Recent Work Press, 2021
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
The prolific poet Anne Casey published two collections of poetry in 2021: Salmon Poetry’s The Light We Cannot See and Recent Work Press’s Portrait of a Woman Walking Home. The former is written from the perspective of a displaced daughter of Ireland and apprehensive mother. She fears that her children must endure the traumas that mar our society: the climate crisis, humanitarian disasters, and the Covid-19 pandemic. By contrast, Portrait of a Woman Walking Home is concerned with matters of misogyny and the experience of one woman who might be any woman or Everywoman. In the poet’s urgent message, the particular and the universal converge.
The first poem unpacks the clichés and constraints of the feminine in a witty, devastatingly accurate way. “Welcome to your Life Cruises self-guided tour [Official transcript]” (1-2) takes the guise of a transcript of a recorded voice welcoming women onto a cruise. Casey brilliantly subverts the jargon of voyeuristic tourism. The poem begins:
Welcome to your self-guided tour of the State
Of Womanhood. This destination has been pre-selected for you on a
randomised basis … (1)
These lines set the comic tone. The “cruise” takes us on a “brief passage” through “the Strait of Infanthood” which is “noted for its rosy sunrises” and “perennial flamingo-tinted flora” (1). This delightful imagery might lull us into thinking that all is well but for the warnings of “unforeseen costs” and denials of liability for “personal losses,” “damage,” “injury,” or “death” that foreshadow the journey to the “Precipice of Girlhood” (1). The tour guide helpfully informs the listener of the “local customs:”
… You do not have an opinion. If you think
you have an opinion, it will be summarily refuted. You will
accept all forms of affection from random strangers, distant relatives,
and ‘friends’ of all ages and persuasions (no matter how creepy or repugnant).
You will refrain at all times from being
loud, shrill, or argumentative … (1)
The unconventional spacing used throughout the poem evokes a tinny recorded voice. The tour guide advises us that we are “inferior” in so many ways, but to whom we are inferior is only implied, as men are not mentioned in this poem. Encouraged to make “significant purchases” at the gift shop, we then reach “the Capital of Womanhood” (1). The disembodied voice warns us of “radical elements” who are “further to the left,” inhabiting the “coastal fringes” (1): Casey wryly observes the marginalisation of women who are progressive thinkers.
After the “Sound of Education,” where we are reminded that there is a “twenty-five percent chance” of sexual assault, we gaze upon the “distant heights” of “the Cape of Corporataria” (2). As you might expect, in this corporate realm, women are paid two-thirds the amount for work that is comparable to men’s labour. We are also advised to “Beware low-slung” glass overhead (2), reminding us that the glass ceiling is omnipresent. The voice tells us that if you opt for the “side-trip” to the “Geyser Fields of Maternity,” you can find “career parking” at the “rear” (2). Here, the notion that maternity is no more than a “side-trip” or distraction from pursuing a career as a drone of capitalist society withers under Casey’s ironic tone. There is a punning “tycoon warning” as we travel through the “midlands” of the “State of Womanhood” before we encounter the “Mines of Menopause” (2). Then, the voice is lost forever, inaudible in the static (2). Of course, the implication is that menopause means the end of a woman’s life according to the dominant discourse of contemporary society. Casey’s poem is a tour de force, gaining much from its heavily ironic humour: its point necessarily blunt considering the world’s often violent imposition of gender stereotypes and conditioning.
