Anne Casey — a lyrical light
What do you get when you mix a joy for living with a belief in humanity, a sharp conscience, a passion for nature, a gift for words and the soul of an adventurer? You get Anne Casey, expatriate Irishwoman, now Australian resident of some decades, and an award-winning poet who produces heart-warming, mind-shifting work.
In the rural idyll of west Ireland, in the green hills of County Clare, just a few minutes from the beach at Spanish Point, rests the small town of Miltown Malbay. Here, born to a local fisherman and his wife the town draper, a daughter makes her way through secondary school before heading off to study law in Dublin. Then, half a world and a third of a lifetime away, that daughter has made her home in Sydney, has won a parcel of awards for her poetry and shares a message of hope and empowerment that points a way ahead through the climate challenge, social issues and the epidemic fallout.
Half a world away
Anne Casey has been resident in Australia now for more years than she lived in Ireland, but for her Ireland is very clearly her spiritual home. Casey recalls, “I grew up behind the counter of my mother’s clothes shop which had been ‘Casey’s’ for a hundred years back then. In Miltown I lived an idyllic childhood, between the counter of my mum’s shop, centre of gossip for the community, and my dad’s boat — he ran a trawler off the coast. I used to get to go out on the boat with him a lot. Sometimes for two days at a time.”
Although she describes it in glowing terms, and even though she was far away from Belfast and the “troubles” of Northern Ireland at the time, there were still reverberations of these ructions even in Miltown Malbay. “The IRA would rob post offices and so on, particularly in rural areas where the security was not so great,” Casey reflects. “Whenever there were IRA who had escaped and were on the run, because Clare was such a Republican stronghold, the police would be out searching houses.”
The overriding sense though is of a deep love for her home town and the life she lived there. Casey completed her secondary school locally but then left for Dublin where she completed a law degree and then gained qualifications in media communications. She found herself a job in public relations and then as a journalist in Dublin before a momentous decision was made.
Casey recollects, “I’d done a bit of travelling by that stage; I’d gone around Europe a couple of times, I’d got as far as Turkey, I’d been to Cuba and done some interesting things.” Her decision though was to head to Australia and she remembers, “When I came here I flew in over the harbour and it just came up and met me. It said ‘home’ to me. I instantly felt this connection and overwhelming sense that I would live here.”
In the ensuing years Casey has built a life in Sydney, marrying another Irish expat, having two children and working as a business journalist, writer, magazine editor, media communications director and legal author. In recent years, however, poetry has been her life’s fulcrum.
The poet’s way
Anne Casey is prolific. She has authored four books of poetry, with another collaborative effort soon to be released and many more solo books in the pipeline.
Casey has worked with musicians and artists and her poetry has won awards in Australia, Ireland, the UK, the United States, Canada and Hong Kong. At the time of writing, she has been shortlisted for the prestigious Red Room Poetry Fellowship here in Australia. The awards, however, seem like candyfloss in the wind, compared to the poems themselves that are heartfelt, entertaining, provocative, grounded, often playful and always readable.
Casey reports that the first poem she wrote was at age eight and she realised then, “Oh my god, I’ve put these marks on the page and suddenly I’ve created this feeling in other people.” From this point on she has been writing poetry, but not always with the same intent that she does now.
A mother’s death
Casey has written poetry throughout her life, but these poems “ended up in the detritus of life and notebooks that just got lost and abandoned.” Casey’s life and relationship to poetry changed with the passing of her much-loved mother. She recalls, “In 2006 my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and I had two babies, a six-month-old and a just under two-year-old. Mum had been ill for a year, then suddenly there was this landslide diagnosis and I realised that this was really bad news. I jumped on a plane with two babies. My husband Rory came with me, but he had to come back for work, and I stayed on and nursed my mum until her death. It was a traumatic time. She wanted to die at home. We were in this house on the edge of the ocean, and it gave her great comfort to be there. We moved heaven and earth to make her wish come true.”
After her mother’s death Casey came back to Australia. She admits, “I think I probably bottled up that grief because we had been to hell and back and I had to normalise everything.” It was a few years before she started writing, and then she wrote a poem in response to reading a letter her mother had written her. That poem was “In Memorium II: The Draper”.
Casey recalls, “I wrote ‘The Draper’ in late 2015 and it was published in the Irish Times in 2016. I was amazed when they said they would publish it. It was the first poem of my adult life to be published and there was a tremendous response to it, which was all quite startling. The response came from people like me, people who had lost family or who had the experience of being torn between two places. That poem flowed out of me because I had this letter from my mum and the opening lines of the poem were from that letter. I read the letter and wept and just started writing this poem. I had no idea where that poem was going to take me from those first couple of lines that I wrote, but it came out and it has never changed.”
In the following years a seamless cascade of poetry has flowed from Casey, and she has honed her craft and philosophy as she has progressed.
