STILL COMING TO TERMS with the death of my friend Philip Casey, on Sunday last (04 February 2018)
The Irish Times online has done a wonderful thing in publishing the tributes of a whole range of poets and writers whose lives and work were enriched by Philip. I include here my own contribution to that ever-growing archive, in case it might be of interest to any of his many friends and admirers, but a quick search of the Irish Times site will produce many more that deserve to be read for their celebration of a truly rare and beautiful human being, and a writer whose magic and depth has yet to be fully recognised.
THE FIRST TIME I MET PHILIP CASEY, I embarrassed him so much that I think he did his best to avoid me for the following few days. Thereafter we became good friends.
It was late 1985 (or maybe early ’86), and I’d just moved in to a bedsit in a house on Longwood Avenue, off Dublin’s South Circular Road. That I had come to live in that particular house after routinely answering an advert in the Classifieds section of the Irish Press seems unlikely now, but that’s how it was. No plan, just the strings of fate drawing me along. Little did I know the day I moved in that on the floor above me was the painter Sean Fingleton and, below me in the basement, the poet Philip Casey, neither of whom I had met before, though, as it happens, I knew something about the work of each.
Though I was living in Dublin only a couple of years at the time, I’d already fallen in with a small group of artists and writers and, as I got to know my way around the Dublin scene, I paid particular attention any time I heard positive references to a practitioner working outside of the group (not always a daily occurrence!) Many people I met enthused about the energy and commitment of the painter Fingleton, (about his powerful, troubled landscapes that seemed to have been wrestled onto the canvas), but they seemed to have a special reverence for Philip Casey which made me keen to meet him.
Coming and going with my bags of vegetables from the stalls on Camden Street, or a collection of wooden scraps gathered for my open fire from the skips along the canal in Portobello (gentrification was already in full swing), in that first week or so I’d take my time on the steps up to the front door of Longwood Avenue, hoping for a glimpse of the basement poet I was too shy to disturb.
And then one morning, without warning, as I came down to head out on some errand or other, there was a noise from below and behind, and I turned around to see the basement door open and a small (to me) man leaning on a crutch emerging. It was Philip Casey.
I was in the grip of an enthusiastic apprenticeship to poetry, and reading everything I could get my hands on, including After Thunder, his poetry collection that had come out only months before. I told him so. Philip smiled warily. I really liked it. He thanked me politely. Neither of us moved. In an effort to put him at his ease, and to relieve my own growing sense of discomfort, I mentioned a few people we had in common – the poets Leland Bardwell and Pearse Hutchinson, Tommy Smith, the owner and heart of Grogan’s Castle Lounge, then effectively my home from home.
And then I did the unthinkable. I named one of the poems from Philip’s book. Machine Buried, for some reason, had made a particular impression on me when I first read it not long before, so much so that in a period where I had more free time than now (and a significantly better memory), standing there in the shadow of the house I began to recite the entire thing to him from memory: ‘The early shift poured into the works, / some hungover, faces drawn and eyes / sleep-caked, sleep-heavy, their mood morose, / unready for its troubling presence …” And Philip just stood there and looked at me, in shock, in wonder, radiating his typical kindness and concern.
Sensing I was trying too hard, I stopped halfway through, and we exchanged a few pleasantries and promised to get together for a chat one day. And then we scurried off, each in his own direction, wisely choosing the neutral territory of a bar or coffee shop for our next encounter, before which I had already begun to understand something important about poets. The true ones are always surprised when anyone reads, let alone memorises their work. They give all they have in its making, but then step away from it and leave it to find its own way in the world. They hope their poems will live beyond them, but fear deep down no such thing will ever happen.
Philip endured more suffering than almost anyone I’ve known, and not just once but again and again. Yet he never complained, and he never gave up making new things, poems and novels, and helping and encouraging others to make their own as well.
There are plenty of poems by Philip that move me more than does Machine Buried; there are things about this fable of men at work that I still don’t entirely understand or can’t apply to the man I got to know over the many years since. And, in truth, it wasn’t a poem Philip himself made any great claim for or returned to often. Perhaps he remained puzzled about it, as poets often are about their work.
But something in it made great sense, haunted and inspired the young writer I was back then trying to become. And that’s why I turn to it again today, as we say goodbye to Philip and have only the poems and the novels in his place (with all the pressure that puts on them now). I turn to it again because there are mysteries in poems, and in poem-making, that cannot be explained away, that always seem to have something more to tell us, something more to reveal. We lose our loves and our friends, but something we write as in a dream, or stumble upon by accident in a public library on a rainy afternoon, becomes our farewell message to the world, and someone’s lifelong companion.
The early shift poured into the works,
some hungover, faces drawn and eyes
sleep-caked, sleep-heavy, their mood morose,
unready for its troubling presence.
It had taken root in the concrete,
a steel Zeus from a mouthful of dust.
Wary, they searched it for a device
that might breathe some life into its steel,
but it was inert and they withdrew,
disconcerted, and deep in their hearts,
afraid. As with the precursors of plagues,
it had come among them unannounced.
In heaven, alias the office,
all ranks were blissfully certain
that no such god existed, demi-
or other, there being no record.
The men returned to work
but in every mind lurked the machine,
which they had christened Colonel Blink.
Then came the solution from on high:
a hole was dug and as the bulldozer
toppled it over the brink, they stared,
feigning laughter; but true to his instinct
a mechanic sprinkled oil on its
complex extremities and they cheered.
The clay was expertly cemented
over, but each year it subsides just
a little and each time a man walks
across it he has a strange feeling,
like an old night-fear from childhood.
(from After Thunder)
Philip Casey reads at an event celebrating the publication of If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song (St Andrew’s Church, Dublin 2), June 2014. Photo: Pat Boran