Transfusions Of Truth and A Far Cry: Devika Brendon Reviews Anne Casey’s ‘The Light We Cannot See’.

The Light We Cannot See by Anne Casey Salmon Poetry 2021

My review of this dazzling book has been delayed by my father’s recent death. But the greatest tribute I can give to Anne Casey is to say that reviewing her work has been one of my greatest consolations in the past several weeks. I find myself rereading the poems in this collection several times a day, like a devout person telling their prayer beads. This analogy feels like a natural one: the poems as a whole speak of faith, in human capacity for joy and connection, a reaching for what affirms life, expressed in longing for those things we have lost, and fear losing forever, during the ordeal we are all experiencing as we navigate the enforced separations and prolonged anxieties induced by the ongoing pandemic.

Poetry keeps our faltering souls alive, in these dark times: providing solace and a place of rest in a world which is upended, distraught and derailed. Faith is the ‘substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, but when everything substantial and reassuring eludes and evades us, a poet’s exquisite distilling of thought and feeling and sensory responses into words provides substance in itself, and encouragement to hope for better days.

In describing the ordeals of life and the dread of impending death, Casey has the gifts of both prescience and precision. She writes with full and measured feeling, but also with a fine detachment which appreciates the irony that we as a species are being ‘taken down, not by nuclear warheads, but by this—’ in the poem Exiled. That italicized, demonstrative pronoun encompassing the virus, contains and encapsulates the poet’s irony and her suppressed rage and wonder that we human beings could be forced to pause by something so small. And elsewhere, in ‘Antipodean Interlude’, it is described with perfect succinctness as ‘a tiny spiky Death Star’.

She vividly portrays the lassitude that comes from prolonged dread in the septets of ‘Prayer Fish’:

We stumble on
………….as if asleep
………….all week
floundering against
the splay of dying,
…………. the numb length
………….
of living.
……………………………………  (xi.)

I talk about my mother
……… dying, tell you
………  It’s natural —
silver minnows, lying:
there is nothing
………
 natural in burying
…………. your father online.

…………………………………..      (xii.)

The words in each poem are discrete, but they also interconnect across the boundaries and borders of each poem as in (again) ‘Exiled’ where the fifth and final stanza concludes:

   ……………. … still to be human
 …………is to persist
 …………even at this
infernal pass,
 we will stir
 ………..the will to lean
 ………..into the light.

Many of the poems are dedicated to specific individuals whose personal relationship to the poet cannot be known to us. Yet what can be accessed feels intimate, as in the last octave in the series ‘Blessed amongst lunacies’:

Over the glowing dome of my bare abdomen,
… A giant leap     into uncharted territory:
struck by the light of my first son, unadulterated then,
but so often since eclipsed     by the fear
of what on Earth we will leave them.
                                                (III. A medical facility in Sydney, Australia – November 2004)

The typographical rendition of the anxieties and hopes of the expectant mother are expressed in gaps in poetic syntax. The ‘uncharted territory’ is daunting, although biology and longing prompt the poet’s reaching towards the imminent birth experience. This compulsion is balanced by the fear of whether she can bring her son into a world that is capable of sustaining his life.

The philosophy of the poetry is called forth and sustained by the direct evocation of the physical and geological world, as in the opening verse of ‘Past the slip’:

No gulls today —
the stiff breeze phantoms their haunting
calls, warm and peppered with salt, a far cry
from where you and I once walked side by side.

The paradoxical phrase ‘peppered with salt’ is pleasing on many levels; and the phrase ‘a far cry’ in this context means many things; evocative of the distance between what we long for and what we are offered, or left with, and must learn to accept. The ground walked on is ‘eaten away’ by erosion, and it is a natural and powerful correlative of the existential uncertainty in which we act, and try to live,

…………………….…  feet giving way
to stumble under the
fractured edges.

Her tribute to Philip Lonergan, ‘For all he gave’ uses the image of a mighty fallen tree in a beautiful field to describe in detail the loss of one we understand was a great man, a towering presence.  The last verse is a secular benediction:

Being the son he made you,
you will walk out now
into this newly shaped horizon
and lean into the boundless
prospect of
this grand, fine day.

Character portraits of people known intimately in a close local community are set against the backdrop of the pitiless machinery of the wider universe.

Two foxes are seen in the Australian bushland in ‘All the beautiful outcasts’, my favourite poem in this stellar collection:

    …………………………………………………………………………….a flash
of flame-bright fur, a swathe of white. Undulating, sundrenched,
two entranced, entrancing fox mates frolicking …

The poet records her knowledge that their joy is finite:

…………………………………………………..…. grief striking as
acutely as horror at the impending loss of them.

Classified as pests, there are traps and bait left for them in the forest in which they frolic. The knowledge of this strikes her to the heart:

 …  And in all that bright, beautiful,
bewitching tumult, loss suddenly
swallows me wholly
into silence.

The alliteration makes the images flicker like strobe-lit scenes in our imaginations: ‘dauntless’, ‘outlaws’. A different darkness is encroaching on their bright and joyous, sacred space.

There are elegies in this collection, which unfold slowly like unfurling leaves. ‘A song for all the lost days’ shows us the ritual making of flower wreaths and the casting of them on the sea to commemorate a lost loved one. The poem hums with tenderness and cumulatively pieces its images together into a crescendo of expiation.

There are interstices, apertures and abysses illustrated in this collection, gaps perceived and grieved between human beings in these fractured and faltering times. But across the parallel lines of our individual lives, forced into unnatural segregation by a collective catastrophe, outstretch in Casey’s envisioning our longing and our love for each other, the memories we have shared, the resonant transversals that cut across our redacted and bordered lives, and ultimately connect us as in the poem ‘Hope Spell’ with the final line: ‘Wings of love over a bordered world’.

The urgency of the liminal moments described fill them with intensity and a sense of life lived and yet to be lived, compressed, and distilled, in this ‘mortal struggle’ in the poem ‘This is not a drill’ .

There is no immediate solution in sight,
This is not a flashback scene. This is not fiction.

Faith gives us the firm grasp of truth on unseen fact: assurance that what we trace and instinctively feel will become manifest. Pushing back and up and out against our debilitating fear.

There is a persistent optimism in this book as is seen in the poem ‘At sea’:

My vision clouds —
… But, small and bright as spawn-clouds blooming —
white, gold, coral, the young surfacing, shine through seeking truth:
our budding hope.

  – Devika Brendon

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Devika Brendon is a teacher, columnist,  editor, reviewer and writer of poetry and short stories. Her work has been published in international journals and anthologies, in Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Europe, Africa and the USA, including The Hopkins Review, Quadrant, Back Story, Other Terrain, Not Very Quiet and Time Of The Poet Republic.

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The Light we Cannot See is available from https://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=542&a=307

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