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The One Who Swears You Can't Start Over

Ethna McKiernan

ISBN: 1 903392 22 5

Page Count: 92

Publication Date: Monday, April 01, 2002

Cover Artwork: Jessie Lendennie

About this Book

The One Who Swears You Can't Start Over is both an elegiac record of losses and a testimony to our collective human determination to begin again. Though the book is centered around family and losses (loss of a mother to Alzheimer's, loss of a child, loss of a friend to suicide), it also includes a number of coming-of-age poems; poems on poetry, including the deadpan-funny "Why I Lied My Way Through Childhood;" persona poems written in voices unique as Peter the Apostle and Snow White; several sonnets, a sestina and other pieces about the author's children; and poems of deep praise, deep joy, such as "Dinner at the Frost Place" and "Homage to the Common."

Author Biography

Ethna McKiernan is a Minnesota author with strong Irish connections, including a year's stay in Dublin as a child and over 50 trips back since. Her first book, Caravan, was co-published by Dedalus and Midwest Villages & Voices in 1989, the same year she was awarded a State Arts Boad Fellowship in literature. Her most recent work has appeared in The New Hibernia Review, Poetry Ireland, and 33 Minnesota Poets. She is currently an MFA candidate at Warren Wilson College.

Praise for Caravan, Ethna McKiernan's first collection of poetry

"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

"In Caravan, the human past reaches forth as myth, archetype, ghost. Here, from "Foreigner": "On such a night/the Clare coast split/and drifted out to sea;/ground collapsed/and Inis Mein was born..." The poem continues, "...and this is no country for strangers..." "To Inishmore" gazes unblinkingly at estrangement, finding here a bleak poetry of loss. "St. James Orphan" is one of the most chilling poems I've ever read, a small, coldly beautiful piece of Victorian history. Read McKiernan: you will emerge from these waters shivering but profoundly changed."

Lonely Planet News, Fall 1993

"Ethna McKiernan's work is passionate, evocative and rich."

Books Ireland, May 1990

"The poems are accessible and have a range of emotions and themes mostly centering on identity and the growth process from birth to death. As subject matter, this makes good cannon fodder, and McKiernan has managed to wring out some plaintive images, and some powerful images. At times the poetry presents some very compact images ("Arctic Expedition") while "Catch" is noteworthy for its lively pacing. Nostalgia and thought provoking sadness comes forth in "Elegy Against the Dying of the Light" and "My Mother's Hands." McKiernan writes easily about the human condition, but her images are not commonplace: Now I flatten daily, thinner than peeled garlic skin, barely squeaking in through the stern Scandinavian door." (from "All Together Now") Towards the end of the book, the poems start becoming more risky, open and imaginative. "St. James Orphan" is a memorable work showing the many sides of a result, and "The Other Woman" gets beneath the skin in another fashion."

On the Bus, Vol. III, No. 2, and Vol. IV, No. 1, 1991

"Ethna McKiernan's poems are filled with music and metaphor. She writes with an economy of language that leaves us haunted by her honesty and her compassion. Many voices fill her work - an arctic explorer, a poverty-stricken Dublin mother, a Florida widower. But it is her own dark voice which is the most compelling".

Cary Waterman

Read a sample from this book

Deora Dé
for my father
We walked through a tunnel of fuschia
and he called the bushes Deora Dé.
"From the Irish," he said, Tears of God.
How like him it was to pull his other language
from the air like that,
Threading the red blaze of color
and its teardrop song to the sorrow spent
by one creating it, petal by detailed petal
added to a burden of immense particulars
in a world still daily being made.
My father - his thin shoulders angling
through the patched tweed jacket,
our hands linked by the old stories,
fused history cast in common bone.
And the wild fuschia light
on the West Cork mountains
that October afternoon.


Irish Literary Supplement, Spring 2003. Reviewed by Kevin McEneaney.

Both James Liddy and Ethna McKiernan dwell in the Midwestern heartland and Ireland retains the romance of their roots, though they are very different kinds of poets. While McKiernan pens wry poems of wisdom and amusing domesticity, Liddy strives for meditative eloquence amid the bohemian demi-monde.

