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Light Rolling Slowly Backwards - New & Selected Poems / Ethna McKiernan

Light Rolling Slowly Backwards - New & Selected Poems

By: Ethna McKiernan

“The poems here have an exact and hard-earned lyricism ... a difficult music which comes from experience rather than from any rhythmic holiday from it.” Eavan Boland  “McKiernan's vision is unsparing. She casts a cold eyewhich of course has the paradoxical effect in art of heartening us, of strangely warming us ...
ISBN 978-1-912561-95-7
Pub Date Friday, June 25, 2021
Cover Image Cover Photography: Jessie Lendennie. Design: Siobhan Hutson
Page Count 168
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“The poems here have an exact and hard-earned lyricism ... a difficult music which comes from experience rather than from any rhythmic holiday from it.”
Eavan Boland 

“McKiernan's vision is unsparing. She casts a cold eyewhich of course has the paradoxical effect in art of heartening us, of strangely warming us with the chill of truth.”
Rory Brennan Books Ireland

“In these poems McKiernan draws everyday experiences with sure craft and fluid music. Her voice is one of empathy and honesty, and creates a kind of truth that only perfectly chosen words can tell.”
Susan Roney O’Brien Poet

Light Rolling Slowly Backward is Ethna McKiernan’s fifth and most ambitious collection of poetry. McKiernan, who has a gift for metaphor, gives us 120 poems in her latest volume, a third of which are new. Her work, which some critics have compared to Mary Oliver and Adrienne Rich, ranges from the hilarious (police arrest her girl scout troupe of 13-year olds prancing in nighties at midnight on a Chicago street) to an elegy for George Floyd (where she tosses a “grenade of grief up to the sky”) to “The Radiation Room” where she compares the light beams sweeping her body for cancer to the reassuring twinkle of winter constellations overhead and “everyone she’s ever loved.”

Ethna McKiernan

Ethna McKiernan has been twice awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant in poetry. Her first book, Caravan, was nominated for the Minnesota Book Award and her work has been widely anthologized, including in The Notre Dame Book of Irish American Poetry, 33 Minnesota Poets, and more. McKiernan holds an MFA from Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Her fourth book, Swimming With Shadows, was published by Salmon Poetry (Ireland) in 2019. McKiernan works in Street Outreach for a non-profit serving the Minneapolis homeless population. In an earlier life, she was CEO of Irish Books and Media, Inc., a school bus driver, and a grape picker in France.


Light.  The rapture of it, heft
and weight.  Two birches wear the white sheen
of it, a zinnia’s face blazes gold in it,
sidewalk shadows change size because of it.

Quick as that, a gloss of light lands 
on the cricket’s back, then leaves.  Leaves in Fall
are charged with it, fierce light pulsing out
from colors against black bark after rain.

When dark falls, there is an absence,
a quiet sorrow in the realm of eyesight.
Edges blur and soften, and we no longer
recognize what we knew so keenly yesterday.

Then daybreak, when the rapt world flames forth
again, scattering bits of light, delirious light.

I Can’t Breathe
for George Floyd

All week the helicopters whir and drone
until they feel like wasps 
inside my head, until they lodge in hot bits
inside my ribs, until they take me back to Vietnam
when Jeff was dying high above the gauzy clouds
in that Huey chopper.

Sirens scream down the streets
and we smell the smoke that curls
from torched buildings.  Look at us,  
America in 2020, no different from 
the year we lynched Emmett Till in 1955.

Today I mourn the death
of George Floyd, whose neck
was pinned for nine minutes
beneath a white cop’s knee
until the only thing that could be heard 
was “I can’t breathe.” I mourn
the officers who didn’t try to help
him, I mourn everyone
who didn’t get the news in time
to intervene or yell “stop!”

For the residue of the lynching tree 
in the blood of those who killed him,
for the brutal fires and looting that came next;
for my dear neighborhood in ruins
and for the small businesses
that just couldn’t bear the weight;
for the fury of provocateurs 
who torched peaceful protests
with their hate, I toss my own
grenade of grief up to the sky.

The Otherworld

Only ninety steps from house to forest.
I counted them, summer days, my whole body
pulled like a magnet toward the green light
humming through the thick stand of pines.
It was the otherworld I craved, the air
silver with dust motes floating down between
deep green needles, the pitch of pine scent
tuned tightly to a high thin note,
the forest floor worn and soft as an old rug,
and all the lure of foreign places calling.

We danced there, my sisters and I,
twirling our gypsy skirts for an audience
of mute trees in the clearing.  By noon
we were heady with possibility
of claiming the lost Irish crown, the coveted role
of Queen Kathleen, Ruler of the Forest.

And each day ended with my mother’s voice
sounding the dinner call, pulling us back
again.  While we ate, while
we played, every hour surged forward
and away from us into the future,
and never once as we filled our lungs
with great gulps of sweet green air
did we consider this.

Poems Copyright © Ethna McKiernan, 2021

This is the text of Susan Millar DuMars' speech at the launch of Ethna McKiernan’s Light Rolling Slowly Backwards: New and Selected Poems in The Salmon Bookshop Garden, Monday 26th July, 2021

I want to start by reading a poem of Ethna’s.  It’s called Thanks, and it’s from her 2019 collection Swimming With Shadows.


What to praise but the ordinary –
the ant burrowing in sidewalk sand,
kitchen faucet that no longer drips,
pink bee balm from the garden
fringed like spiky fireworks,
all the words on the page of this book,
the halleluiah clouds floating in today’s sky,
that sharp garlic smell wafting from the pan,
red postage stamps with jazz notes and poets,
the eagle’s nest on my street by the river,
a pealing laugh heard anywhere;
your arms, which once circled mine
in benign sleep; the sunrise that beckons us
to wake daily and begin again.

I wanted to start there because I feel that poem is emblematic of the book as a whole, both in that it’s so well observed, so loaded with detail; and also that it’s a poem of gratitude.  I think we can infer from the last two lines that it’s a hard-won gratitude; the poem’s narrator has been tested, and she implies that a new day, a new start, would be welcome.  Yet even on a tough day, she can look around her and find things to be grateful for, can be grateful just to be able to look around, to really see.  Perhaps to see her place in things.  This notion really chimed with me, because recently I got to take a week off from a writing project I’d been working really hard on.  I had a great week – went to the beach, went out to lunch with Kevin, sat in the garden.  However as the week ended I noticed I’d become sort of obsessed with some of my pet worries, and wasn’t sure why.  Then one day I was floating on my back in Galway bay, looking up at an impossibly blue sky.  And I felt so small.  I felt like a very small part of this enormous tapestry, and I felt really relieved and peaceful.  And I realised that over the week I’d been very focused on myself, and what I needed was that shift in perspective, when I can see myself with all my pains and all my joys, as a small part of something bigger.

That crucial perspective shift occurs in every one of Ethna’s poems.  She writes not about herself but through herself.  Her poems transcend autobiography, as the poet acts as one small, still point in a world of aching tragedy and stunning beauty.  It’s no coincidence that, of the book’s three back cover blurbs, two contain the word truth.  And the third uses the word experience, which in this context means the same thing.  These are grounding poems, and they ground us through their humility and honesty.

It’s a big book, and there are many ways to get immersed in it.  I found it really moving to start with the earliest poems, published in the collection Caravan in 1989, and to read chronologically so I had a sense of moving through the poet’s life.  There are poems about being a daughter, a mother, a friend, a girl, a woman, a lover, a poet and a worker.  Every woman will recognise herself, some phase or phases of her own life, reflected in this book.  Like a Dickens novel, the collection has a vast and colourful cast of characters I just can’t do justice to here; generous portraits of the poet’s parents, her sons, her clients, her partners and her friends.  It struck me that I haven’t read enough poems celebrating deep, lasting friendship, and was glad to do so here.  There is a lot of sadness here, but also a great deal of grit, of spirit, of humour.  I’m not going to read the poem in which Ethna gets arrested, alongside other members of her Girl Scout troupe, because I’m hoping she’s going to read that one herself.  If not, do look for it – it’s so worth it.

A theme of the book as a whole is time, specifically seasons and the way the light changes with the seasons.  Ethna is obsessed with light, in a painterly way, using it to denote not only the passing of time but the passing of states of being as well.  Grief is slate grey, “made up of rain and whitecaps and regret”, she tells us in the elegy Afterward at Lake Superior.  While in Lake, a similar setting is allowed to be a place of peace and joy, with “filmy ribs of light/beneath the surface, swirling/as my calves slide in.”  

In the title poem, Light Rolling Slowly Backwards, she writes:

It’s August and we’re hurtling
toward November, even as
the glory burst of fall colours lies ahead.
Light rolls slowly backward now
while days shorten.  Shadows grow.

And these shadows perhaps gather in the periphery of the last of the new poems, called The Radiation Room.  But the shadows are banished by remembered love:

Eyes closed now,
the constellations are
everyone I’ve ever loved –
family, friends, poets dead and alive,
the child next door, my homeless clients
on the Greenway in their tents, even the freckled guy
at the grocery store with the kind smile.
They are my relatives, my light –

I’m aware that I’m not saying much about form.  Perhaps someone cleverer would, would compare Ethna to this poet or that.  For me, Ethna’s poetic voice is nearly transparent, so that I’m less likely to respond to her technique than to the content of each poem.  That, to my mind, is a real compliment to a poet.  I will say that Ethna’s work contains the best qualities of both Irish and American poetic practice.  She employs metaphor, music and a sense of place like an Irish poet while also having faith in the colloquial, the anthemic and in societal critique as in Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes.  

Like me, Ethna is both Irish and American, and these lines from her poem Going Back (from her first collection) echoed strongly for me:

One day you finally left,
Sailing your boat straight into the cave
Of America’s open arms;
Feeling the wind no monster
There, after such lean dreams
As you had culled from Irish soil.

Mama Mór, I stand here now
Where you once stood,
The unchanged land beneath my feet,
Certain that my bones are formed
From that same air
That made your bones first stir.
But the old heritage breeds a different pain in me:
A stranger to both countries,
I cannot make my roots take hold;
Can only stand and hear the sea
Return the poems that you’d willed it
As a child, while the wind
Raises ghosts behind me.

In that poem I hear the sorrow and the pleasure of belonging in two places and in no place, and I recognise it.  While it can be a painful circumstance for a person, for a writer it is gold dust, because it gives us the clear perspective of one who is a bit outside, a bit apart.

I want to close by drawing your attention to the poems about Ethna’s work.  As her bio tells us, she “works in Street Outreach for a non-profit serving the Minneapolis homeless population.”  Among the poems that affected me most strongly are the ones about Ethna’s clients.  They and their circumstances are drawn without drama or sentimentality but with lots of telling detail.  I know I won’t forget Billy, or Tracy or Tammie or Maria.  I won’t forget Miguel, who wakes in the shelter at 4 am so he can make the long bus ride to his job.  Or the man and woman in Dumpster (a dumpster is the American word for a skip) from the collection Swimming With Shadows, who spend three days of a freezing winter sleeping in a dumpster:

At daybreak they left
for the hour-long coffee they sipped at Denny’s,
then the library, warm,
where she played Solitaire
as he searched on Craigslist once again
for jobs. Later, a bus ride to the terminal
and back on the 16Afor a nap.
Come evening
dread raised its whip again,
Can’t do it no more.

Ethna has the grace and smarts to stand back from the centre of these poems, to tell these people’s stories straight.  Although we do feel her frustration at the limits of the help she can provide in the final stanza of Band-Aid, one of the book’s new poems.  Here, we hear Ethna talking to Tracy in her mind, telling her:

Honey, hold on, hold on,
we have socks and gloves
and we’ll be back tomorrow
with bus tokens
and another Band-Aid
for your sorrow.

As I said, Ethna doesn’t write about herself, but through herself.  She is the small, still point through which we glimpse our current world, with all its cruelty, and all its light.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  It’s an honour and a pleasure to declare Light Rolling Slowly Backwards launched.  Congratulations, Ethna.

Other Titles from Ethna McKiernan

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