The Light We Cannot See by Anne Casey
County, Clare, Ireland
Anne Casey, 2021
In these forty-two prize-winning poems, Anne Casey, gently leads us on a voyage of discovery
“…to somehow find our allied humanity…”
These are intelligent and exquisitely written poems etched onto the page with the precision of an engraver. Although Anne Casey has lived in Australia for nearly thirty years these lyrical poems sing in the melodious voice of her native Ireland.
The voyage of discovery chronicled in this book takes us first into exile. The longing of exile is poignantly expressed in poems like “Constitutional”:
“…all we left behind
—cocooned half the earth
away—arms that had raised
us embracing empty
air and this complicated
prospect they may not
survive the long wait
until we are able to return.”
In order to return, to find our way back home and to recover our common humanity Casey points us to the earth itself and especially to the sea for our deliverance. Like parents who can put aside their squabbles for the common good of caring for a child, Anne Casey seems to indicate metaphorically that jointly caring for our earth is one way in which we can begin to care more for each other and to leave our petty differences behind in the face of a much more catastrophic threat—extinction.
In essence, the poet has reversed the metaphor of Mother Earth. Just as the roles of mother and child are reversed when the very old become childlike and their children become their caretakers. The earth is, in fact, our child for whom we as people have the responsibility of protecting. Rather than continuing to take from the earth you must:
“…shut your eyes and see—each one a freely-given gift,
Embryo of hope: if we dare
to dream.” (53)
Even in describing the desecration of the earth’s oceans and seas the poet employs elegantly detailed language.
“…her lovely limbs are shackled down with plastics,
her lungs are laced with deadly manganese—
a crown of thorns to pierce her pretty head,
a bed of sludge to lull her in her dreams…”
I have never read a poem in which ecological defilement was described so gorgeously.
What is admirable, among many things, about The Light We Cannot See is the variety of cadences, forms, and even rhymes that Casey employs in what on the surface appears to be primarily a collection of free-verse poems. Even in the quotation above we feel the driving force of iambic-pentameter perfectly suited to the poem and the almost jarring rhyme between “manganese” and “dreams.” This is a consummate craftsperson at work.
In “Leaning toward solas” she pays tribute to her parents and her grandparents and her own sons as they:
“…race in streaming sunlight
after scattering petals for grandma.”
Unlike so many collections of poems—that are just that, collections of scattered poems that have been put together as a book with little regard to overall structure—the unity of these poems, the way they work together thematically and employ a variety of strategies to bind family, home, exile and the sea to larger issues of the environment indicates that much thought was given to assembling this book. These are not random poems pulled together for a collection, but carefully curated pieces that combine to create an organic unity with both an artistic intent and an activist one so that we might:
“…muster the collective
will necessary to
save our precious
One of the many powerful poems is “This is not a drill” which reflects on the wild bush fires in Australia that destroyed over a million hectares leaving Sydney engulfed in a toxic blue haze, its smoke and ash carried as far away as New Zealand. Again, not a random poem, but one that works in thematic harmony with the others like a part in a well-oiled mechanism.
It is the duty of the critic, of course, to find something to criticize. That is an extremely difficult task considering this moving collection of verse. But in order to earn my meager remuneration I excavated the text to find something to dislike. It is a wholly personal predilection but I have never appreciated concrete poetry (poetry that employs shapes of words or letters and other typographical devices, such as a poem in the form of a tree). Anne Casey includes a few of these such poems that in my judgment diminish her exquisite language rather than elevate it. This gifted poet is much too accomplished to need gimmicks.
As so many of us have done, the speaker in “Night traps” wishes to comfort her child with lies so as not to infect his innocence with our own sense of doom.
“A thousand tiny wings
skip a beat as I bend
to kiss his pillowed cheek
wanting so much to lie
to him that the monsters scratching
at his windows aren’t real.”
In many ways this seems to be the aesthetic motif of the book—that her choice of such beautiful language to describe destruction is in fact a metaphor. Not to lie to us exactly, but to foretell our impending doom in language that elevates rather than depresses. Leaving us with hope rather than despair. The poet, like the mother in the above poem, wishes for us to discover for ourselves that despite the grim prospects of living there is still beauty and hope to be found and a way to bond not only with other each other but with all life on earth if we would just…
“…shut (our) eyes and see—”
Award-winning, Sydney-based Irish poet/writer, Anne Casey is author of two collections published by Salmon Poetry – where the lost things go and out of emptied cups. A journalist, magazine editor, legal author and media communications director for 30 years, her work is widely published internationally, ranking in leading national newspaper, The Irish Times' Most Read. Anne has won/shortlisted for poetry prizes in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the UK, the USA, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia, and serves on numerous literary advisory boards. anne-casey.com
Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is The Frozen Sea Within Us: New & Selected Poems (www.beltwayeditions.com). The book covers forty years of a life in poetry.