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The One Who Swears You Can't Start Over
April 2002

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Sky Thick With Fireflies
November 2011

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Swimming with Shadows
March 2019

Light Rolling Slowly Backwards - New & Selected Poems

Ethna McKiernan

ISBN: 978-1-912561-95-7

Page Count: 168

Publication Date: Friday, June 25, 2021

Cover Artwork: Cover Photography: Jessie Lendennie. Design: Siobhan Hutson

About this Book

“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.”

Author Biography

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.

Read a sample from this book


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

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