A review of out of emptied cups by Anne Casey

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

out of emptied cups
By Anne Casey
Salmon Poetry
ISBN: 978-1-912561-74-2, July 2019, paperback, 100 pages

Anne Casey’s poetry manages to be nurturing, fiercely angry, exquisite and confronting all at the same time. Politics and activism are like a burning thread throughout her latest collection out of emptied cups, but the poetry remains warm, accessible, and inclusive, even as it rails against injustice and bullying. The call to action is maternal, encouraging us to our best selves, and calling out the worst. The work slides smoothly between the deeply personal and the universal. There are poems of such intimate loss that it’s impossible (for me at least) to read them without crying:

Did you get my message?
I might say
Can I take back. Every unkind word.
Every impatience. Un-presence. Every hurry-on.
Every tenderness misheard. (“Long distance”)

The effect is an immediate intimacy that is powerfully moving, and energizing, even at its most sorrowful, because instead of poison there is recognition. The poems use concrete structures to excellent effect, with poems shaped to represent their themes, and structures that create innate rhythms to drive the reading flow. Casey uses a variety of styles to produce sonic elements like staccato, staggered call and responses, typographical transitions, visual representations that mimic the theme (wine goblets, hearts, flowers and receipts), and sometimes counter it, abstracting semantics. The multifunctional nature of the work is enriched through alliterative rhythms, selective rhymes, and intensely sensual imagery, so that the overall effect is often more visceral than intellectual:

ice melting point hot steam rising
off sizzling surfaces sucking
on ambrosial lusciousness
moist pout testing
the rigid
edges (“heat”)

The notion of “cups” runs like a continuous theme throughout the book. This begins with the title, which references research conducted by US physician Duncan MacDougall, who attempted to measure the weight of the human soul by calculating the mass lost at the moment of death. MacDougall’s work was folly, not just because of the small sample size, unscientific and unethical methods, but also because of its flawed premise, but Casey uses his 21 gram soul weight perfectly. The metaphoric meanings of the word ‘cup’ unite the poems in this collection. Cups can be containers which are full, empty, or emptied, and can provide or withhold sustenance. There are teacups (with their attendant storms), there are cups that involve the pouring of one thing into another – a transfer of self, of states – the sharing of intimacy (“my cup is fully emptied”), cupped hands, drunk (“in your cups”), cupped breasts, a child’s sippy-cup, or simply the rounded shape of a cup:

when i spy the upturned cup of a ghost-moon plump
in a deep blue pillowed afternoon i think i must call my Mum
though i clasped her hand while she passed such a long time since
as the tide rasped its shallow symphony over our last goodbye (“if I were to tell you”)

Though Casey employs silence and space perfectly in this work, she doesn’t shy from political engagement, tackling subjects like Australia’s treatment of refugees, the airstrikes in Aleppo, ecological disaster, sexual assault, harassment, misogyny, trauma, forced (and unforced) migration, dislocation, and rape. There’s an intensity in these poems that cuts deeply, and yet never comes across as indulgent – the pain always becomes greater than the moment of hurt, moving into a collective awareness that draws the reader in, towards anger, catharsis and healing:

i used to
hark at the creak of the
door, shiver at
the straw
caught on

the spill of
eyes after
warming the chill night
his shrivelling truths (“crush”)

Casey manages the perfect tension between interior and exterior and perhaps that’s why this work is so engaging and warm, even with all of its sadness and warrior energy. There’s so much beauty here. The natural world is present everywhere, and often appears at an atomic level: flux, entropy, change, loss, growth, death, life, pain and love come together because we are all made of the same material:

as space drifts in a speck
as a leaf releases its tree
as its contents hold a cup
as a body sustains the earth
as the sky takes in a bird (“to be at once within & outside of oneself”)

out of emptied cups is a gorgeous rich collection. Despite how dark it sometimes gets as it explores the injustices of humans towards one another; men towards women; leaders towards their constituents; people towards nature and the earth; the strong against the weak, the work always leans into a shared wonder of the deep complexity of life. Sorrow is something to be shared, along with outrage, and a subsequent strength (“still I rise”), and this is what makes the work so powerful and uplifting.