The true imago Dei.

Dad study

Photo: my Dad in his library carrel at Duke, circa 1970. 


My sister Clare recently sent around a sheaf of poems written by Dad, out of the hundreds he wrote over the years he raised us, taught religion, and took care of Mom. This one, “Murph,” was published in the literary journal West BranchIt’s about Dad’s seminary friend who committed suicide after being rejected by a woman he loved. Somehow, to me, in the way only poetry can, it explains so much about Dad, about our Catholicism, about why I am the way I am.


in February I took a Greyhound
from Milwaukee to Galena
the year after Malcolm X was shot
to meet Coughlin at the DeSoto Hotel
in a room where they said
Lincoln once slept

in Washington Murph
rebuffed we heard by Marilyn
had just jumped off the Key Bridge
and washed up under M street
bloated with Potomac sludge
his brilliant argument

        in the humid tense classroom of McMahon Hall
        with the desperate Dominican
        teaching moral theology
        that love not reason
        desire not vision
        Scotus not Aquinas
        the Franciscan not the Dominican
        his sweet passion for the Marilyn
        he had not yet met
        not his stunningly lucid mind
        was the true imago Dei

finally done

none of us could keep up
with the way Murph followed his logic
to its conclusions
the word was he came on too fast
and she turned him out shielding
his ejaculatio praecox

Coughlin treated me to a turtle steak
in a restaurant next to the Mississippi
and said he thought suicide
was God’s way of saving Murph
from opposing him directly
which any fool could see
would be the result
of all the thinking

afterwards we broke trail
across a eight inch blanket of snow
gold in the late sun
over hills breasting gently
down toward the river

at a gray ruin
sticking out of the drifts
we sat talking
as long as I could stand
the cold slush in my shoes
about what we or anyone
might have done to help Murph
out of the strange place
he had thought himself into
where he didn’t know how
to come on to a real girl

warmed by the big bottle
of Jack Daniels
Coughlin pulled from his suitcase
I slept like a dead man that night
in a doomed man’s bed
and hungover
lectured thickly the next morning
the whole reason for the trip
on the gospel in Bellow’s Herzog
my master’s thesis in progress
to the Franciscans
and sweet coeds
budding out of their tight miniskirts
at Clinton College
distracted by Murph’s last trick
how he proved
the sweating Dominican right


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4 Comments on “The true imago Dei.”

  1. Jacques says:

    Thank you. I’m finding it difficult to distill everything brought up by that photo, your story, and your father’s poem. The sight of your father reclining in that generic mid-century university library chair, absorbed in his text – well, my own father was a medievalist at Vanderbilt and that image brought back in an immediate and visceral sense the smell of brick and chalk and most of all, the paper and glue in the stacks and stacks of books lining the walls and covering every horizontal surface of his office. Your father’s expression could well have been the same one mine wore as he walked across campus absorbed in the latest Commonweal or the National Catholic Reporter.
    I suppose that what I am trying to say is that I’m grateful to you for having shared as much of your life as you have and allowing us to discover those odd coincidences and experiences that tie us all together.

    And manly man cis-male that I am, I freely and without reservation admit that I did sqee when I saw your RT of the new Ghostbuster’s cast photo.

    • Monica Byrne says:

      Thank you so much for this, Jacques. Our fathers seem to be made of the same cloth, so to speak…sons of Vatican II. And you’re welcome, of course. I’m so glad it resonated with you, and I know my Dad is, too.

  2. Julie E. Byrne says:

    mcb, ima RT this! but guess what: that pic is actually in a library carrel at Duke’s Perkin’s Library!–probably 1969-70.

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