Out of Emptied Cups by Anne Casey

A review of the poetry collection Out of Emptied Cups by Anne Casey.

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In Tarot, the suit of cups tells of one’s emotions. These are the cards associated with love, connections, relationships. Their corresponding natural element is water; their season, autumn. All these are prevalent themes within Anne Casey’s sensuous, witty poetry collection Out of Emptied Cups.

The sustenance that cups can provide, coupled with their obvious vulnerability, yields a wealth of metaphorical possibility—here, they spill, empty, fill, over and over, as in ‘Cup in Hand.’

open mouthed
sighs into steaminess
spilling words
glorious gush
a honey of sweet nothings
i am nothing

But an empty cup still signifies promise and possibility, and even when smashed and washed up on a “wave-worn beach” can become “a minute grain of sand / this mystery held / within a greater hand.”

The fragility at the core of human experience is a recurring theme. This is a collection that reminds you to hug your loved ones tight, tell them often how much they mean. Indeed, it marvels at how lucky we are to be here at all, as in the opening poem, ‘Out of a Thousand Cups,’ which references the research undertaken by Duncan Macdougall, the US physician who attempted to measure the weight of a human soul by calculating the mass lost by patients at the moment of death—21 grams, if you were curious. Casey imagines how her soul might as readily have poured into a different cup, another skin; all sentient creatures are, to her eye, mere containers for the soul.

An extraordinary and not altogether comfortable idea, the notion that the all that makes us who we are could as readily emerge in a different sex or species. And surely not imaginable of Anne Casey, whose experiences, and indeed, her representations of them, are very much grounded in sex—she is wife, mother, and most frequently, daughter.

I like her best when she puts the sensuous stuff aside and shows us some of her wit. In ‘Nothing Happens in the Burbs’ she describes the easy, lazy love-in of a family Saturday morning. With ‘nothing’ the recurring motif, the delicate wordplay making it clear how much what matters resides in the nothing.

Casey spent her childhood in Ireland and is now settled in Australia. Her Irish heritage, and the political turmoil she witnessed as a teenager, very much informs her work, which is in turn furious and intimate, and, at its best, both those things combined. She explores how it feels to be an immigrant, and couples this with a scathing consideration of Australia’s immigration policy. She is angry about sexual abuse and harassment, rape, the way men—including her own son—don’t treat women with sufficient respect. In ‘For All the #metoos’ she exhorts men to admit more readily to their culpability, while in ‘Final Offensive’ she writes of how sexual predators possess the “nuclear weapon” that their victims will not be believed, a theme she returns to repeatedly in this section which details the crimes of men against women.

If she’s at her best angry, Australia’s lack of environmental protection makes her furious. ‘Recipe for A Giant Pickle’ makes a blistering attack on fracking—all the more brutal for being couched in the terminology of a nostalgic cookbook. And I love the receipt for six beef steaks which points out the total environmental and health cost of meat-eating, considering the possibility of placing something other than price at the heart of consumer choice.

There are very few capital letters in this collection, and in particular, the letter ‘i’ is never capitalised. This is a book that deals very much in the universal experience—of what it means to be alive, to have a soul, of 21 grams, that could easily flit from form to form, from bird to beast. It deals in the universal, primitive emotions, love, loss, grief, rage, fear. As if to prove her point, she experiments with form, her poems forming pictures on the page, the rhythms that her chosen shapes give to her sentences adding to their power and resonance. In this subtle, tightly spun work, the placement of every breath counts.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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