Wednesday, December 18, 2013

ADVENT 12/18: Mandy Len on Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle’s short lyric essay “Joyas Voladores” begins with the most conventional of essay conventions: “Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.” The essay appears to be an act of what Aaron Alford calls “armchair philosophizing.” But it’s just a feint, because Doyle so quickly departs from chin-scratching, temple-tapping Contemplation of Things that you forget he ever bothered to ask for your attention.

I always teach Doyle’s piece when I first introduce students to the essay because I want them to understand that while an essay may wander (perhaps it must wander), while it may surprise even its writer, it is still a crafted thing, a lyric artifact. I want them to know that the essayist has a responsibility to the reader to be interested and thus interesting. And the lyric essay in particular—though perhaps this rule might apply to the entirety of the genre—uses language and sound with the deliberation of the poet. “Joyas Voladores” (first published in The American Scholar in 2004], and then in The Best American Essays) is at once wondering and wandering, breathless and controlled.
By the end of the first paragraph, as Doyle piles up clauses and the onomatopoetica of these tiny creatures, we can’t not consider them:
Joyas voladores, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.
Though he’s already informed us that the hummingbird’s heart “beats ten times a second,” it’s the essay’s lyricism that really aligns us with its subject matter. Perhaps this particular subject lends itself to musicality. Already, we, too, are humming.

The hard break between paragraphs—indicated in The American Scholar with a white space and a fine line—makes each a discrete lyric unit, like stanzas of a poem, or tracks on an album. Consequently the weight of each paragraph accumulates over the course of the short piece, which finishes at just over a thousand words. As you read, you can feel the etymologic history of the essay, the weighing delineated by the word’s Latin forebear, exagium.

Paragraph two finds its music in a list of hummingbird names: “violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars… .” It is a synesthetic found poem, variegated descriptors that thump that profligate, demanding heartbeat. Doyle calls each bird’s brief tenure “the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled,” leaving us with literal (if you are reading aloud) stillness, necessitating a moment’s pause and a deep inhalation. In two paragraphs the essay has evoked and then withdrawn the most palpable quality of being alive. Pausing for too long invites just a sliver of existential terror.

Throughout the essay every sentence has a dual purpose. It conveys some essential information about the subject and it delivers a distinct lyric energy that controls our pace as we read. And while the essay models the capacity of the lyric, it ignores the rules of Essaying 101. Every writing teacher you ever had drew red lines through your adjectives, but Doyle piles them on with nary a comma: “Hummingbirds […] have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms.” Their hearts are “race-car hearts”; their speed is “eye-popping.” The language is verbose, childlike in its biological wanderlust and consequently, the lean short sentences, when they arrive, are emphatic: “The price of their ambition is a life closer to death.” I love that Doyle allows birds ambition without succumbing to the pathetic fallacy; birds are still birds, not metaphors for people.

Each stanza-paragraph is laced with the dual implications of the word “heart”—the pumping organ and the house of the soul. In both cases, it is the thing that propels us. I almost wrote “it is the thing that makes us human” but that’s not right. The essay’s subject is the terrifying fragility of heart ownership, but humanness is not the point. In fact, the essay binds us not just to the hummingbird or the blue whale (bearer of the largest cardiac organ –“this house of a heart”) but to worms and mollusks and bacteria because “even they have fluid eternally in motion.” As Doyle so concisely puts it: “We all churn inside.”

It is not easy to write about love without eventually floundering in maudlin observations. With “floundering” here, I mean to connote the desperation of a fat flat fish flopping on a dock—the image that most closely captures my own experience. The heart, after all, was the terrain of poets centuries before they considered hummingbirds—what new thing can one say? I think Doyle succeeds at traversing from the cardiovascular to the metaphorical because we never see it coming. When the essay veers hard right from biology to “the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair,” we are still humming with the violet-capped woodnymphs and therefore our human burden seems both lighter and more universal. Yes, our stout hearts can be “felled by a woman’s second glance,” but hey, we all churn inside.


Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len now writes and teaches in Vancouver, BC. She's published essays in Under the Gum Tree, Folio, Under the Sun, and The Vancouver Review, among others. She is currently working on a book-length study of love stories--an amalgamation of memoir, family mythology, and research on everything from the neurochemistry of love to the sociology of storytelling. You can find her here:

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