On our watch: the light we cannot see

Anne Casey on Covid’s toll on emigrants and the inspirations for her new collection

Over 30 years ago may seem like a strange place to start when talking about a book just published, but the genesis of my third poetry collection, the light we cannot see, traces back to an editor’s pool in Tara Street, Dublin in the early 1990s. As we batten down the hatches again here in Sydney, the book’s scheduled launch this month by Irish Consul General, Owen Feeney is just one more very tiny casualty in a seemingly ever-burgeoning number of COVID-19 losses.

As it happens, this hijacking of the book’s launch completed a kind of peculiar circle as its contents had also been commandeered by that same ‘microscopic armageddon’ that has laid siege to our species. But I’m not complaining, truly. I know we had a good run here in Australia for a while (give or take a few heartbreaks on our own family front). It’s just a shame that we squandered our lead.

For now, we are heading into our second month of the latest lockdown, with the federal government’s vaccination strategy around our ankles (less than 14 per cent of Australia is vaccinated) and the game-changing Delta strain snapping at our exposed parts.

Daily shockwaves

Amongst my other beats as a young journalist in the early 1990s, I covered environmental issues. The materials coming across my desk sent shockwaves through me on an almost daily basis – every river in Europe was ‘dead’, chlorofluorocarbons from our fridges and air fresheners were eating the ozone layer, ancient-growth forests were being wantonly logged, air pollution was bringing down acid rain, workers across multiple industries were being poisoned with chemicals. We had catastrophic oil spills, nuclear leaks, children were getting cancers, asthma and allergies at never-before-seen rates.

In 1990, the United Nations warned that the planet’s temperature would rise by two degrees by 2025. I was not a good person to go to the pub with at this time. I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t as alarmed as I was about the situation on the one and only planet we have at our disposal (unless the competing scions of commercial space exploration break out some really cool new toys sometime soon). I talked a lot about what I was reading, wrote a lot, got ‘censored’ a lot and stopped eating meat (without wishing to offend any burger-lovers, the environmental cost of the western meat obsession is unconscionable). Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t start knitting doilies for trees. I just had my eyes opened and started to give a damn.

Since those early days in publishing, my work has often had associations with environmental writing and my husband works in sustainability, so the alarm bells have never stopped ringing. But, just as happened 30 years ago, over the past several years, the scales have again been peeled from my eyes - this time by smaller hands.

“Where will they go Mum?”

When David Attenborough declared in 2015 “This is almost our last chance” on climate change, I thought this is it - all the heads of the major powers are going to sit up and start working this thing out. (I know, I know... my naivety is breathtaking at times.) By then, I had been visiting the Great Barrier Reef annually for almost 20 years and my observations of the deterioration there – even as an amateur snorkeller – were enough to make me gasp: ‘her lovely limbs are shackled down by plastics,/her lungs are laced with deadly manganese /a crown of thorns to pierce her pretty head,/a bed of sludge to lull her in her dreams’.

But when my son, then aged 12, couldn’t sleep for worrying about the animals in the nature reserve on the other side of our back fence (some of which regularly find their way into our garden), something finally cracked: ‘Where will they go Mum, when/all the trees are gone? And the reef?/A thousand tiny wings/skip a beat’.

There is no answer to this question. I have no answers for my children – as to what legacy we are leaving behind for them. This terrifies me. It grieves me to my core. This cannot be the sum total of who we are as a species. And so, the first poems in the light we cannot see were born – as a way of speaking to my children, as my bearing witness to the disappearing wonders I observe in our world every single day and as my elegy for all the losses we have allowed to take place under our watch.

In recent years, my ecopoems have been used by international environment groups including the Climate Guardians (who blockaded the G20 in Paris amongst other things), the Climate Coalition, Extinction Rebellion and the World Wildlife Fund. Both of my previous collections have included ecopoetry. But the light we cannot see was to be my flag in the sand - a marker by which I was personally declaring enough.

