Anthologies can be a mixed bag. Editors not only wrestle with fluctuating trends and the caprices of publishers, but finding a subject that is broad enough to encompass a mixture of forms while simultaneously keeping their offering within bounds. It’s a delicate balancing act, and for every anthology met with enthusiasm – The Long Gaze Back, Being Various – there are a thousand others that disappear without a trace.
Luckily, the recently published Philip Casey anthology Distant Summers is in safe hands with boutique Irish publisher Arlen House. Editors Eamonn Wall, Katie Donovan and Michael Considine have assembled an impressive line-up of Casey’s friends and family – including Paula Meehan, Sebastian Barry and Colm Tóibín – to share stories, poems and fond memories of the poet-novelist.
Everything from Casey’s childhood to the final few months of his life – a life more than occasionally marred by illness and grief – are recounted with delicacy by the people who knew him best. At its most effective, Distant Summers recalls the same vivid portraiture that emerges across Denis O’Driscoll’s book of conversations with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones; giving insight into how personal circumstances can shape an artist’s life, leading them on to kindness, tutelage and the will to pay it forward.
In The Hospital Bed, Casey effectively conjures — in just nine short lines — the frustration of a beautiful and creative mind locked inside a body that has too often betrayed it
For those unfamiliar with Casey’s work, the book also includes a selection of poems and excerpts spanning the length of his career. Not least, passages from his celebrated Bann Trilogy, as well as some shorter pieces that demonstrate the talent, compassion and humour that Casey’s celebrants so often emphasise in their own recollections.
One poem in particular stands out as emblematic of his style. In The Hospital Bed, Casey effectively conjures – in just nine short lines – the frustration of a beautiful and creative mind locked inside a body that has too often betrayed it. Reminiscent of Kavanagh’s acerbic later writing, he tells us: ‘This bed upon which I lie / has taken so many bodies upon it / that it’s fit to hitch up its sheets / and lean its backrest against / a dimly-lit lamp post. / “Do you want a good time, / handsome? / I can fix you a petit-mort / before you know where you are!” ’
Thankfully as readers, we know exactly where we are with this anthology. In the safe hands of friends holding their departed’s memory aloft, and who could ask for a better tribute than that?