Damian Smyth on Anne-Marie Fyfe ( Ballymena Guardian)

Poet & ACNI Literature Officer Damian Smyth’s intro at No Far Shore Belfast launch

(@ No Alibis Bookstore, Botanic Ave, Thu 6 Feb 2020, Ballymena Guardian report below)

I have to say from the off that introducing Anne-Marie Fyfe is a formidable task. This is someone who has excelled in the art of poetry and whose aesthetic has managed to shape several aspects of what has marked contemporary poetry in the UK over the last two decades. Throughout that period, she has retained a humility, a grace and a certain caritas which has been admired, valued and cherished by others who have had the interests of this peculiar artform at heart.

People at the outset of a writing life, or what they hope will be one, even if they are not sure what precise shape something like that will take, will I am sure nonetheless have something like Anne-Marie’s trajectory in mind. By this stage, with six considerable collections of poetry, the most recent of which (prior to the current title), House of Small Absences, I think marked a departure in purpose and idiom which found acclaim from the likes of Tom Paulin and Thomas Lynch, partly because of the preoccupations with history, origin, mortality, myth:

     There’s a corkscrew
     in my cranium, a crucifixion
     in both frontal lobes. My halo
     is my armour though it might
     be mistaken for an old brass salver
     from la maison de ma tante

Work such as this demonstrated a serious intelligence at work in lyric mode, but beginning already to test the narrative and reflective possibilities of lithe and flexible poetry, worrying at detail yes, always, but with an eye on the big picture:

     I’ve always known
     If I hold my breath the globe will grind to a standstill
     However you look at it
     The county asylum looms ungainly in the finder:
     One great, grave, sea-girt hall of sorrows.

It’s all about perspectives — often, in fact, it’s almost like a photographer, there is always almost a viewfinder at play —but it’s also an imagination as much at home with Edna St Vincent Millay, Bishop and The Eagles as with Yeats, Banville and Julian Barnes. And it was already spreading and broadening to accommodate eventually, four years later, the adventure that is No Far Shore.

That is to indicate an artistic shift of emphasis. But already this poet had been chair of the Poetry Society, still runs the Coffee House Poetry? readings and classes at ??The Troubadour in Earl’s Court — that must be over 20 years’ worth of effort in promoting and developing the artform — and consistently contributing also to shaping the perspectives here through her role as poetry co-ordinator of the John Hewitt Society. In addition, there is a significant presence at festivals, residencies, universities, writing groups and workshops on tour across Britain Europe and increasingly in the US.

What that means is, and what the challenge of a career such as this means, is that the poems themselves have responded both to the climate of attention and to the challenges of breaking out of expectation. Anne-Marie’s work in relation to Belfast, indeed in relation to Ireland, has been almost completely construed through her poems — this, mind you, is someone whose authenticity as a native of the deep Glens is without question — so intense, in fact, that it makes even someone with the tremendous pedigree of Cahal Dallat seem like a fly-by-night blow-in parvenue!

The particular wryness of her perspectives, and their subtleties across the globe, owe much to the gentle temperament of that climate and coast. This reflection, her meditation on that origin, what for many would be considered an Eden, informs all her work; it is present right from the off and it is very much animating her new book.

Apart from managing to be the book of poems that used Colin Middleton’s Dream of the Moth as the cover — for which you will never be forgiven, Ms Fyfe — her debut collection, Late Crossing in 1999, gathered poems which had started appearing only half a decade earlier and they were already, as the title suggests, vexed by removal, transfer, some kinds of dislocation; I’m also reminded of the Daily Telegraph/Arvon prize-winning sequence A House by the Sea, which was at that stage considering the Atlantic and its risks and opportunities.

It’s not that hindsight is always 20:20 vision; though that is happily true; it is rather that poems and the imagination that gives rise to them have their little points of light, their worry beads, if you like; and, over time, individual poems and even whole collections come to rotate around a certain number of ideas which the lyric, the song, the perspective, helps make memorable and important.

It is also the case that this persistent meditation is a mark of quality; or one of its marks. And so, as collections appeared over subsequent years — Tickets from a Blank Window in 2004 where there were games being played with alternative realities and the grim facts of what we know to be our own, The Ghost Twin (which was again toying with our belongings and their value as seen through art and its interactions.
There is something here also about her own engagement with the most marginalized, in prisons and those with mental ill-health — hence slippages of the self, the instability of its notions, the difficult to grasp atmospheres of its formation; these are all in play for this most rooted poet, oddly, most belonged, most owned, possessed and self-possessed of poets.

‘Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies’, she quotes from Millay; but this is also a poetry haunted by Saint-Exupery and Transtromer – utterly contemporary experiences of flight, exilt, motion, dislocation. Who understands those pressures more intensely than the person whose co-ordinates are most fixed, and who, wherever they are, have stars to steer by. If anything, No Far Shore is that very book, that very achievement – it is in many ways itself a compendium of the poet’s concerns across that career I mentioned at the outset; but it is more daring, more reflective, takes more risks. The journeys themselves, I will leave to Anne-Marie, though I am sorely tempted to steal her best lines from this new book.

I do want to say though that if there is one thing I took from this gathering of poems and constructions, it is something that I think bothers many through life; and which may remain hidden from oneself and others, no matter how physical and voluminous the presence of place may be.

Belonging is a kind of loneliness; the more intense it is, the more isolating it is.

Of course, Seamus Heaney is a ghost in this collection, notably that injunction he placed upon us all to ‘Believe that a farther shore/is reachable from here./Believe in miracles And cures and healing wells.’

Fyfe puts that under scrutiny big time; in a way the whole book reflects on the possibility of all that, but with a fairly acerbic perspective, an attitude which is fairly raw and resistant to easy comforts. Even the distant horizon is imaginary; we make it so from where we stand.

But there is in belonging enough of ambition still, enough of adventure, enough ‘longing’ if you like, to make the idea of home itself unsettling and unpredictable.

In terms of a career as a writer, in terms of a life which a writer might lead through the decades, Anne-Marie Fyfe’s is enviable. The respect of one’s peers is a priceless commodity and she has that in diamonds and hearts, from the late Helen Dunmore to John Greening and Ian Gregson and Jackie Wills. Her ease among the influences of our time in poetry and in ideas is salutary and itself a gift; her wisdom, too, which never comes with age but sometimes does with experience, is aglow in this new book. Maybe it’s the many and varied coastal agitations, the dead of the Princess Victoria, for example — which bothered Roy McFadden here in contemporary times and which Moyra Donaldson has had occasion to revisit because of its tragedy just offshore.

Now, with the extended reflection in this book, how that neglected wreck still rolls along the sea bottom of the imagination. It’s impossible to read the pages here on that tragedy without elemental dread gathering around the heart; truly terrible suffering, delicately managed by the careful ethic of this skilled poet.

And then there is still that old boat at the bottom of the north Atlantic which still exercises its appalling grip on us; or the deep trauma a poem such as ‘Flannan Isle’ can wreak upon the imaginations of children (all being well!) — there was a time when even the words ‘Wilfred Wilson Gibson’ alone were enough to lift the hairs on the back of my neck …

Look, I said I wouldn’t steal the best lines. This career is an evidence of exciting, enduring achievement. This book is an evidence of real perspectives which are never complacent, never relaxed, never taken for granted; always, in short, at risk and at stake.

What is poetry for? It’s a diary, a handbook, an almanac, a compass, a chart, a sextant; in an odd way, it’s a map both away from Cushendall and back home to it by way of the planet.

     It will be winter when I draw
     Each oar from the water,
     And bite the cold from my lip.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends,
Anne-Marie Fyfe

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