UNSETTLING HONESTIES: Anne Casey’s ‘Portrait of a Woman Walking Home’ reviewed by Gillian Swain

Portrait of a Woman Walking Home is a slim book, but it is not a light read. The book has weight and a texture that may well rub you up the wrong way. This is no accident.

I almost drowned once, re-found how words
won’t form in the absence of air,
If I could form the words now,
I would tell you how you could drown on dry land.        

‘Ingrain’ (p 5)

Anne Casey has written some of the inconvenient truths many of us carry into poems that sweep carefully between discomfort and gentleness. She is astute in achieving that balance, and somehow makes these unsettling honesties ones we can endure in this space.  

A quiver
of hidden
sharp things

          ‘Enconium’ (p 8)

For me and probably most, there are many I wish I had written that, and that could be me, poems, a realisation which is at times confronting. The book opens with a ‘self-guided tour of the State of Womanhood’ (p 1) in which Casey describes the hazardous terrain women navigate as their generally accepted and predestined norm.

Please prepare to disembark for your overnight adventure
at the Precipice of Girlhood.           If you have not read      our preparatory      notes
on local customs, here is a quick recap: You do not have an opinion.    If you think 
you have an opinion,               it will be summarily refuted.

‘Welcome to your Life Cruises self-guided tour [Official transcript]’ 

In this piece, the speaker’s tone is smooth and casual, almost flippant in parts, peppered with blunt and slapping facts regarding the likely course of a woman’s life. Just as with a tour-guide’s narrative, there is the inference that women have little room for deviation from the ‘script’. However, the position of the poet in these works is far from one of resignation, nor a diminished sense of self. Instead, she directs us through spaces of cramped uneasiness with a certainty of strength that endures throughout the book.

Portrait of a Woman Walking Home exhibits the skill and cleverness customary in Casey’s work. The poems speak unapologetically into the turbulence of unwelcome experience, memory and the contemplation born of these. The author’s penetrating poems are forthright, often staggering: ‘Crush’ (p 10) is no exception.

I didn’t want him                                 killed
Only crushed                               just enough
That he would learn                      to exhale
The same stale breath               of despair
He had filled me with                 over time            

As an observer and inhabitant of ‘the State of Womanhood’, Casey brings her keen eye to all these pages; few nuances escape her attentive witness. Just as we are delivered to the centre of difficult realities, we are also ushered carefully into the spaces where strength and beauty rise. The poet fills the pages with glinting detail and, along with raspy moments, there is no shortage of the enticing lacework of story and imagery. Casey is brilliant at capturing the juxtaposition of the internal and external, of the way women move through life as it happens around them, in its dual simplicity and complexity. ‘Stations of the Cross’ (p 26) gives us a slew of images butted-up against each other in ragged cameos of a colourful and grainy Sydney.

…piles of Lebanese
pizza: one-fifty a giant
                 doughy slice—three for
                 soakage for the cheap drunks—

And later in the same poem:

I stride past: limp
-suited, fake snakeskin
                  -booted to my knock
                  -down bed sitter
                  where I plugged my ears
                  to the next-door knocking
                  -shop, juked junkies
                                   on the back step

There is also lightness and wry humour, such as in the piece written for fellow poet Ali Whitelock, which shares the familiarity and knowing of friendship. In ‘Projecting forward’ (p 9), “cow-dung brown is not a descriptor I was expecting to find for these two women!

Casey also brings the ordinary and the profound together succinctly in poems such as ‘Days like today’ (p 23), where she speaks of mortality and fatigue with a gentle readiness for rest and return to the earth.

Show me where there will be no more
aching bones and world weariness
where I can gladly give up my ghost

This collection is complicated, as described in the conversational ‘Afterword’ (p 42), which forms part of the poetic work and was written in reply to Anne’s editor asking what the collection was about. Defining the nature of a collection of poetry isn’t always simple, since it involves capturing a single notion that encompasses the tone or theme of the work as a whole. Rather than setting out to overtly change the reader, these distilled poems have us see through a clear lens and feel the resonance of an undeniable shift in perception. This is what poetry should do, and along with its complexity, the voice in these poems is powerful, generous and deeply attuned to bringing us closer to what is most necessary.


Portrait of a Woman Walking Home
Anne Casey
Recent Work Press, 2021

Gillian Swain is from Lake Macquarie, living in East Maitland NSW. Her first poetry collection, My Skin its own Sky (Flying Islands Press, 2019) was followed by a chapbook, Sang Up (Picaro Press, 2001). Gillian has poems published in various anthologies and journals, including Poetry For The Planet: An Anthology of Imagined Futures (Littoria Press, 2021), What We Carry: Poetry on Childbearing (Recent Works Press, 2021), Burrow (Old Water Rat Publishing, v.1&2), and Live Encounters Magazine (May 2021 & Dec 2021 editions). Gillian is involved in running various poetry events, including Poetry At The Pub (Newcastle), and is the Co-Director and Poetry Curator of the Indie Writers Festival, IF Maitland. She is currently one of the Artists In Residence at Lighthouse Arts Newcastle, located at Nobbys-Whibayganba headland.