Poems by Brian Kirk
Brian Kirk is a poet and short story writer from Dublin. His first poetry collection After The Fall was published by Salmon Poetry in 2017. His poem “Birthday” won the Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. His short fiction chapbook It’s Not Me, It’s You won the inaugural Southword Fiction Chapbook Competition and was published by Southword Editions in September 2019. He blogs at www.briankirkwriter.com.
Fear and Trembling
I remember a warm hand on the small of my back,
the skittering of hooves across loose stones,
the energy of tensed haunches as we
climbed to the site. A river of worry stealing
its way through my veins, the old man leading
the mule in a stupor of silence under a sun
where no tree gave shade. The kindling
pricking my side; the knife blade’s blinding,
tiny sun dancing beside us. No clouds in the sky.
What could I do but obey? I told no one, not even
my wife; made up a story about an old friend
in trouble as I loaded the mule, then lifted the boy
onto its back. For three days I fought myself
in silence among snakes, sand and rocks, stopping
at night to build fires and eat bread under the stars.
When we came to the place, I restrained him though
I knew he would not resist. The dry wood drank the spark,
spat back flame as I drew the blade from my belt.
I was afraid, I remember, there is no doubting that,
but not afraid of my father, the old man with the knife
in his hand. I was a child – I knew nothing of duty or faith;
I let him bind me with the old rope that he’d used for the wood.
Splinters pricked at my flesh, but I didn’t complain
though my body convulsed as black smoke rose from the flames.
The knife licked the sun as he bent to his task,
eyes searching holes in a mask till he saw me, his son.
Some say God stayed his hand – all I know is love won.
What do students of theology learn at school to help
them through the night sweats and insomnia?
What hope is there for us who dwell on our mortality
throughout the unending night? The priest will do his best
to shepherd his flock avoiding the pitfalls of bereavement,
but what about the faithless, the unsure, forlorn?
Think of death as a journey, he says, the deceased
as a traveller taking a coffin-shaped boat from a grave-shaped
harbour, waved off by a weeping congregation who secretly
wish their time had come. We are sad at their leaving –
and that’s only natural – but consider the family and friends
who have gone on ahead; imagine them waiting, expectant,
at a pristine and wonderful quay side, tears of welcoming joy
in their eyes as they scan the horizon for a bright sail.
I wish that there was something in the notion
that someone would provide for us, no matter what.
In rain we’d find a shelter near at hand, in sun
a dappled shade. Without labour we might reap
where others sowed and fill our bellies with the fruit
of work we never did. Is that not what was promised
in the book? Were we not the chosen few, the free
birds of the air? The simple fact of our existence
was supposed to be enough, but we can’t credit that.
We agitate the water so we might stay afloat…once, twice,
maybe for a third time rise and break the surface before
our natures coalesce and drag us underneath.
When Denis Johnson died I went to my local library –
built with money donated by the philanthropist Carnegie –
borrowed a copy of Train Dreams and read it in his memory.
All week I’d been reading his stories on my phone on the tram;
gems buried in the archives of the New Yorker and the Paris Review.
They explode in your mind when you read them, infect your thoughts
and spread like a disease to the imagination. The future offers
itself in a peculiar light at a precarious slant, the past disturbed
re-settles in a surprising form. Your memories get re-written, borrowed,
read, returned, stranger but truer than they’d ever been before.
© Brian Kirk