John D. Kelly

The Pencil Sharpener

John D. Kelly

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I was only four years old then.

I learned it last night when I heard,

for the first time, the whole story


told by my big brother.

He pared me back to a point

at the wake, after he had a few shots


too many (for me) and had finely

keened his whetted tongue, to find the run

of himself like a river in full spate, or a poem.


I told him, through a burning salary of blind

tears, that my childhood was lived

in an even darker fear, from that day on.


I had overheard what our father said

to threaten him with, to terrify him, for 'stealing'

a little metal pencil sharpener from another boy


in school. He had brought it home

in his satchel. He said that he had just turned six

at that time. His name is Joe.


I remembered he even made him pack his bag

for the scary ‘Boy’s Home’, and let him sleep on it.

My big gentle mother was silent, I recalled.


Perhaps her silence, and her manner,

softened him so that she could find a way

to get through later — to get him to let Joe stay?


Joe was my eyes, my lifeline, and always

two years older than me — the fifth one.

I followed after him as I do now, as I listen


acutely. I hear him carry our mother, feet first

(on gravel), or rather his quarter-share of that silent

weight, that is more like thirty-five percent


at the heavier end, from this sharpened rear view —

the less-gradually-tapered blunt end, so to speak.

I ponder what it's like, for men to shoulder


a dead, mute, mother. I imagine my quaternity

of brothers bearing the sealed pine box, that contains

her spent body, to the re-opened pit. I think I smell


the paid-out straps burn, as they lower it in, then hear

a big hollow thud, as she resounds over the top

of him — loudly on top of him, for the first time ever.


John D. Kelly


John D. Kelly lives and writes in Co. Fermanagh. Since he began writing seriously in 2011, his work has been commended in several competitions and printed in various literary publications. He was Highly Commended in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award 2016, awarded joint ‘Silver’ in the International Dermot Healy Poetry Competition in both 2015 and 2014, and won first prize in Hungry Hill ‘Poets Meet Painters’ 2014, amongst other awards. He is currently working towards his first collection.



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