Such violence against women is the subject of much of this collection. The speaker of “Ingrain” (5) riffs off the image of “a man on tv” who prises open “the fragile mouth” of an animal to leave “a small stone” in the “injured tissue” that will “grow a pearly cyst / to smooth over the rough intrusion” (5). This leads the speaker to recall purchasing “a string of aged pearls” at a market, and she later realises “why / no matter how [she] would twist them, / they would find a way to choke” (5). This calls to mind the issue of controlling relationships, so she returns to the image of “a man’s hand” closing over “a small mouth” and “encircle[ing] a throat” (5). Insidious and terrifying, the poem rests on an accumulation of violent imagery. A sinister double meaning lurks beneath the line, “unable to resist, injured tissue accepts the stone” (5). Here, the speaker may be referring to the captive animal with the stone forced into its injured mouth, or a pregnant woman coerced into accepting the precious “stone” of an engagement ring from her abuser. The once-horrifying alternative, becoming an unwed mother, is the subject of the poem “Darkling” (16), dedicated to the victims of the Irish unmarried mothers’ homes, the last of which closed in 1996. The speaker of “Ingrain” goes on to invoke the image of an oyster farm, which serves to symbolise the silencing of women: “all those closed mouths / not forming words under water, / slowly growing over their small stones” (5). The poet concludes by witnessing to the horrors of gendered violence: “There are places where a woman can be stoned for failing / to resist a man, her pulped flesh left / to ripen around the stones” (5). The word “failing” falls at the end of the line, emphasising how ludicrous it is to perceive the woman as culpable for her own rape and the depravity and injustice of the punishment meted out to her.
Casey re-imagines Max Ehrmann’s popular 1927 poem “Desiderata” – posters of which graced the back of many a 1970s toilet door. The original poem offers trite advice to a young man in the vein of Polonius’s injunctions to his son Laertes as he ventures into the world in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Casey’s “Desiderata” (40) returns to the original meaning of the word: from the Latin, “desiderata” means “things wanted or needed.” The speaker’s list of desires is worth quoting in full as it is concise and focuses on the immaterial in a world where conspicuous consumption is the norm:
A scattering of blue skies,
a pocketful of hope,
the love of one good soul,
the promise of a world made miraculously less cruel for my children
the smell of the sea—
all that I desire
on the long walk home. (40)
The poem offers the light of hope. As John Lennon suggested in the well-known song “Imagine,” if we can imagine a better future, we are one step closer to realising it.
The next poem, “Portrait of a woman walking home” (41), seems to dash such hopes, or at least issue a warning to be vigilant of what our society might become if we continue to think along the lines of the privileged and dominant discourse. The poem forms a curve on the page, as if an hourglass were split in half vertically down the centre, mimicking the curves of a woman’s body that are supposedly so alluring to a sexual predator. The addressee is a woman walking back from the office through “the now-profound dusk” (41) who fears that she may be vulnerable to attack at any time. The speaker says: “from behind one can pick out the exact lines of your body moving so / fluidly within its satiny folds sashaying with the swing of your hips / though I know you are making extreme efforts to lessen the sway…” (41). At first it seems that the voice is the insidious internal monologue of a would-be attacker. The poem is devoid of punctuation until the final full stop, giving it a breathless quality. This may either suggest the breathless anticipation of the perpetrator of violence or the woman’s bated breath as she fears violence with every step. However, the conclusion of the poem reveals another meaning behind the lack of punctuation: the poem is the woman’s inner monologue. She is addressing herself: “with every breath you take,” you are “wondering why it is we have to watch / ourselves like this” (41). It is a self-portrait. With the woman’s consciousness thus split, it is easy to consider the notion of the atomised self as erroneous. The woman who is the subject of this portrait/poem is every woman who has ever walked alone in the dark.
Casey’s poetry deals a body blow with every punchy line. The impact of her verse is varied: from heartbreak to horror, dismay to disillusion, despair to hope. She writes back to the banality of Max Ehrmann in “Desiderata” (40). She writes in dialogue with “the incomparable Maya Angelou” (12) in her additional stanzas to Angelou’s “Still I Rise” in her own “Still I rise” (12-13). She writes to all women in “Afterword” (42). Regarding the subject of this book, she writes: “It’s about being a woman. It could be about / another woman. Many women. Any woman? Maybe. And so. It’s complicated” (42). This final poem concludes the collection on a note of celebration of the female: “So yeah. It’s complicated. / And sometimes. Sometimes. It is. Unimaginably. Beautiful” (42). This collection is also “unimaginably beautiful” even as Casey tears down the notion that a woman must be beautiful. This is an important collection from an accomplished poet with a voice that demands to be heard.