Full review by Ros Cowman

The Year of the Knife Cover Photo Tony O'SheaRoz Cowman on Philip Casey’s new poetry collection, The Year of the Knife


THIS collection of a decade of Philip Casey’s previous poems includes work chosen from two previous collections: eight poems from Those Distant Summers (1980), and fourteen from After Thunder (1985). The third part of the collection, The Year of the Knife with thirty six poems, forms over half of the book, with a selection of work after 1985.

This proportioning of the book reflects a growth in Casey’s work, a development of themes which, in the early work, are not yet explored.

Much of this growth takes place through the increasing power of language, and Casey writes in a language which is supple, accurate, sensitive and immensely strong, and which stretches to develop complexities of identity which were barely stated in the first collection. This theme, the experience of identity, increases in importance in the course of the three collections, its subdivisions, the self in landscape, the self in society, the self in love – unify in lines such as

…The answer may live
in the the hidden wedding
of things
-(White Horse)

… of not being afraid of what to walk and
to see
and to feel mean
-(Directions in One)

The poems from the first collection, Those Distant Summers, are poems of recall, a revisioning of a childhood landscape which, in the nature of such things, is both outer and inner landscape. Through a Glass Brightly is a haunting evocation of lost time:

…a Sunday in June
before the lane was tarmacadumed…
there would be wild strawberries
under the milkstand.

This milkstand recurs in a poem from the final collection, The Walking Shadow, where it takes on an extra dimension.

As the step of one rises
the other’s has fallen
onto the frozen gravel
towards the stand
and then is heard no more

Autobiography recalls childhood happiness, and the seasonal ebb of joy as winter sets the landscape. Discovering Joy, the closing poem of this section, watches the play of a child in a spring orchard. No threat here:

Her transfigured face is worth
the fruit of many orchards

The second poem from the second collection, After Thunder, is titled Into Whiteness; it is a beautiful image of the loss of light, colour and heat in a wintering landscape gradually becoming the dead body of an old woman, discovered by her granddaughter:

a good thoughtful girl who will age
within ten seconds into whiteness
like the century

Here we find five poems of social commentary: Liffey Bridge, Rosa Luxemburg, An Indian Dreams of the River,
Tom Moore’s Romantic Dancehall
, and The Irish Wait. The themes of these – poverty, the dispossessed, the corridors of powerlessness – are developed in the final section.

The title poem of the final section, The Year of the Knife, establishes a statement between contradictions, like the propositions of mysticism – what is and is not, what is that and not-that. Here the language has become intensified, tautened to convey the power of the thought:

It dwells in a clenched fist
outside of what it was, and speaks
with sober lips, knowing it is alive

It follows Hamburg Woman’s Song and is aptly placed. Song, establishing an identity through externals and tradition –

I am a woman of Hamburg
who walked to the hungry city
side by side with my new father.
I have lived here to this day

is in strong contrast to the later poem, and paves the way for it. A poem called And So It Continues is a witty and poignant summary of the end of the search for self; its ironic understatement is followed by a glorious poem, Making Space. The title’s play on words is sustained thoughout the poem, where the concept of modern physics that all matter, including our bodies, is particles from a dead star, is reversed, with elegance and wit:

your lost black sheep
whose molecules keep your bedroom lit.
I will burn for you all night.

Art and Laughter and Monsieur Monsieur are two works which explore identity as reflection, and indentity in the killer/victim relationship. I am not a believer in this latter theory which tends to be the killer’s viewpoint – the victim being voiceless – de Sade, Hemingway and devotees of the hunt recall it ad nauseum, and there are sorry echoes of it even in St Exupery’s Le Petit Prince, where the enchanting fox sees the pattern of hunter-fox-chicken as inevitable ecology. However, the closing lines of Monsieur Monsieur need quoting:

the moment when the force of the strong
and weakness of the oppressed are one

The book’s closing poem, Answering Each Other, is absorbing, verbally and rhythmically. The lines, mainly six-syllabic with a strong ending, use an iambic trimeter which suggests the rhythm of the train wheels:

and mountains to the west
… connect the coastal towns
…Friends take me for a meal

And this is the image of the poem – a train journey along the east coast through a remembered landscape (is the cottage of a long dead and childless couple also the cottage where the old couple lived of Through a Glass Brightly?) Through this landscape, then, leaving it to return by another train, with the lovely closing image of the last stanza:

a woman with palsy smiles
at a tranquil bay
as we round the Italianate
houses which command it.
She holds her smile.
They answer each other.

[You can see more reviews of The Year of The Knife]

G R A P H, 1992

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