Poetry Sunday: “Nothing Gold,” by Ethna McKiernan

The list of lost things is beautiful but sad because they are “leaving,” and the poem moves from there into an account of what the father is like now—frail, cowering, and begging the speaker for rescue. Many details contribute to the pathos of this scene, including a recounting of exactly what the father says (“when can I come to get him, do I know / the street number of the house where he is being held”) captured in the father’s voice by means of his Irish vernacular (“how soon, God help us, can I get there?”). Stanza 3 takes the speaker to her father’s side, and we learn of further insults of old age to the body, not just a slowing of his gait but its reduction “to shaky, baby steps that inch their way” to the car. Stanza 3 also provides some back story, explaining why the loss of words is especially poignant in this case, and it offers a recollection the speaker has of growing up in a house with “nine children” and a father who walked its rooms while reciting poetry. That’s a lovely memory, and one that not everyone gets to have of their fathers, but it works in the same way as the list of things “leaving” in the first stanza to make articulate and particular the loss we are witnessing. In stanza 4, the father returns to himself, recovering for a moment a line from the poems that eluded him in early stanzas. At this point, it’s a tossup as to which is more unbearable, the father out-of-his-mind with misery and fear, or the father who lucidly expresses his awareness of his mortality.

The speaker’s pain and desperation reaches its culmination at the end of the poem where she says she would “welcome the wolves / from that fairy tale you used to tell” if only she could accompany her father on his journey, paradoxically, away from her. Anyone who’s cared for an aging parent will recognize the role reversal in the speaker’s desire to make sure her father would be safe and warm (“tucked upon their sled”) on that journey. Notice the techniques at work to make the ending the highest emotional pitch of the poem. First, the point of view modulates from third person (“Everything my father loves is leaving”) to first person (“I am desperate”) and the mode moves from indirect storytelling to direct address (“I would . . . / gladly let the day end with you”). At the same time, the tone ramps up from increasingly anguished narration to an actual cry (“oh my father”) and an enactment of the speaker’s desperation in the magical thinking of “oh, I’d believe all their promises. The last stanza is where we also see a concentration of poetic devices at work, from the alliteration of “welcome the wolves” to the only instance of end rhyme in the poem: the near-rhymes of “sled,” “woods,” and “said” that sonically close out the poem. It is also where the speaker, perhaps unconsciously, enacts her own loss of touch with reality by wishing herself in one of the fairy tales her father used to tell.

I picked this poem for Father’s Day, and I love that it honors the speaker’s father while also acknowledging another emotion many of us experience on this day: grief for fathers who are gone. Literature, someone once said, is how we honor our departed dead, and this poem certainly does that. We love the figure of the father from the past, vigorous and joyous, regaling his nine children with lines from the great poets. The story of his decline into old age is not uncommon, but this poem vests it with a darkness and intensity that makes the story feel new and its pain freshly felt. One thing that impresses me about “Nothing Gold” is the way it throws itself into the experience of the speaker’s suffering in watching her father’s decline. “I am desperate not to hear this story,” she says, “wild / to seize him from the place where his brain flares / and slows,” and we feel her agony in those lines. Today’s poem is a sad one, but in it the speaker’s great love for her father shines through, and that makes it beautiful. In telling her story, the speaker shows how well she has been taught by her father, and his great love for literature lives on in her person and writing, a living legacy and a wonderful poem for Father’s Day.

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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 !!!!!!!