I am sincerely grateful to Jessie Lendennie at Salmon Poetry for publishing this book, particularly in this 40th anniversary of the press. When I was about halfway through writing the light we cannot see, Australia caught fire. From October 2019, we choked through almost six months of toxic air levels – strapping on facemasks and living largely confined indoors (sound familiar?) until mercifully heavy rains helped to bring the megafires under control in February 2020: ‘you start/to notice small/signs of life and realise/how long you had held/your breath in their absence’.

There’s a poem in the light we cannot see which I wrote as an incantation to Brigid, Irish pagan goddess of earth, fire and poetry, which some of my fellow Prankqueans (an Irish-Australian women’s arts ensemble) jokingly attribute with summoning the heavy rains that doused the fires. We were performing at a museum in Sydney – smoke tendrils creeping in at the windows – when, midflow through my calling on Brigid, an earth-shattering crack split the sky above us and the rains came down. Within a week I was getting teasing texts to write a rebuttal as we had large areas of flooding. Such is the nature of climate change as evidenced in the extremes we are seeing in Australia – the Minister for Bushfire Recovery was reassigned to Floods (truly).

Much as we might have wanted to believe in the power of divine intervention, by the time they were finally doused, the longest-burning bushfires in this country’s history had wreaked a particular kind of hell on Australian earth. As the images of burning animals being rescued disappeared from the global front pages, we started to count the losses.

Close to 10 million hectares (100,000 square kilometres) of land, including vast tracts of ancient-growth forests, had been destroyed. This equates to one and one fifth times the size of the island of Ireland. Three billion native animals were killed or displaced and over 100 unique species were pushed further towards extinction. Here in New South Wales, 7 per cent of the state had burned, including almost 40% of our national parks. Recovery, if it happens, may take hundreds of years.

The climate crisis was a major contributing factor and remains an ongoing threat to recovery. The only good that I can say may have come from this catastrophic devastation is that the evidence of climate change was front and centre in the world media for months.

So there we were peeling off our facemasks and starting to venture out of our homes again – while our expelled bushfire smoke was still circumnavigating the globe - when rumblings emerged about a bat virus someplace we’d never heard of in China. With a nod to Brigid that it would all turn out to be a conspiracy theory, I jumped on a plane to the US for some poetry-related engagements. By the time I landed in LA 13 hours later, all hell had broken loose. I spent the next 10 days trying to stay in front of COVID-19 before landing in Sydney 48 hours ahead of the Australian government turning the lights out at all the border entries.

When coronavirus strikes and you are half a world from home

Although I’ve lived 17,000 kilometres from Ireland for closing on 28 years, there has always been that reassuring knowledge in the back of the mind that if anything happens, I can be home in 24 hours. When we kissed goodbye to parents, brothers, sister – our immediate and extended families and friends in July 2019, in our wildest dreams we did not envisage that I would be sitting here in Sydney more than two years later telling you that we haven’t seen them since. And there are some we will never see again.

Although we know of two people who have made it home and back in that time, it has not been possible for us. We are a family of four. Since mid-March 2020, in order to leave the country as an Australian citizen planning to return, you have to apply for an exit visa. In most cases these are refused. They are only issued on humanitarian or essential work grounds. If granted, I’m told, you have to remain outside of Australia for a minimum of three months (impossible in our case with two sets of work and kids in school).

And there are no guarantees you will get back in to Australia - unless you are able to cough up the $10,000 per person for a business class ticket plus a further $3,000 per person for hotel quarantine on your return to Australia. There are still over 30,000 Australian citizens overseas who are trying to repatriate. Of the two people I know who managed to get home and then return to Australia (both to see seriously ill parents), one contracted COVID en route to Ireland and became seriously ill himself.

That phone call

And so, Ireland became for us this distant misty dreamworld populated by people we love and miss and don’t know when we’ll see again - all of which of course crept into this book. And then in April last year, the first uncle died, rapidly followed by a cousin our age. By the third extended family member, we were on edge: ‘calls from home/half a world away /a third family member/lost to this/silently creeping curse’.

Our world had shifted and the only thing certain ahead was more uncertainty. There were many sobering discussions - including how to make provision for our children in case something happened to both of us, given that our nearest family were several locked borders and half a planet away.

