Dennis Casling, New and Selected Poems, edited by Julia Copus and Annie Freud (Smith/Doorstop, 2018)
I’ve just had the pleasure of reading this new collection and I wanted to share my thoughts about it on the blog. It’s an extremely moving book comprised of the reprint of Casling’s earlier Endorphin Angels, along with other, presumably later poems, written up until Casling’s death in 2016.
Dennis Casling was blind. Maybe we need to know this, maybe not. On the back cover it says: ‘The act of seeing is informed by the imagination … I spend my time looking at the invisible’ (Casling). Sometimes what he ‘sees’ is memory, other times it’s imagined situations and characters, which links up with Philip Gross’s comment: ‘His poetry is a balance of different voices’.
The different voices are more noticeable in the first section (the reprint of Endorphin Angels takes up the first half of this book). Towards the second half of the book though, there’s a sense of the poet finding a voice which is perhaps less ‘poetic’ but, for me, is more rewarding to read.
Somewhere near the middle of the collection is ‘Holding On’ which seems to mark a shift from a poet consciously writing POETRY, to a poet who has the courage to set aside the more adorned use of language for something paired back. If this sounds as if I didn’t enjoy the first half, that’s not the case; I did. The beauty of the writing is enviable, with some lyrical language and, time and again, really fresh similes that expand the image in the reader’s mind. Here, for example, from the poem ‘In the Farmyard’ (p. 13) ‘the flat milk sack warm on the hand/ like a child’s fever’. Observant and sensual details like this abound.
Casling’s poetry is concerned with darkness and silence, absence and return, and above all, how we negotiate loss. The collection is loosely structured, moving from conception and birth through to death. In the background there are hints at a family drama unfolding, but as Jonathan Davidson said in his review (which appears in this summer’s edition of Under the Radar) ‘there is no clear autobiographical line to follow’. I agree with Davidson when he says that this isn’t a bad thing. There are some wonderfully telling moments all the same, where we can infer the family dynamics. For example, in Holiday (p.47):
‘We stood shivering in shop doorways eating chips
before we turned in at the bed and breakfast.
Nothing was ever quite right for my mother,
my dad always trying to make it so’
However, there’s often a looming sense of finality, as in the more fanciful ‘The Convenience of Bridges’ p.41) where ‘Death is the bridge swept away from under us’. Or in the character poem, ‘Mandelstam’ (p.33):
‘Here at the co-ordinates of breathlessness and death
they take from him his coat, his shirt, his boots.
He gives them back the black words from his throat.
They stand around frozen to what he knows.’
If this seems bleak, it isn’t. Casling has a playful imagination (see ‘Disney World’ on p. 55 for example). However, he’s at his best when he’s exploring darkness and mortality, when he’s asking how we might articulate what we can’t see. Look at this example from ‘The Poet Reclining’ (p.83):
‘Under my eyelids anything
might come, so that on this journey
I have to lie down and rest’
I’ve purposely cut this short because the end of the stanza is also quite funny and self-deprecating; to quote it in full would be like giving away the punchline to a joke.
In the second half of the book, the style of writing is clearer, less lyrical perhaps, but the poet is more confident in handling and extending his earlier themes. In ‘The Garden of Eden’ (p. 58) the speaker says: ‘You hadn’t noticed/ layer on layer of meaning building up’ and this is precisely how the collection works. Images reoccur, themes are explored, ideas developed. It happens quietly, and often obliquely, and is all the more powerful for it. Here’s the opening stanza to ‘Midwinter’ (p. 108) which could work as a poem on its own:
‘The owls are calling at the edge of darkness,
so we lock up the doors,
pull down the blinds,
and light a fire
to set the darkness free.’
After I’d read the book, I tried to choose a stand out poem. A hard task. I said above that ‘Holding On’ (p. 61) seemed to mark a shift in gear. It’s also one of my favourites. In it, the poet goes with his elderly parents to visit his sister’s grave:
‘We found my sister’s grave sunk in the ground.
‘3-in’ my father said, and he was right –
a man too old to reckon where he is
from day to day. A bleak and empty place.
The traffic climbed the long slow hill to town –
everybody going somewhere fast.
We straggled, almost nonchalant with expectation.
My mother walked ahead into the past.’
There’s something profound yet understated in that last line of stanza 2 which I love for its quiet precision and the way it opens out the poem. Here’s the opening of another favourite, ‘The Return’ (p. 96):
‘I stand in your front garden
in the snow. It is snowing.
My footsteps have followed me.’
Again, it’s quiet and calm yet packed with those layers of meaning I mentioned earlier. Similarly in ‘The Unexpected’ (p.110):
‘Sooner than you think,
the blink of an eye,
time for the universe to come into being;
[you] feel a twinge
in an unexpected part
where you think your liver is, the heart’
So precise and loaded. It’s hard to see how more could be conveyed in so few lines. Sadly, the end of the book is the end of Casling’s life. In ‘The End’ (p.119) he writes:
‘after the diagnosis
… I will be trying to say
something meaningful to you all,
something that signifies a completion
but you won’t be able to read me
for the tears’
Ostensibly this is addressed to his family, but it feels as if Casling is also addressing the reader here. How to reach out, how to connect, in the most difficult of circumstances, how to make sense of a world at a time of letting go, is Casling’s concern. Serious stuff, but done with perfect grace and leaving you with a sense that what you’ve read will colour the way you see the world for some time to come.
Dennis Casling’s New and Selected Poems is out in October and is available to pre-order from Smith/Doorstop, priced £9.95.