James Naiden reviews ‘Sky Thick with Fireflies’ by Ethna McKiernan



Third Book, Third Charm



Sky Thick with Fireflies is Ethna McKiernan’s most recent collection, brought out in 2012 by Salmon Poetry (County Clare, Ireland), also the publisher of her second collection, The One Who Swears You Can’t Start Over, in 2002. Her first collection, Caravan (1989) – as with her more recent volumes – earned many favorable reviews, and so it has been since then, nary a clunker in the bunch.

McKiernan was born the fifth of nine children in New York City, in late 1951. Her father was a professor of English, specializing in Irish literature, and her mother a schoolteacher when she wasn’t at home rearing children. The future poet became a mother to three sons and a businesswoman. She then earned a MFA degree in her forties because she “needed to put poetry smack into the middle” of her life again, as she later remarked during a radio interview.

For the last several years in Minneapolis, she has been an outreach worker with the homeless, from which have come images of starkness and great resolve. In other words, she’s not been hedged in by the groves of academe, but her love for her Irish heritage, including memories of her professor father, produced this sonnet –




My father’s head was propped up in his hands.

Around him chaos swirled; the cello played

off-key in practice, someone vacuumed sand

we’d tracked in from the beach. I was amazed


that he could concentrate through all this,

scoring Shakespeare’s words with yellow pen

and calmly reading as I wrestled Fergus

while the youngest blundered through the den.


For years I’ve carried my father’s image around,

the flame in the storm who loved the crazy wind

his children were despite the din of sound

he sometimes wished he could rescind.


He proved the ivory tower a myth, this anti-Lear,

who kept his children, his Cordelias near.


In the same interview in October 2009, McKiernan was also asked how she saw the poetry scene in America and in Minneapolis, where she has lived for a good number of years. She was observant and modest but realistic: “That’s a big question. What I have to compare it to is the publishing scene and reading scene in Ireland. There in the Sunday paper, the Irish Times – all its splendor – is a poem for the public consumption and reading! That doesn’t occur here. And I miss these kinds of things. Culturally I’m pointing out a difference, just because the question seems so large – and I’m not quite sure I can do it justice.”

Her affinities for many she has met along the way have brought forth poems such as “Swannanoa Afternoon” (for Eleanor Wilner), “Too Soon” (for John Engman, a poet friend who succumbed to a sudden brain aneurysm at age 47, in 1996), and other well-etched efforts, such as a spoof of Robert Bly’s lordly pronouncements, or tributes for her sons from their infancies to growing up, or her own need for love with its inevitable ordeals. Here is a tightly carved poem as one relationship was ending –



Coming across them unexpectedly like that

after years


birch bark tendrils, translucent

as an uncoiled sigh in sleep


a sack of forest twigs breathing

forest tang before air grows factual again


small gift, first offerings

the past bursting into present tense


a shock    sudden as the notes of Beethoven

crashing through the dark hallway


or the single quiet night we swam

surprised as fish inside each other



as we rubbed uncertain gills


by a presence of death in things unsung

the incense still packaged


notes from an old sonnet

shelved before done.


In reading McKiernan from book to book, especially this new volume, I’m reminded of other poets revealing both fragility and immense strength from within – Sandra McPherson, James Bertolino, Natalie Diaz, Sigrid Bergie, and Abigail Price – among a select plenitude. Ethna McKiernan’s poetry is of this high caliber.



Sky Thick with Fireflies is published by Salmon Press, 2012. Order your copy  here




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Alex Nodopaka



A Mousy Story

I know I know
those fricken mice have guts.

Once upon a time
I cornered one and approaching it

with an open
shopping bag that bitch jumped

past the bag
straight at me now mind you

my hands were busy
holding the sac open so I had to use

my teeth
to bite her head off and I didn’t get

any smarter by doing it.
Intelligence isn’t something

you can chew on.





Alex Nodopaka was speedily conceived in Kiyv, Ukraine. Cherry pit-spit, head first in Vladivostok, Russia he now aspires for mini-cameo appearances in IFC or Sundance movies even if only for the duration of a wink.

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Conor Foley

Make Friday Jealous

It was Grey Goose Thursday at Denilson’s Restaurant. Arthur the aspiring editor sat slouched at the bar, looking down at his fifth vodka and tonic. He was vaguely aware of a buzz around him, people talking, watching a baseball game on one of the massive televisions over the bar. All those applications and nothing, he thought. He was almost 25. And what am I doing? He had a degree in Creative Writing. All through college he’d wanted to be a writer, but after two years of submissions and rejections, he’d given up. He took a sip of his drink. It still hurt.

He tried to rebrand himself as an editor. Sent his resume to every publisher he could think of. Three weeks later here he was, getting plastered on five dollar vodka in the restaurant he used to work at. He finished his drink and ordered another.

He recognized a few of the servers. Still here, after three years. Not that long of a time really. Some of them might still be in college. He missed college. The sense of purpose, the feeling that he had a future. Everything seems so pointless now. I guess it was pointless then, too, and I just didn’t realize it. He thought of the books, the feeling when he’d read Hamlet, Ulysses, Tender is the Night, The Sound and the Fury, Infinite Jest. He remembered comparing himself to those writers, trying to force some similar brilliance from himself, admitting failure, languishing in it, all of the hatred for himself. I probably wouldn’t have been happy anyway.

