What God Gave
My brother seems more boy than man, though
perhaps that’s not quite fair—for now he’s twenty-eight.
But still he lives at home, he’s not moved out,
he never will: little here is fair.
My brother is more boy than man, and
as a boy believes in God, believes God gave
to him a pair of mostly useless legs and passed
the purer shape of them to someone else.
My brother was a boy, and as a boy believed
each autumnal Sunday that one among the pairs
of legs that flew across the white-lined field
displayed across the screen were partly his.
As a boy, I watched him as I watch him still,
every hopeful fiber of his rail-thin flesh
invested in the outcome of the game,
or in, at least, the performance of one man.
If it’s not meant for this, then what use is belief?—
my brother each week for however briefly
the season lasts, believing himself a part of what,
here on Earth, is surely the closest approximation
of a god that he can find. And isn’t this just
the way we want ourselves?—to be
a holy creature graced doubly in exactly
what it is we know we must always go without.
Dear Mrs. Burke,
On my behalf and on the school’s
I’m so sorry please let me apologize for what happened for the choice I made
last week regarding your son during
Cub Club’s after-school care. If he’d been
a normal boy another boy, I would’ve
simply to clean and change himself.
I almost went in, I did. But I was afraid
of his body of how it would look
that the school or you or both might
accuse me of abuse feel I had acted
It was not neglect.
I wanted to help.
But I was afraid.
And so I sent in your elder son
because I thought he was better equipped. I didn’t think. And I didn’t force or order him, he did it
when I asked and seemed okay to help.
I know I failed you and
your son both
your sons. I lack experience with
this kind of thing the disabled.
I hope one day you
will can forgive me.
I do not see myself as
a cruel person
different from anyone else.
My Mother’s Hands
Each morning she’d kneel down onto the floor
to bring her body close to his, for he’d
already sprawled out on his back to wait
for her to teach his body how to find
a better shape. I watched as first she softly
lifted up one leg, and placed his cold, bare foot
against her chest, then leaned toward him, and
together they began to count. Next, she’d stretch
the other just the same, then each straight,
toes pointed up toward the ceiling. And then,
his feet pinned underneath her knees, she’d press
his knees out, away. And how she held them there,
how they seemed to want to flutter in the air:
something that reminded me of wings.
A Boy Lifts His Arms
In the backyard, in the evening sun,
my father is teaching my brother
how to walk again. He’s spent all day
at the top of a great, metal scaffolding—
how high, I don’t know exactly—
but up there, on the edge of the sky,
on the edge of Detroit, our father
directed other men in the business
of laying down brick and cinderblock,
in raising up slowly, piece by careful piece,
the body of an immense building: this one
a casino tower, before that the curved bowl
of a university stadium, before that
a sprawling, squat prison.
I stand inside the house, my face
pressed against the sliding door’s
slender glass. From behind me
and below, I can hear the tempo
of my mother’s feet on the treadmill,
the faint and muffled movements of a song
I know I know but can’t place, the melody
made unfamiliar by the distance
it travels to reach me. Our father
is gesturing with his hands.
In the evening light they look
golden and gray: a little dusted with
dried mortar, but underneath darkened
by a summer of days spent nearer the sun.
My brother stands in the yard, listening.
He’s on his toes, leaning forward,
resting his weight on his crutches.
Just to get that far took all our father’s insistence:
the doctors said he’d never leave the wheelchair.
But I remember the day our father held him
upright, hands cupped around his ribs, how
he’d placed a toilet plunger’s wooden handle
in each of my brother’s little fists. I remember
my brother’s stubborn face as he staked
the red and rubbery mouth of one, then
the other, ahead of him, before pulling himself,
feet shuffling, forward. The game today, though,
is a different question: how many steps can he take
before he has to put his crutches back down?
And so my brother holds his arms up, over his head,
extending his crutches into a kind of lazy, blue V,
and he stakes one foot, then another, his body
unsteady but following. Our father leads him
by walking backwards, counting. In my chest
I can feel the thud of each step, while
the dislocated notes from the radio
slowly begin to vibrate into some kind of order,
some new song my mind fashions for itself,
trying to make sense of what is distant yet
almost visible. Now, the light glints off
all my brother holds aloft: what is suspended,
no longer pinned, no longer anchored
and chained, but raised, cast up, shoved
above him, as if, suddenly, the wings
of a furious angel descending, and all of us
counting, counting for our lives.
Conor Burke holds an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Maryland and is currently a Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in poetry at the University of North Texas. He has served as Production Editor and is currently Managing Editor at the American Literary Review. His work has been supported by scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, and has found a home in Bellevue Literary Review, The Boiler Journal, and Birmingham Poetry Review.
Conor’s previous most recent online publication: https://theboilerjournal.com/2017/04/09/spring-xxiii/