The Holy Human Heart: Selections from Brian Doyle's "The Wet Engine"

August 22nd, 2012 , Posted by reamanm

We're pleased to share excerpts from Brian Doyle's The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart,  once again available in a new OSU Press edition. Brian describes The Wet Engine as a "headlong heartfelt chant and song and expedition to the seat of the soul, the pumping station of the body, the power house, headquarters, headwater, fuse-box, crossroads, the crucial battery, the mysterious extraordinary moist relentless fragile holy human heart; and notes on how it works and doesn’t work, and what it means, and how we use it so easily and casually as a metaphor for the extraordinary loves and pains that course through us like muscular rivers; and explorations of doctors and nurses and surgeries and the hearts of hummingbirds and whales and worms; and agony and atresia and courage and cardiology and blood and pulse and ebb and flow and prayer and people and the pain and poetry of the chambered muscle that drives us humming and weeping and hopeless and hopeful through the intricate countries of our days."

 Wet Engine

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. He was missing a chamber in his heart, which is a bit of a problem, as you need four chambers for smooth conduct through this vale of fears and tears, and he only had three chambers, so pretty soon he had an open heart surgery, during which doctors cut him open and iced down his heart and shut it down for an hour or so while they worked on repair.

That was when he was about six months old. I don’t remember much about that time. It all rushed past like a pain train.

Then when he was about eighteen months old he had another open heart surgery, during which they did all that again, and what I most remember from that time is his grinning face receding down the hallway as he was carried toward the bone shears by a sweet quiet doctor. I’ll always remember that. His face was so round. His face bounced up and down a little on the doctor’s thin shoulder. He smiled at me at the very end of the corridor, just before he and the doctor turned the corner, and I thought maybe that was going to be the last time I ever saw that big fat face smiling at me, and that was when I saw pain and death leering at me closer than I ever saw them before. That was a cold moment. I’ll always remember that.
…Not a day goes by, not one, that I do not think of my son tiny and round and naked and torn open and heart-chilled and swimming somewhere between death and life; and every day I think of the young grinning intense mysterious genius heart doctor who saved his life; and for years now I have wanted to try to write that most unwriteable man down, to tell a handful of the thousands of stories that whirl around him like brilliant birds, to report a tiny percentage of the people he has saved and salved, and so thank him in some way I don’t fully understand, and also thank the Music that made him and me and my son and all of us; and somehow it seems to me that the writing down of a handful of those stories will matter in the world, be a sort of crucial chant or connective tissue between writer and readers, all of us huddled singing under the falling bombs and stars; and more and more over the years I have become absorbed and amazed at the heart itself, the wet engine of us all, and how it works and doesn’t work, and what it means, and how we use it so easily and casually as a metaphor for the extraordinary loves and agonies that course through us like muscular raging rivers; so finally I sit my raggedy self down and write this lean book, as a sort of prayer of thanks that my son is alive and stubborn as a stone, that there are such complicated and astonishing people as Doctor Dave, that there are such mysterious and incalculably holy things as hammering hearts, and that they power such mysterious and holy and wild things as us.
Let us contemplate, you and I, the bloody electric muscle. Let us consider it from every angle. Let us remove it from its bony cage, its gristly case, and hold it to the merciless light, and turn it glinting this way and that, and look at it as if we have never seen it before, because we never have seen it before, not like this. Let us think carefully about the throb of its relentless tissue. Let us ponder it as the wet engine from which comes all the music we know. Let us contemplate the thousand ways it fails and the few ways it does not fail. Let us gawk at the brooding genius of its architecture. Let us consider it as the most crucial and amazing house, with its four rooms and meticulous plumbing and protein walls and chambered music. Let us dream of blood and pulse and ebb and flow. Let us consider tide and beat. Let us unweave the web of artery and vein, the fluttering jetties of the valves, the coursing of ions from cell to cell, the sodium that is your soul, the potassium that is your personality, the calcium that is your character.
The heart is the first organ to form. It is smaller than a comma when it begins and ends up bigger than a fist. Every cell in it is capable of pulsing. No one knows how that could be. The pulse begins when a baby is about twenty days old. No one knows quite why it happens then. The pulse then continue for about two billion pulses. No one knows why there are that many. Or that few. Why not one billion each? Why not twenty billion? Mayflies to mastodons, beetles to bison, prophets to poets, infants to those who commit infanticide, all are issued the same number of pulses to do with what they will. Tell me, asks the great quiet American poet Mary Oliver, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Dave says Liam is well enough to go home and he writes Liam a pass out of the hospital. My wife dresses her bruised boy and puts him gently in his stroller with his bear and wheels boy and bear through the corridors and hallways and elevators. As she nears the front doors of the hospital Liam gets all restless and fussy and fidgety and causes a ruckus. Mary, as perceptive a woman as there ever was, realizes what he wants and lifts him out of the stroller and he swaggers through the swinging front doors of the hospital himself.

Once through the doors he tires and Mary hoists him back into the stroller and we take him home.

Eight years later I remember the way I felt deep in my hoary heart that day when he pushed through those big doors, curious, delighted, hard-headed, sore-hearted, hungry for light. I like to tell him that story and he likes to hear it, about the time he was one tough hombre even though he was only one and one half year old, and he met pain head-on and kicked its butt and told that pain he would remember its butt-ugly face and if ever pain troubled his town again, why, there would be some hell raised and some thrashin’ and bashin’, you hear that, you ugly pain?, and sometimes if he is feeling especially goofy and showoffy and nutty he will imitate his own swagger that day, and every time this happens, which it happens about once a year or so, I get a feeling in my chest that I don’t know how to explain to you. There aren’t enough words for it, and the words I’d try to use are weak anyways.
So much held in heart in a life. So much held in heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end – not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. 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, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

And what might we be, as a species, in the years to come? O what, O God tell me, o people tell me, o friends and lovers tell me, o enemies tell me, o come clear to me in the entrails of birds and the fleeting tails of stars, what we might be if we rise and evolve, if we reach and leap, if we deepen and sing, if we come further down from the brooding trees and out onto the smiling plain, if we unclench the fist and drop the dagger, if we emerge blinking from the fort and the stockade and the prison, if we smash the bricks from around our hearts, if we cease to stagger and swagger, if we peel the steel from our eyes, if we yearn and learn, if we do what we say we will do, if we act as if our words really matter, if our words become muscled mercy, if we grow a fifth chamber in our hearts and a seventh and a ninth, and become as if new creatures arisen Brian by Jerry Hartfrom our shucked skins, creatures become what we are so patently and brilliantly and utterly and wholly and holy capable of…
What then?



Brian Doyle is the author of twelve books, including Mink River,  Bin Laden's Bald Spot & Other Stories, The Grail, Grace Notes, Thirsty for the Joy: Australian and American Voices, and Epiphanies and Elegies. He edits Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. Doyle’s essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Orion, The American Scholar, and in newspapers and magazines around the world. His essays have also been reprinted in the annual Best American Essays, Best American Science & Nature Writing, and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies.

Upcoming appearances

Thursday, September 6, 6 pm. Orion Magazine celebrates a new issue with guests including Cheryl Strayed and Brian Doyle, Ecotrust Natural Capitol Center, Portland.

Saturday, September 22. Time tba.Rowboat Gallery, Pacific City, Oregon.

Sunday, October 14. Wordstock Festival. Noon: Reading. 3 pm: Panel, The Art of Ending.

Author photo by Jerry Hart

Mink River cover          Grail cover

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