Poetry Sunday: “Nothing Gold,” by Ethna McKiernan

Nothing Gold    

Everything my father’s loved is leaving—
the taste of whipped cream dessert
at lunch; the bloom of Russian sage
in the August garden; the words
to his beloved Emily’s poems;
that Irish tune my mother used to hum.

Tonight he thinks he is a prisoner, poisoned
by my older sisters, whose names he can’t recall.
On the telephone he sounds afraid and frail.
Voice low, he asks when I can come to get him, do I know
the street number of the house where he is being held,
how soon, God help us, can I get there?

And I am desperate not to hear this story, wild
to seize him from the place where his brain flares
and slows, just as his gait, too, has slowed
to shaky, baby steps that inch their way
out to the car in the driveway.

Mind back, he whispers to me
“Nothing gold can stay,” and I recall him
quoting Frost or Yeats at the dinner table
for his nine children through the years,
recall how poems lived in the house
in all the rooms my father walked.
So dawn goes down to day…

And oh my father, at this moment
I would welcome the wolves
from that fairy tale you used to tell,
would gladly let the day end with you
tucked upon their sled
headed toward the dark woods—
oh, I’d believe all their promises to take care
of you, I’d believe anything they said.


First published in Sky Thick with Fireflies (Salmon Poetry 2011) and reprinted here with permission of the press.


Ethna McKiernan is the author of three collections of poems, Caravan, The One Who Swears You Can’t Start Over, and Sky Thick with Fireflies, available here. Widely published in anthologies and literary journals (Notre Dame’s The Book of Irish American Poetry, Kent State’s Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose About Alzheimer‘s, Nodin Press’s 33 Minnesota Poets, and others), she has twice received the Minnesota Arts Board Fellowship in literature. McKiernan earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College in 2004, and works as a homeless advocate in Minneapolis. (Author photo: Tom Dunn Photography)



Poet’s Note

I wrote “Nothing Gold” in my last semester at the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers, while finishing my MFA. My father was a vibrant man, an English professor for most of his life and an Irish Studies scholar for all of his life, speaking the Irish language fluently and moving his nine-children family to Ireland for a year during a fellowship.  His favorite American poets were Dickinson and Frost. His favorite Irish poet was Yeats, plus a host of Irish-language (Gaelic) poets. In the last two years of his life he developed a Parkinsonian-related disease called Lewy Bodies, which mimics the physical symptoms of Parkinson’s and carries with it intermittent dementia and paranoia. One moment he was lucid, the next he was delusional, a painful experience for all. He died a week after I finished my MFA.

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  • Wendy Brown-Baez July 11, 2019 at 10:39 am

    This is so poignant to me since my dad also exhibited a change in personality, although not dementia, just exacerbated anxiety and depression leading to paranoia and negativity. Thanks for articulating the loss so well.

  • Gregory Ruud June 19, 2017 at 11:11 pm

    So fine a piece!

  • Brendan Galvin June 19, 2017 at 5:45 pm

    I met your father in Sligo once, in 1988 I believe. Your poem is a great tribute to him.

    • Ethna McKiernan June 26, 2017 at 10:42 pm

      Brenden, he gave me one of your books!

  • Carol Masters June 19, 2017 at 11:18 am

    Wonderful poem, poet!

  • Trew Bennett June 18, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    Ethna’s poem is perfect for today. Thank you for this delicious site.

  • Mike Finley June 18, 2017 at 12:18 pm


  • Ted King June 18, 2017 at 10:48 am

    Beautiful Poem !!!!!!!