House of Small Absences

Anne-Marie Fyfe
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
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 Anne-Marie Fyfe’s poems have long dwelt on the role that the spaces we inhabit, the places in which we find security, play in our lives: House of Small Absences is an observation window into strange, unsettling spaces—a deserted stage-set, our own personalised ‘museum’, a Piedmont albergo, underground cities, Midtown roof-gardens, convent orchards, houseboats, a foldaway circus, a Romanian sleeper-carriage—the familiar rendered uncanny through the distorting lenses of distance and life’s exigencies, its inevitable lettings-go…


Review by Pippa Little, Magma

Monday, August 1, 2016

Anne-Marie Fyfe conveys a wholly unsettling world glimpsed through a plethora of windows, whether barred, high-fanlighted, “fisheye portal” or “blacked-out… a thousand storeys deep”. Inspired by Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, a quotation from which sits as an epigraph to ‘Pièces de Résistance’, the poems are fascinated by Bachelard’s questions of inside/outside, past/present, their ambiguous spaces made to signify existential states of being. We encounter structures as diverse as a “winter’s boathouse”, a gravedigger’s shed, a museum and a memory palace as well as houses with unwelcoming characters (‘Pièces de Résistance’ again) and ominous structures which might be asylums/beehives/oratories/hospitals. Equally, city hotels and “another day, another Auberge” share a strange dreamlike hyper-reality. Travelling evokes a floating anxiety, a dread of anonymous spaces.

One of the best, because most slant and subtle, 9/11 poems I have read can be found in this collection, and takes the huge, myriad urban window-scape of skyscrapers as its dominant trope: ‘The Window Washers’ delays until the final line the devastating context within which the high-rise workmen live out their last moments.

A disturbing thread runs through the collection of impending doom and high-flying collision, from the opening poem ‘The Red Aeroplane’ to the last section’s ‘From the Cockpit Window’ and the inverted invasion of Lower Manhattan, while both the father-pilot and Amelia Earhart emerge as unsettling presences. It’s all rather Alice-inWonderland: “Am I lifesize today?”(‘The Image of Sainthood’), the lost key’s outline kept in a bar of soap – and the poems can take on a whimsical, funny register, particularly when dealing with the travails of being a tourist, as in Late Rooms and the half-found poem Guest Information Folder.

This is a lovely collection with daring sweeps between high and low, the tiny and the huge – “a hundred or so sleeping roofs” and “a million hospital sheets” co-exist with “a green carbolic soap-cake” (‘While You Wait’) and the sharp point of a set of school compasses (Primary Seven). As if the collection itself were the “doll’s house… still in the attic” its poems allow us to investigate, even pry, and encourage us to make stories from the many fragmented, surreal, mysterious objects arranged so deftly in this emporium with its inventories and lists. One of my favourite poems, ‘No Second Acts’, evokes the protagonist as “wind-burnished as Egdon’s reddleman”, and it’s this kind of attention to detail, these imaginative leaps, which make this book so deeply satisfying.

Review by Judy Brown, The Poetry Review

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Anne-Marie Fyfe's House of Small Absences is unified by its prevailing mood: a "disconsolate fugue" of the unheimlich and the nervily unmoored. Fyfe creates a set of interlocking, often institutional, spaces which are never quite comfortable or comprehensible. Memory wobbles, loops or is re-written: speakers seek patterns and fail to find them. The collection flirts with the fantastic but often draws on half-familiar milieus: uneasy European meanderings, city heights, hotels, childhood holidays.

Fyfe rings inventive changes on this twilit state, where "There's the same curve in the road / but the arc seems smaller" ('Headland House'). Her details can be finely judged: "There's always a lone post-war ambulance / parked up at 'Rosgrove,' awaiting the call" ('Pilgrimage'); an insomniac speaker remembers her puppy, attacked by wasps while she slept ('The Outer Provinces of Sleep'). Vechiles are quite often "lone" or "last": "a lone lost traghetto / rising and falling on its way to the glove market" ('Late Rooms'). Lists are deployed - often several to a poem. This can work well: "Out there: roadkill, poachers, gunlamps" in "The Outer Provinces of Sleep,' but on occasion the cataloguing can overwhelm. With a single feature, the effect is powerful (is that really just a floating log "far out by the dead lightship" in 'Post-Industrial'?). And in some of the short poems - almost sketches - the details work very hard to earn their keep (eg, 'Salmon Port' and 'Our Little Town).

All in all it's a very thingy world, a universe of objects that are often recalcitrant, misplaced or faulty. At times, the characters are eclipsed by all the stuff, and a pronoun may appear some way down a poem, deliberately uncommunicative about the identity of its owner ('Honey and Wild Locusts', 'Vergissmeinnicht'). These people, whoever they are, rarely control the paraphernalia.

Indeterminacy studs the collection: "the perplexity / of fly papers" ('House of Small Absences'); "tentative banisters / against her confusion" ('Vergissmeinnicht'); "Put it down / to a dreamy miasma if you will" ('Ocean House.') Often people can't be sure what has happened ('The Red Aeroplane' and 'Ocean House' play a similar trick. Like the condemned man in 'Last Order', Fyfe balances uncertainty with extreme particularity, as if undertaking an enumerative spiritual exercise. This serves her thematic concerns (and it works well especially in 'Late Rooms') but specifically can become an end in itself (so many names, times, ages!). Though it's clearly a device, the complex loading of epithets ("trad[ing] gudgeon pin / gauge sizes in pre-take-off hangar talk" (Where Are You Now, Amelia Earhart?')) occasionally tires, and one fewer adjective or verbal gesture would have worked just as well.