And then came that dreaded phone call in the night. The one you always knew was coming, but you had banked on those long-assured 24 hours to get home. My husband’s father had died, somewhat suddenly in the end. He was that rare combination of a farmer and an eternal optimist, stalwart father to six salt-of-the-earth human beings, beloved grandfather to our sons. Philly, who could look out at the foulest, blackest day in Ireland, slap on his cloth cap and head out with his customary “Ah shur, ‘tis a grand fine day”.

We were all understandably devastated, my rock of a husband, Rory, inconsolable as we sat through family gatherings: ‘Waking him/online through two/days and nights’. ‘I talk about my mother/dying, tell you/It’s natural /silver minnows lying:/there is nothing natural in burying/your father online”.

Half a world fell away

Taking a line from Philly, we dusted ourselves off and headed on into whatever weather lay ahead. Time vaporised through months of media pleas for Australians stranded overseas to be allowed to come home, through various COVID outbreaks and lockdowns, and multiple government announcements of extensions to Australia’s international border closure. From the beginning we had said we’d surely make it home this July - two years to the day since we’d last said our goodbyes in Ireland. Again with those false assumptions...

Almost a year to the day from Philly’s passing, we had a second call in the night. Rory’s mother had died. Again the inconceivable construct of grieving online. For my husband, the destabilisation of losing both parents in twelve months at a distance. For my children, a second grandparent - a whole half of their world in Ireland fell away overnight. And so, all of this too, found its way into ‘the light we cannot see’.

Through all of it, my own greatest worry and another constant heartache to us all has been my father – 84 (he’ll murder me for putting that in print) and living alone since my Mum passed away in a remote part of west Clare. Thanks to the kindness of good neighbours (Martin, Catriona, Bernie - there are no words) during the toughest bits, and to his extraordinary, unshakeable tenacity (he might be the stubbornest man I know... sorry again Dad!), he has not just survived, but prevailed.

I follow him around on my phone, a small brown wren hopping ahead as he shows me his recently potted flowers, great crops of strawberries, apricots, peas... draws back an emerald curtain full of looting blackbirds to reveal bunches of ripening blackcurrants: “Christ mon, isn’t it great to hear the birds sing!”. He gets out of bed every morning to feed his ancient ginger cat, walks the beach or pier - no matter the prevailing conditions (a retired trawler captain, he’s always sharp to a break in the weather) – and never misses a GAA match or The Late Late on the box (even if he has no time for ‘that fella’).

Through all the oddities and uncertainties, the highlights (there have been a few) and the heartbreaks (too many) of the past two years, I have learned a great many things. About myself and the world. But the most important, I’ve learned from two fathers, two men who lived all their lives close to the earth, the sea. We have to keep an eye on the weather, watch for what nature is telling us and try to look to ‘the light/we cannot yet see,/but know lies ahead’.

A native of west Clare, Anne Casey is an Irish poet/writer living in Australia. She has won awards in Ireland, the UK, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and the US, most recently American Writers Review Competition 2021. the light we cannot see (Salmon Poetry 2021) is her third poetry collection.

Constitutional By Anne Casey

Together in isolation,
tugged by a small eager
dog who has waited
all day - we step out

into the chill spearing
off a contracting
Antarctic, our silence
implicit: uncomplicated

by unfamiliarity
winding through
the familiar
neighbourhood

of our marriage.
A murder of sorrows
arrows out of evening
branches, scatters

into cobalt overhanging
saffron screeches
of late-homing lorikeet,
lights blinking

on across old stone
ramparts thrusting
up from the eclipsed
reserve; sure as

taxes, death stalks us
as we turn for home
past the tumbledown
wall that speaks

of grander days - conspiring
in our silence, resisting
the urge to hurdle
all the closed borders

between us
and all we left behind
cocooned half the earth
away arms that had raised

us embracing empty
air and this complicated
new unfamiliality:
silence swallowing

the unfathomable
prospect they may not
survive the long wait
until we are able to return.