A philosophy of poetry
“If I’m writing a poem,” Casey ponders, “I want it to connect with someone on a deeper level. If a poem doesn’t send you somewhere as a reader, then it’s not a poem to me. It doesn’t have to change your mind, but I want you to feel something, even if it is momentary. Essays can do that, but I think a poem can be simpler and subtler. I think there’s a sacred in the everyday and often a poem is just about that.”
If you are a budding poet there is much to be learned from Casey’s insights. “For me,” she says, “it is all about speaking from the heart. Be true to yourself. Everyone has a distinctive voice based on who you are and where you came from and your unique experiences. What you can give to the world is bring your voice to the page. Be honest, don’t try to be anyone else, be yourself and you will gift that to your readers. There are other people out there who have had similar experiences, and by being your honest self you will help them to connect and realise they are not alone.
“That is what ‘The Draper’ did for me. That first poem made me realise that we are all humans in the world, and we can offer each other solace, we can connect through poetry and it’s a gift. Poetry takes us out of the rush of the everyday. It takes us out of all those tiny preoccupations that fill our moments, and it brings us back to the essence of the present and what life is. That is the gift of poetry: how it allows us to connect as human beings.”
Much of Casey’s poetry is personal, revelatory and intimate. Yet she also researches and writes on social and political issues, including women’s issues and climate change to name but two.
Casey reflects, “I’ve written some poems about women’s issues and harassment. I just feel so aggrieved that these things can continue to happen in our world: that women are treated differently, their issues are ignored, and that issues of subtle harassment, subtle or overt prejudices and sexual assaults are normalised.
A classic example of Casey’s work in this area is her poem “If Wallets Were Skirts”, which was driven by a major rape case in Ireland where a woman had had a few drinks before the incident and a lot of the case then swung on whether her testimony was reliable or not. Casey observes, “I was so incredulous that I wanted to express it in a way that any man could understand. I was thinking, ‘How do I explain this to you?’ There’s a whole half of humankind who experience life in a very different way. That poem was about saying, this is what it feels like.” These are the closing lines of the poem:
If Wallets Were Skirts
Thank you. And if I might, sir,
Could you please
how many drinks
you had consumed —
on your own —
at this premises?
the first time that you ventured out
Would you care to describe to the court
what you were wearing
at the time
your wallet was allegedly stolen?
Outside her poetry, Casey’s PhD which she is undertaking at the University of Technology Sydney also touches on the historical treatment of women as well as issues around emigration. She has received a scholarship for this work which entails researching a cluster of Irish girls that Casey discovered who were incarcerated at Newcastle Industrial School for Girls (NSW) between 1867 and 1871. The girls were from Irish families who had fled to Australia in famine-affected years suffering many hardships and discrimination in Australia because of their poor Irish origins.
Climate issues are very important to Casey, and she expresses her concern openly in instances like the closing lines of “Open Letter IV: Dear Children”:
Open Letter IV: Dear Children
You make me want to believe
In a world that can
But for all the world I cannot
Figure out how to start
To set it right
Casey believes, “We have become so urbanised and so separated from nature that we can’t connect with how much destruction we are causing.” She has been researching some First Nations writers and their attitude to place for an essay she is writing, and she notes, “It’s deep in Celtic tradition too, to be curators, to leave behind a sustainable land and culture.”
Typically, although Casey has doubts about our climate response, ultimately, she is hopeful. “Some days the scientific reports coming out can be really crushing,” she says. “On the other hand, my husband works in sustainability, and I’ve seen through him a massive move in the corporate sector toward sustainability. This is not through any altruistic reasons; it’s seeing the writing on the wall because the future of humankind is also the future of business. I think fundamentally humans are survivors, and while it may take us a long time to wake up, when we do awake to something then we do what is needed for our survival. Businesses won’t exist unless they change,… and I’m hoping that we will continue to drive change for the better. As I say in my poetry, I’m always driving towards the light.”
Finding the light
“The light” is something that Casey talks about readily, and it features in the title poem of her most recent book, The Light We Cannot See. The closing lines of that poem are:
… And away with us into the light
we cannot yet see, but know lies ahead.
Casey says, “The light is hope for a better future, the belief that we will endure. Without that we would all have just curled up into little balls during the last year and said this is all too hard. We can’t give up. That’s just not in our nature. The strive to survive has hope embedded in it. We go to bed at night and we close our eyes and we believe that the sun will come up in the morning and another day will dawn. That’s ‘the light’, surrendering to the idea that everything won’t just stop at some point. That’s what carries us through and what sustains us. Even in our darkest times we can look ahead and believe there is something better coming.”
In the poetry and passion of Anne Casey you can sense that something better is not only coming, it’s here.
Anne Casey’s books include:
• Where the Lost Things Go
• Out of Emptied Cups
• Portrait of a Woman Walking Home
• The Light We Cannot See
• You can find her at anne-casey.com.