The night wore on, stars moving imperceptibly as the planet turned. In the restaurant liquor flowed in torrents while steak and salmon roasted on the grill to be served like glamorous sculptures on gleaming white plates.

In a dark car in the parking lot a woman screamed into her phone at her fiancé for two minutes before realizing that he had hung up on her. She dropped her head back against the head rest. What happened to us? She thought of the first two years, all of the firsts, the times he’d cooked for her, the cuddling, the sex, her ring. She sat motionless, eyes unfocused, trying to feel in love.

In the restaurant it was closing time. The dining room was silent, and even cocktail was mostly empty. In the kitchen the new dishwasher was placing frozen breadsticks on trays, looking ruefully at the ever growing pile of pots and pans in the dish pit. He scrubbed them, sent them through the machine, put them away uncertainly. He scrubbed out the giant vats, swept the floor. Miserable. In the office the manager leaned on his desk, waiting for the dishwasher to finish so he could go home. He noticed how excited he was to go on vacation and realized that he hated his job. In the back the dishwasher took apart the machine and got the manager. They both left, walking out miniscule beneath the uncaring stars.



Conor Foley is a native of St. Petersburg, Florida. He currently attends the University of South Florida, where he is earning Bachelor’s degrees in English and History

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Chris Rushby

To The Point

Seals bask on the sand stinking of fish.
Just off the beach terns scream
As, one by one, they dive
flashing for glittering sprats.
At my feet, thrift and poppies flutter
flowers glowing like stained glass.
Across the inner channel
a lobster boat stops to haul out creels
the men’s voices carrying, indistinct
over the hush of the waves coming in.
As I turn for home, a harrier
is quartering the marsh one final time
and a herring gull puts up, disconcerted.
You want me to tell you I love you.



Chris Rushby lives in north Norfolk. He wrote poems in adolescence, then stopped. Several decades later the impulse seems to have returned.


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Liz Lefroy



An Ancient Settlement

This is a true story, though I cannot believe it now.
We travelled in the black Mercedes,
and maybe, like me, you’ll want to know where and how.
I wore a blue skirt and I wore a white blouse –
this I recall because I wore them for seven days.

That first day, I did not mind.
When we stopped off, I thought we were nowhere.
And though afterwards we got back into the car,
and drove to the house where I was held,
and though after two days I was bored,
and though by the fourth I’d raised my fist
against his pinching of my cheek,
against his thick thigh,
his thick hand resting on my blue skirt,
I do not regret the journey.
This may surprise you.

For when we stopped that first late afternoon,
I turned the corner into the reddening sun.
Before me lay stones, and stones on stones,
some half-tumbled into low walls,
some etched with chariots and geometric vines,
some worked into columns supporting the sky,
some lying loose and heavy in the grass.
Through the lintel-less gateway of towering sphinxes
I saw round-breasted goddesses
eyeing the fluting god-processions
from behind their untamed, stony hair.

And so later, when he turned to face me,
and when later still he cursed my name,
above this rage I heard those ancient voices,
heard them rise, stride out, free and wild,
into the singing grasslands of the night.

Liz Lefroy won the 2011 Roy Fisher Prize with her first pamphlet, Pretending the Weather. Her second, The Gathering, was published earlier in 2012, also by Long Face Press.

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Juliet Humphreys






For a moment I’m fooled. It’s so nearly you:

box pleat skirt, lilac shoes, pink blouse pressed,

hair fanned in a halo – but the face isn’t yours.


You’re hidden inside a waxwork of you,

looking through me, sapphire eyes

have lost their light, become wolfish.


You’re in there somewhere: I can hear you

reciting your lines, you know what to say

but not when to say it,

nodding when the answer’s no.




Juliet Humphreys is a teacher and poet who lives in Uxbridge.


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Andy Jackson



Ten Gigs I Never Went To

Let us assume a curvature of space,
that time can be folded like paper.
If this were so I could laze and sip coffee
in the now, then walk the shortest route
between two points, over to myself
at eighteen, standing in the rain
outside the Manchester Apollo, half of
Northern England in the queue ahead,
waiting for the opening of the doors.

Those who know the science of this
gravitate by subterfuge to call boxes,
dialling themselves across the years.
The phone booths that ring and ring
when no-one’s there to answer:
that’s them, attempting to connect to us
before the splinter-moment that the girl
that got away walks by, or seconds
from the worst decision of our lives.

If I could, I’d tap me on the shoulder,
have a word; get out of here. Across
the city there’s a secret gig, a carefree act
about to change the world. Trust me,
some day you’ll wish that you had gone.




Andy Jackson (b.1965) is from Manchester, lives in Scotland. Poems have appeared in Magma, Gutter, Blackbox Manifold, Trespass & Poetry News. Collection The Assassination Museum (2010) and Split Screen (editor, 2012), an anthology inspired by film & TV, both by Red Squirrel Press.  This is his website.



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