delivered to them at a time and place not of their choosing and yet made the choice to verb.

“Dawn and Mary jumped, or leapt, or lunged toward the sound of bullets. Every fiber of their bodies—bodies descended from millions of years of bodies that had leapt away from danger—must have wanted to dive under the table. That’s what they’d been trained to do. That’s how you live to see another day. That’s how you stay alive to paint with the littlest kids and work in the garden and hug your daughters and drive off laughing to your cabin on the lake. But they leapt for the door, and Dawn said, Lock the door after us, and they lunged right at the boy with the rifle” (“Dawn and Mary,” emphasis mine).

The couple on the south tower “reached for each other and their hands met and they jumped” (“Leap”).

It is not an accident that Doyle gave the same verb—leaping—to all four people.

Someday, in one thing I do in my life, I hope to be worthy of their leaping.


People, then, become verbs.

In “Ed”: “You have but to meet Ed and you are Edified and Educated; the man is a force of nature, true to himself in every particular, forged by Russian Jewish parents, blessed by marriage to a Catholic girl from Idaho who once exploded a pie in a state baking contest, and graced finally by two children, male and female, who only grin when asked to explain their father, and it is this grin that seems to me a wonderfully summery thing, a flash of love in a world of pain, a warm pause in a cold year.”

Doctor Dave’s mom is a verb. “Dave’s mom is named Hope. She is seventy-nine years old. She was born on Post Street in San Francisco. Her mother was a nurse. Her father grew flowers. When she was an infant her father was crushed by a train. When she was seven her brother drowned in the bay” (The Wet Engine 35).

Is, as a verb, is often mocked for its simplicity, when it may be the most active verb that exists. In this way, Constance Hale, in Sin and Syntax, observes that “static verbs lack punch” (61), claiming that they are the purview of beginning writers, a style abandoned as we grow up. And yet, this is not the case for Doyle, who realizes that, from the Greek, static’s root means “causing to stand.” Doyle’s is constructions cause the subjects to stand, which is an incredibly active move, as he ends “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” in this way: “Oddly, sweetly, the essay just ends with a feeling eerily like a warm hand brushed against your cheek, and you sit there, near tears, smiling, and then you stand up. Changed.”

And then we leap forward, we smile, we shiver at the loons calling or singing or crying or laughing on the lake in front of us, the way our skin presses against the still evening air as it presses against us, and we weep, we breathe our gratitude for verbs like Doyle’s that ask us to not simply pay attention to the movement of the world around us, but to how we actively participate in that world. Doyle’s page is an active place, as his world was an active place. To pretend otherwise is to miss the presence of grace in the wild beyond our understanding.


Karen Babine is the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction, finalist for the Midwest Book Award and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. Her second essay collection, All the Wild Hungers, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2018. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has appeared in such journals as Brevity, River Teeth, North American Review, Slag Glass City, Sweet, and more. She lives and writes in Minneapolis.