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Joyas Voladoras

A few weeks ago Piper posted something to her blog about how great this essay (Joyas Voladoras - posted after my commentary) was. I was surpised to find it in one of my assigned books for class, so I did a commentary on it. I did one on something by Nick Hornby too, I'll post that later...

J. Benjamin Davis
ENGL 309
Analyzing Joyas Voladoras

Brian Doyle has written, in Joyas Voladoras, a marvelously complicated piece of prose that is so perfectly compiled that it flows quite like poetry. Well, in the way that I would expect poetry to flow for people who enjoy reading it. Though, I probably shouldn’t admit that I don’t enjoy poetry in a writing assignment that is being turned in to an English professor, but I like living (and writing) dangerously.

And dangerous writing is apparently what Brian Doyle likes to do as well. Though, not in the Woodward / Bernstein model wherein the writer might be arrested for their writings but in the way that one writes something so complex that the ordinary reader might not get it – which is why the task of discerning his audience is so hard to do. Parts of this essay are strictly scientific, parts are wholly metaphorical, and parts read as though they are lines straight out of the diary of someone just crushed by the loss of a lover.

But it is within that complex framework of subject matter that Doyle finds his audience: he has a little bit in there for everyone. To the Joe Fridays among us there are lists of just-the-facts explaining how, why, and to what end the heart functions. But to the Romeos and Juliets among us the essay finds a somewhat straightforward metaphor for love in the heart. Doyle skillfully uses a scientific fact to draw the line directly between the body’s wet engine* and its emotional one: “of the largest mammal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries… can be heard underwater for miles and miles.”

But Doyle’s style is what moved me most in this piece. When he is writing about the quick paced hummingbird’s heart, he writes in short sentences to elicit the feeling of the quickness of the hummingbird’s way of life. He also uses action-gerund words not separated by commas but by the word “and” to make the reader feel almost breathless as they read the passages, eschewing grammar for poetic feeling: “whirring and zooming and nectaring.” He uses the opposite effect when describing the heart of the blue whale, using long sentences and long list of more traditional words separated by commas to make the reader slow down and take every word in: “for next to nothing is known of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs, and arts of the blue whale.”

Doyle does not stop at poetic prose to make his reader feel the words, however. He uses parallel sentence structure to open the first two paragraphs of the essay, and returns to that device with the last two to make the essay somewhat circular, though the content certainly is not. He uses unfamiliar, almost archaic, words and structure to evoke a feeling of timelessness in places (“that which is sweet,” “harrowed heart,” “rickety forevermore”) but uses modern, made up words to evoke how the internet has changed our language to allow for just about any word to be used to get the point across (“nectaring,” “it is waaaaay bigger than your car”).

As a writer, I could not possibly seek to emulate Doyle’s style. I can, however, seek to emulate his work ethic. My copy of this essay has more words and phrases highlighted and underlined than not, and it seems as though Doyle has used every literary trick in the proverbial book, astounding for such a short piece. I read Joyas Voladoras five or six times over the past few days trying to wrap my head around everything that was going on. I fear I could easily write another two or three pages documenting all of the bits that moved me within these three pages. But, I will resign myself to trying to selectively pick across my own writings in the future and try to use, not the same techniques, but an entire myriad of words, structures, and techniques in my writings to make my work stand out. While I may never be able to type out prose that flows as elegantly as this piece does, I can certainly use Doyle’s piece as an inspiration.

*Full disclosure: Wet Engine is the name of one of Doyle’s books. As far as I can tell, he invented that metaphor.

The original essay, after the cut
The original essay:

Joyas Voladoras, by Brian Doyle, originally published in the American Scholar.

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird's heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird's heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird's heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladoras, 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.

Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmetcrests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each 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.

Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles -- anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures more than any other living creature. It's expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise, and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.

The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It's as big as a room. It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around in it, head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon. This house of a heart drives a creature a hundred feet long. When this creature is born it is twenty feet long and weighs four tons. It is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs, and arts of the blue whale. There are perhaps ten thousand blue whales in the world, living in every ocean on earth, and of the largest mammal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

Mammals and birds have hearts with four chambers. Reptiles and turtles have hearts with three chambers. Fish have hearts with two chambers. Insects and mollusks have hearts with one chamber. Worms have hearts with one chamber, although they may have as many as eleven single-chambered hearts. Unicellular bacteria have no hearts at all; but even they have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling. No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a 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 a 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.

(added keywords: analyze, analyzed, cliff notes)



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 10th, 2009 01:23 am (UTC)
Great write-up.

You write, "Doyle skillfully uses a scientific fact to draw the line directly between the body’s wet engine* and its emotional one: 'of the largest mammal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries… can be heard underwater for miles and miles.' "

Could you explain what you mean by the body's wet engine and its emotional one?

Dec. 10th, 2009 05:38 pm (UTC)
Both are the heart. "wet engine" refers to the heart's "true" purpose of pumping blood through the body and the "emotional engine" is the loving, caring, "valentine" heart.
Sep. 1st, 2010 10:46 pm (UTC)
Joyas Voladoras
An exhilarating first read as the realization of what the author is attempting and accomplishing sets in. The way he ends it suggesting the stopping of the heart, the loneliness and loss, the unfinished business and love, and the quick and unexpected ways in which we are moved emotionally and find and lose love... just beautiful writing all around.

The second read, of course, makes one cry.
Sep. 19th, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
Hey there -- I'm teaching "Joyas Voladores" in my ESL 4 class at Parsons The New School for Design and came across your essay. It's great -- I'm going to give it to my students to help them understand Doyle's text! Great job!
Sep. 20th, 2011 09:46 am (UTC)
Hey, that's awesome! So long as you give me credit, you can use my essay in any way you like. If you'd like, I can send you the original word document so its easier to work with. Just send me an email

Thanks for the compliment!


Edited at 2014-10-16 10:29 pm (UTC)
Aug. 30th, 2016 09:20 pm (UTC)
What does the last sentence mean, especially the part where he talks about the father making pancakes for his children?
Aug. 31st, 2016 10:56 am (UTC)
Re: Doyle
That's the most literal part.

He's saying you can hide your heart all you want but life will still make you feel things.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )