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Sky Thick With Fireflies

Ethna McKiernan

ISBN: 978-1-907056-88-8

Page Count: 102

Publication Date: Saturday, November 05, 2011

Cover Artwork: Fireflies at night © Fernando Gregory |

About this Book

Like a “sky thick with fireflies,” Ethna McKiernan gathers the small brightnesses of life to set against the larger dark, in poems both sorrowing and quietly redemptive. Open-hearted and fierce in their affections for the ordinary, and for those “outside,” the poems bear caring witness for “lives invisible, unseen,…beneath the bridge…far below/ the radar of believability,” lives that matter in her unadorned, direct speech, her empathetic embrace of all she sees.     
Eleanor Wilner     

Ethna McKiernan’s Sky Thick With Fireflies is laced and bound by memory. These poems hold the past to light and insist upon remembrance.  Included are moving elegies for her father, for a friend's son, for the dead of 9/11, for her own child lost to adoption, and for the homeless population with whom she works.  McKiernan’s language of the ordinary is charged with the pervasive sense of compassion that governs this book. Here also are poems of longing and romance, plus the dry wit of “The Men in the Basement” and “Lament,” as well as imaginative persona poems in the voices of  Rumplestilskin, Narcissus and Mrs. Magi. “McKiernan is a poet’s poet, assuming the poet believes emotion is the beating heart of literature.”  – The Corresponder, 2003

Author Biography

Ethna McKiernan has been twice awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant in poetry, most recently in 2011 for the completion of Sky Thick With Fireflies.  McKiernan’s first book Caravan (Dedalus Press and Midwest Villages & Voices, Minneapolis) was a Minnesota Book Award Nominee.  Of her second book, The One Who Swears You Can’t Start Over (Salmon Poetry), The Bloomsbury Review wrote, “McKiernan seems to write because she has to, and graces her verse with resonance because she can.  She stands out among the ranks of poets for her ability to match language to subject, sound to sense.”  McKiernan ran an Irish book distribution business (Irish Books and Media) for over two decades and has worked the past four years for a non-profit serving the Minneapolis homeless.  She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson Program for Writers.


Review: Sky Thick With Fireflies by Ethna McKiernan reviewed by Rory Brennan for Books Ireland (Summer 2012)

Poetry has been defined as memorable speech, by W.H. Auden among others.  We remember the voices of poets for different reasons: tone, wit, feeling, humor rancor, bleakness, joy, acuteness of expression. We recall Tennyson for his sadness, Swift for his anger. But others linger because of their defects: Utter flatness, self-indulgence, vacuity, pretentiousness. Let's see how the poets we consider here do in the "memorable test".

Ethna McKiernan has the sharp eye of the poet; like a good draughtsman who makes a revealing sketch she captures the nature and condition of objects and scenes with a persuasive realism. John Updike said his training at an art school in Oxford greatly enhanced his writing. This visual aspect is only one of the qualities of McKiernan's writing. She writes in direct, generally unadorned lines that have an unobtrusive, almost shy musicality.

Eavan Boland, who supplies the epigraph to the first poem in this substantial collection and is actually addressed in it, is clearly an influence as is Adrienne Rich. It is always a pleasure to find poetry that contains urgency, a need of expression, an imperative to be unburdened. This sense is left by most of the work here whether the themes are late motherhood, the ambiguities of loving, political protest, the triumph of art in (not over) domesticity "Rain flays the lake" is a recurring phrase that is one of the best I have rest for ages.

McKiernan's vision is of the kind described as unsparing. She casts a cold eye which of course has the paradoxical effect in art of heartening us, of strangely warming us with the chill of truth. This is a significant book and, as noted, a full one, large as many people's 'selected poems'. It is memorable for all the above reasons; a serious and resonant collection.

Review: Sky Thick With Fireflies reviewed by David Troman for Orbis, Spring 2012


This collection is twice a thing of beauty, once because of what it has to say and twice because of the way that it says it. The verses are unashamedly emotive without ever being maudlin or sentimental.
   The whole is split into four distinct sections, each taking a sub-theme within the overall theme and focusing on the essence of that. The first section ‘Sky that got away’ deals with loss, particularly loss of children, and does so with considerable empathy. All the poems are beautifully crafted and reward repeated reading. This particularly applies to two ‘form’ poems, where on first reading the form overpowers the content. These are ‘Birthmother to her sleeve’ and ‘July 4th, late’. Once past the form, the second of these is revealed as the strongest verse in this particular section where there are no weak poems at all.
   The third section is entitled ‘Sky of the otherworld’ and deals with those individuals that the greater part of conventional society would prefer to ignore or avoid, the outcasts and the different. I consider this next because it also deals with individuals and does so with great élan. In these pieces, McKiernan’s personal familiarity with her subject comes to the fore, allowing her to give tiny details which add punch to the whole. ‘Tuesday at the Outreach Office’ deals with Spanish/American communication difficulties ending with the two sobering lines:

Victor lays his head down on the table
and weeps, a language that we both understand.

   Her keen sense of observation also displays a wry humour and nose for a memorable closing line as in ‘Signs’:

Keep your coins, we want change.

   Sandwiched between these two sections is ‘Sky belonging to us all’, which deals with more communal sense, although individuals still rise to the surface at times as in ‘Jeff’s Poem’:

And it became Jeffrey, intelligent,
silent, lion-hearted, present everywhere around us 
And it became all of us, a community of love.

   The fourth and final section is ‘Sky without end’ and brings to mind the ‘World without end’ closure to many prayers. In their own way these poems look forward rather than back and probably the best summary of this comes in the last six lines of the last poem in the book:

when the plain pod
of lupine seeds
I hold in my palm
carries next year’s
wild purple
ticking in its husk.

   In conclusion, this is a collection to be read and re-read. McKiernan has much to say and all of it worth hearing.

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