OPENING THE INNER EYE: Anne Casey’s ‘the light we cannot see’

Review by Wendy J Dunn
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

We surface abruptly
                Somewhere        between
the third and fourth stages,
                     two hills wailing
                               in a keening             wind

Warning. Anne Casey’s the light we cannot see is not a book to lull you to sleep. At least for someone like me. It was impossible to avert my mind’s eye during my bedtime reading of this brilliant work. The raw realities explored in this book often left me wiping away tears, recognising the materialisation of a human heart on the page. 

To be an artist means to never avert your eyes: I try to keep those words in mind as a writer. But it is hard. It is hard to confront the realities of our world and keep hold of hope. You need courage to confront our world and bear witness to these realities. You need the courage of great heart and soul to confront truth. The courage to confront the emotional cost of COVID, separation from dying loved ones with its promise of unresolved sorrow, a burden you know you will carry forever. You need courage to confront and reflect upon the actuality of climate change. And the ultimate confrontation: death. Casey has the courage to do this—as she shows with immense poetic heart and soul in the light we cannot see, her third book of poetry.

Poignant, powerful, pertinent, each poem in this work connects a bridge from Casey’s deepest depths to the reader and sears on your mind’s eye unforgettable images. Raw and authentic, her words pulse with life. A crow’s wing catching another crow’s wing—a potent sign in the sky of sorrow and impending death. A cormorant and eel engaged in their death or life struggle on an Irish shore becomes a symbolic question about the future of humanity, as does Casey’s father’s unhidden fear when he witnesses the pillage of breeding she-crabs from his ancestral seacoast.

Casey’s longing and love for Ireland, her birthplace, and the Irish coast that once was her home, (and remains so) are tangible in the pages of this book. You smell the sea air and hear the rush of waves on the reef as the sun sinks over the horizon:

lay still, the sounds heard
the beginnings of comfort; feel
the sea on the wind, the fall-falling
of the wave riding the horizon

and the waves recede beyond the cliffs,
beyond the trees; rows upon rows,
filling their long trailing sacks; in the darkness,
the silence at the centre of the wind, the sound of rain.

There is a lot of pain in this work as Casey gives voice to the forced separation from dying loved ones and last farewells prevented by COVID, forcing the witness of funerals from afar. It is not surprising then that in many of her poems Casey is undoubtedly and understandably Irish—doing what countless Irish have done over countless centuries. She keens over her dead, pays them her homage, expressing the endless sorrow of one left behind. 

But her Irish voice does not diminish her sense of love and belonging to Australia:

Under orders of our neighbour, the State Premier,
who visited his school to shake hands
             before writing off      our precious bushland—
             where once  he bobbed    bound to my heart,
cooing as we ducked a troupe
of black cockatoos swooping through,

toddled to the counting of water dragons,
ran to track that elusive rock     wallaby,
             raced to chase white tiger
             moths; stopped to probe bandicoots
droppings     (with a stick); chewed over       the albino galah,
anaemic anomaly amidst its pink flock—all signed off. 

Casey is a courageous poet—not only in her choice of subjects, but in her skillful shaping of her poems on the page. Her carefully chosen words throb and read like heartbeats, their rhythm forming poetic perfection in this book exploring separation, sorrow, death, our environment imploding all around us. But it does not leave you hopeless about humanity. How can you be hopeless when a human soul sings ‘in the end, / it’s only love’. 

The light we cannot see powerfully reminds us that no matter how dark the world seems to be, the light is always there. We just need to open our eyes and see it.  

the light we cannot see
by Anne Casey
Salmon Poetry, 2021

Wendy J. Dunn is an award-winning author, playwright and poet. Her first Tudor novels were two Anne Boleyn novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This? and The Light in the Labyrinth. Wendy’s most recent publications are two novels inspired by the life of Katherine of Aragon: her Falling Pomegranate Seeds duology: The Duty of Daughters (a finalist in the 2020 Chaucer award) and All Manner of Things, published in 2021. Wendy tutors in writing at the Swinburne University of Technology. She’s currently writing a novel set in 2010. Of course, it includes a Tudor story. She is also writing her first full length Tudor biography. Find more from Wendy at her website