Letting Go the Wolves: I praise Ethna’s wolves

I’ve promised one more piece using texts taken from Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan, and here it is. There are a couple of reasons why I left this one to the end of this series memorializing her work. The first reason: the poem’s persona seems to speak of her approaching death. The second reason: I don’t know if McKiernan actually liked or rated it as highly as I do. Let me make this plain at the start: I think this is a great poem, and I’ll go into why in just a bit.

I believe I encountered “Wolves”  at the same writer’s group where I heard other work Ethna was working on in draft form.*  These things make my performance today particularly fraught with issues. I only take this step of releasing this performance today because of my admiration for the poem, and my feeling that some out there in the rare and appreciated audience for this Project will welcome it. “Wolves”  has what poetry often hopes for: it is beautiful and yet harrowing, and its experience is vivid while not guarded inside defined borders.

I hear the snow crust crack
into spider-fine antenna lines
with every thudded footbeat. It is so still
that their light scratch of nails on ice
rasps the air like flakes of metal filings.

Let’s grab this text as it grabbed me, even on first hearing, with the opening statement: “I hear the snow crust crack / into spider-fine antenna lines…” The meter has a lope of accents that appeals, the internal rhyme of “fine” and “lines” separated by the chime of the assonant “antenna.” The three strong accents together in “snow crust crack” which allow “crust” to not get the full stress it would normally get appeals and announces. “…with every thudded footbeat. It is so still / that their light scratch of nails on ice / rasps the air like flakes of metal filings.” follows — and if you’re not captured yet by this poem’s story, I can’t think of what language can do to do that.

This opening almost registers as synesthesia, as the sense invoking words rush in. “Snow-crust crack” is visual and auditory together — and for a winter clime resident, you feel that texture in your own feet too. Besides the word-music the visual of “spider-fine antenna lines” has the sense of the spreading broadcast of the wolves’ approach. The ordinary snow-surface footfall of a “thudded footbeat” made by the furry pads of the wolf would be only present in an unnatural silence — and then the quiet but more plausibly audible sound of talons on ice. The shivers of it, nails on blackboard-like, invokes the winter.

ice pond

Listen carefully for those claws on the ice.

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I could go on, but I think any listener who is pulled in by this opening will sense equally strong lines and images as McKiernan’s poem proceeds. The creative writers in my audience may benefit from analyzing for themselves why they work their attraction on us. There’s an overall effect of intimacy with nature in the midst of this poem: not a passive, uncomplicated, and easily beautiful nature, but one close enough to be (prematurely) incorporated with the poem’s speaker.

The cave mentioned in the poem means that this is almost certainly a persona poem. The voice we hear telling this story is not the literal biography of a modern Irish-American woman who normally lived in cities, yet the astonishingly vivid images lets us doubt this just enough to not judge that outright. Even the most personal and revealing poetry can benefit from real and fantastical lies.

I’ll not explicate the ending outright, for I want you to experience it in the course of the poem’s story. I’ll only say that it could possibly be why McKiernan did not select this poem for wider distribution while she lived. “Twist endings” can cloy or leave a reader/listener feeling tricked, but my judgement says this one only enriches what’s sensed as the description of the poem’s scene has unfolded. Like many a good ending of a great short poem, it may make us want to read/listen to it again immediately.

Before I direct you to my performance of Ethna McKIernan’s masterful “Wolves,”  I’ll leave you with one thought the context of this poem leaves with me beyond the poem’s own effects: what might your art do that you don’t necessarily realize that it can do? For it’s a mystery to me why this wasn’t in a final selected poems. The poem seems to me to be fearless and exact, but the self-editor may have been frightened or dissatisfied.**

A player gadget to play this performance appears below in some ways this blog is read. Others will need to use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it.

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*Just before I published this post I thought to do a final string-search for the opening lines of this poem — and found that it had indeed been published in The Poetry Ireland Review  of January 1984! This published version uses exactly the text used for this performance, and you can find that text via this online link. That publication date is much earlier than I would have expected it to be. Did I somehow run across it — not as a draft as I recalled inside the Lake Street Writer’s Group — but in a publication that might have been shared with the group?

On publication it was titled “Letting Go the Wolves.”   I had recorded the performance you can hear above  a decade ago thinking the title was only “Wolves.”

Did McKiernan feel it was too immature a work when making final judgements for her final “New &Selected” collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards  compiled a few months before her death? I don’t judge it so.

**Another, if unlikely, possibility: Ethna may not have secured rights to secondary publication, though the grant of such is traditional within small-press poetry. As much as the wolves in the poem, I may be clambering on top of thin ice in presenting this poem, even though I only want to point out its value. If I haven’t made it clear recently: The Parlando Project is not even a non-profit organization — it’s a no-profit organization.

One thought on “Letting Go the Wolves: I praise Ethna’s wolves

  1. This poem has always stunned me, a strong and chilling performance, the brutal costs of depression carried on animal metaphor. Back when the LYL Band was scrambling for new material every time we got together, we grasped at any lyric straws for the stuff we usually performed only once. We even did Kevin Fitzpatrick’s Keys to the Dropsafe more than once.
    I put music to Setting Free the Wolves, had to shift a few rhythms and doubled a line or two but recall it as one of the most emotional pieces I ever sang. ( Frank’s version is entirely his own.) Just the memory gives me chills, though neither Kevin or Ethna were impressed or encouraging.

    Liked by 1 person

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