The body of Liddy's achievement has recently been acclaimed by Brian Arkins in James Liddy: A Study of his Poetry (Arlen House). Arkins finds that Liddy's poetry excels in Greek energia (vividness, vitality, immediacy), a category of critical evaluation somewhat neglected by modern pundits. Another influence on Liddy remains the bohemian pub scene of Patrick Kavanagh's Dublin and Jack Kerouac's street lust -- transatlantic musings by moonlight dancing. Dancing, a metaphor for journeys in memory and place, occupies center stage in his new book, a broadside from an unrepentant outsider who proffers mischievous fun in the face of a static and suffocating zeitgeist. Unlike most poets today, Liddy strives for the lyric line and the aesthetic sensibility that will illuminate the ordinary. This is achieved through meditative digressions sculpted with a Parisian whisper of surrealism ("only to listen to melancholy and beautiful / violins under the oxters weeping madonnas / in the plinth fields from Kilfenora") and the beat affinity for compiling comic lists that contain a cultural critique. The tone remains steadfastly intimate, the golden discourse of eloquence, for which the poet yearns as he sings to salvage a Proustian redemption from his family memories in Ireland, his fringe participation in the official, Irish literary scene, and his subsequent fate as a teacher in the American heartland. He presents himself as literary with an appreciation of spontaneity and absurdity, the later appearing as memory photos valued for their eccentricity or anecdotal romance. The book is a series of confidential asides to be contrasted with teh chorus of what he calls the Irish Poetry Mafia. His lyric, set dancing is intimate, while theirs is the official stage jig or yearning for lace-curtain, social respectability. "A Keening" and "Venice Poem for Nora's and Tom's Return" exploits the litany with humour and panache, while many other poems turn to the humility of prayer and moments of secular crisis. Discovering continuity between Latin, Gaelic, and conversational English, what he retains most vividly is mystery, mystery in his meditations and observations, mystery in the source of his poetic wellspring amid the crass indifference of the world and his memories of those who have preferred authenticity and wit to the idol of respectability. As an emeritus of the poetic scene, repository of anecdote, and conversationalist of wit (he can do an impersonation of George Moore or Oscar Wilde at the blink of an eye), James Liddy should be much in demand on the college reading circuit.

As a poet of domestic humour, Ethna McKiernan is a master of the graceful family anecdote. Many poems dramatise the anxieties and joys of motherhood, but she shuns mere sentimentality in favour of bemused disposition. Although like Liddy she gardens amid the intimate, her voice projects outwardly like a speaking flower, as in "The Architecture of Flowers" where (after recollection her father's chilly kitchen in Dublin) she wishes for Ovidian transformation into an iris, demanding that time stop for her, a witty inversion of the Horatian carpe diem. Where her previous book, Caravan, was good and well-crafted, her current book enters the joy of song as poetic structure becomes second nature as she celebrates offspring ("Under It All"), provides comic confession of small sins ("Why I Lied My Way Through Childhood"), and loving snapshots of her mother ("When") and father ("Deora De"). Contentment in the ordinary ("I celebrate alike the lumpy August lawn / awash with acorns and the first new snow / which tempers any memory of wrong.") as it is transformed by the imagination remains her theme, but it rises with yeast of amazement. Reading her lyrics restores equanimity in the reader, even when she meditates soberly on the death of friends. Posted to home, her love poems reveal her gentle acceptance of life and her generous personality embracing those around her.

Two different transatlantic voices, immersed both in America and in Ireland; two divergent sensibilities, but both accomplished wordsmiths. The publisher, Salmon Poetry, has emerged as a transatlantic voice, displaying greater depth in the Irish American experience, making a difference for all those who appreciate culture.

The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 2003

There are poets with no sense of sound, like Allen Ginsberg, whose readings sounded to me like a train wreck. And there are poets without the sound of sense. Their work may be lilting but do not nourish the heart. I think, "Lovely, but what did it mean?" Usually nothing.

But Ethna McKiernan, a Minnesota writer with strong ties to Ireland - she claims to have made 50 visits - not only delivers strong statements, but has a lyrical gift that is charming to the ear. As Pound showed, poetry should never be far from song, and song never far from dance. Quite so. McKiernan didn't get me up to do a jig, but her poetry, especially the formal pieces, could easily be sung.

Schoolroom poets often trot off measured works, "mastering" one form or other, but usually the effort falls short for lack of real passion. And street poets sometimes spew personal expressions onto the page, confounding readers with their complete lack of control. McKiernan seems to write because she has to, and graces her verse with resonance because she can. How rare this is.

There are five sections in this slim volume. One of the most tender and anguished collects 10 poems about her mother's Alzheimer's. Much of McKiernan's work is dark, but if the reader does not insist on lightheartedness, the grimness does not offend. This poet is no starry-eyed kid bent on commemorating trivial subjects; she is a seasoned pro still able to shed tears of both sorrow and delight.

McKiernan writes in free verse and more formal forms, such as the sonnet; her versatility intrigues. She transports readers. Her sensitivity and care speak of genuine consciousness.

Ethna McKiernan stands out among the ranks of poets for her ability to match language to subject, sound to sense. When this combination comes into play, readers come away refreshed and drawn deeper into life. Is there a higher purpose to art?

Review by Freddy Bosco

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