The book creates a memorably uneasy world and the sound of these litanies can mesmerise. My favourites were the poems that had an organising conceit to keep them moving and manage the elaboration, This was the case with 'No Second Acts,' 'Nights at the Memory Palace' and 'The Museum of Might-Have-Been' - where, wittily, "artefacts are still donated by the hour."

Review by Brian Gourley, The Incubator

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

ANNE-MARIE FYFE IS A POET AND A WRITER CONCERNED WITH PRESENCES AND ABSENCES. The trajectory of her collected oeuvre to date shows that her own highly distinctive poetic language and discourse carves itself out of the emotional and psychological vacancies that paradoxically occupy physical spaces that appear abandoned and forlorn.  House of Small Absences is her fifth book to date: some fifty or so poems spanning a variety of locations, and touched by the lingering presence of the past, are arbitrarily siphoned off into four sections.   At its heart, the book purveys a striking sense of the familiar and the alien and how they simultaneously co-exist and transmute into each other in the blinking of an eye.  A poet who has exchanged the sylvan tranquillity of the Glens of Antrim for the concrete and high rise world of London, Fyfe’s work shows an intimate familiarity with a wide variety of geographical milieux and an enviable ability to create a sense of place that is virtually self-constructed by the process of reading itself.  Within the confines of the volume, readers find themselves transported from the streets of Manhattan to the foothills of the Romanian Carpathians:  scenes range from “an orphaned snowy owl [who’s] lost his night sensors’ (‘Carpathian Flyer’) to the ‘Lancia swerving closer than you’d like’ (Camino Real) to ‘apartments for rent in upper floors, unclaimed, tenantless,/their marble door-plaques as yet unlettered’(‘Lower Manhattan’)
            The latter best sums up the glaring paradox that fuels this collection:  that of the physical space occupied by human beings that now finds itself abandoned and alone.  The collection is driven by the imperative need to recreate, or at least, to re-imagine the kinds of lives led by the invisible individuals that haunt the pages and the imagination. For Fyfe, it is this idea of vacancy and its contingent atmosphere which becomes essential to the (re)creation of lives either lived to their fullest or constrained by circumstances.  The eponymous poem of the collection cites Emily Dickinson and reveals with incremental build up towards shock the harsh reality of existence for inmates in a psychiatric hospital:
In her room at the eaves of the world/She’s stuck again on the perplexity of fly papers.
            The poem is fixated with the idea of fixation and obsession, with an unresolved sense of conflict between keeping memories alive and learning to let go of the past. One might be a touch fanciful and say that Fyfe is playing with being obsessed by obsession itself and fully in awe of its power to hold onto individuals in spite of their potential for damage.
            Nor is Fyfe afraid to shun the domestic and the familiar for more arcane discourses. She reveals a refreshing ability to engage with the language of scientific experimentation and discovery, finding in it a way of discussing profoundly distressing personal experience. In ‘Splitting the Atom’, the imagery of dark matter and atomic fission becomes a conduit for the exploration of a mother’s descent into the depths of depression:
Blackness that had defeated her/A corridored room. Manicured grounds.
Yet within the apparent darkness of confinement within a mental institution, there is a moment of unexpected and surprisingly joyous revelation:
Striking out/on orbits, tangents, rewound neurons/irretrievably forced landings/on solitary uncharted dark stars.
            Whereas mental illness incarcerates the physical body within a supervised space, it also has the power to liberate the imagination and to forge new ways of seeing. At their most profound, the poems invoke a sense of the random and the arbitrary, and the powerlessness of human beings in the face of unknown and immutable higher powers and this spiritual awareness is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this collection.
At its heart, this collection interrogates the concept of home and whilst acknowledging its role as a bedrock of identity and security, seems to leave the reader purposefully uneasy about its meaning and validity in an age of globalisation and dislocation, a reality that Fyfe tacitly and painfully acknowledges throughout the collection. To her credit, Fyfe resists the temptation to make ‘home’ a secure and settled notion, rather she earnestly acknowledges that the twenty-first century has imposed a transitory nomadism on individuals whose lives are constantly shaped and re-shaped by ever changing circumstances and locations.  Her knack is for pointedly reminding the reader of the key and salient reality that Home in the hypermobile and hyperconnected twenty-first century has become an ever more unstable and uncertain concept. The fiction of home is a cherished one, but one that Fyfe accepts is a fallible one whose comfort is at best skin deep.
For all its preoccupation with the familiar and the domestic, this is a collection that is not afraid to venture into a diverse of territories and physical spaces:  within a few pages the reader travels from the Carpathians of Romania to the streets of Lower Manhattan.   Fyfe’s sharp eye for observation is that of the outsider’s: she sees these places with a new insight and a profound acknowledgement of the complex interactions between human beings and their physical environment, whether it be rural or urban.  If there is perhaps one criticism that one could level at this collection, it could be that the division into four sections seems to add no sense of added meaning, especially in a book that calls the reader to accept the reality of random dislocation and isolation. However, that is really more to do with the arrangement of the poems rather than their content and does not detract from their aesthetic achievement and vivid image. The experience of living in these poems and reading them is a simultaneously comforting and unsettling experience, and one that most certainly lingers in the reader’s mind.

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