No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters

Anne-Marie Fyfe
Publication Date: 
Monday, November 11, 2019
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No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters sees poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, who grew up on the Antrim Coast, explore her own writerly passion for horizon-gazing, on an odyssey from her native Cushendall by way of water’s-edge locations such as Orkney, Felixstowe, Swansea and Cork to Martha’s Vineyard & north from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia’s remote Breton Cove. 

Charting, in a travel/literary memoir that blends poetry and prose, research and recall, the maritime sensibilities of loved writers from Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson to Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bishop, Fyfe finds shore-dwellers divide into those who exult in setting out to sea, and those who long instead for headland & island remoteness, an obsession seemingly traceable to absences in childhood, which echo something of Fyfe’s own growing-up on the edge of the North Channel. 

This is the story of a quest that took the author to known & unfamiliar coastal waters, via lighthouses, lost islands & small harbours, & back into the shifting tidelines of memory & the hidden inlets of her own family narrative.


Review by Greg Freeman, WriteOutLoud

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The secondary heading of this literary-travel memoir - a combination of prose and poetry - is ‘Charting Unknown Waters’. And although Anne-Marie Fyfe had no thought of viruses when putting together this work, I found it impossible not to look for clues to our present condition within it.

For this book is at least partly about isolation, touching on those who have never seen the sea, and on islanders who have hardly ever made it to the mainland. The poet also addresses the issue of journeying without maps, which is surely what we are doing now, even if we are forbidden from making actual journeys unless absolutely necessary.

Anne-Marie Fyfe grew up in Cushendall on the Antrim coast, and this book begins with those beginnings. At Cushendall on a clear day she can see the Scottish coast of Kintyre, 14 miles away across the North Channel. She also travels to other sea-edge locations -  Suffolk, Orkney, Wexford, Swansea, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and Nova Scotia.

Recently, she says, she had begun to realise “how seriously seawater has seeped into, flooded into, so much of my own writing”. Poems are squeezed without fanfare into a cargo loaded with cultural and historical references, including meditations on Homer, Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse, Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay, Marconi, and that institution beloved of poets as well as mariners, the shipping forecast.

There are poems about being enchanted by maps, and mentions of Captain Flint’s crucial chart included in RL Stevenson’s marvellous Treasure Island, and the cartographical emporium of Stanfords, that “Aladdin’s cave of maps”, in central London. Crucial autobiographical details seep into poems such as ‘Mapping the Unmappable’:


     The year I turn eleven
     my young father suffers a stroke.
     Though he quickly regains strength,
     He then watches my mother,
     suddenly fearful of an ebbing future,
     & drawn to a distant place
     with no trail of white beach-stones to lead her back.

                                                    The year that, as a family,
                                     we step over the deep’s pencil-line,                                                           
                                                            far out from dry land,
                                no charts to show us sea routes home,
                                           home to the known, the familiar:

                   stepping ashore just once would be a godsend.

She tracks the poet Elizabeth Bishop to Nova Scotia. Bishop spent her early years in her maternal grandparents’ home in a community with the name Great Village, “which I’d always imagined would be very like my own home village on the Antrim coast. As it proved ...” She is able to stay in the same house, and comes to the realisation that Bishop “uniquely understands what’s special about coastlines and islands: remoteness and solitude, and something of the need for the sea. Of course everyone quotes John Donne and No Man is An Island.  But what Elizabeth Bishop actually gets is that maybe we should allow ourselves to be islands some of the time, not simply for the sake of being isolated, but to learn the value of ‘aloneness’. “  We’re certainly getting that chance now.

There are musings on the points of a compass, and particularly the concept of “north”;  on Nantucket and Moby Dick; a visit to the real-life ‘Green Gables’ farmhouse on Prince Edward island; voyages around lighthouses, including the Virginia Woolf one in Cornwall, and thoughts on RL Stevenson, who disappointed his parents by not going into the family business of building them. He must have noticed their imaginative potential, nonetheless.

The poet looks in detail at the tragic sinking of a ferry between Stranraer and Larne in the North Channel in 1953, with the loss of 133 lives. An extra door on the MC Princess Victoria wasn’t in place. Bodies were washed ashore on the Antrim coast for weeks afterwards; they called the sinking “our Titanic”. The final poem in this book, ‘Night Music’, stretches over more than five pages, and includes snatches of old songs and musical notation, and several sequences of Morse code. Typographically, I would have liked to have seen the poetry given more room to breathe on the page throughout No Far Shore.  

Such a thought-provoking collage of recollections and references is personal but also universal, and repays and requires a number of readings. Who is not stirred by tidal forces? Anne-Marie Fyfe has published five poetry collections, her first titled, A House By The Sea. But she is also the organiser of Coffee-House Poetry, which runs readings and classes at the Troubadour in London. I see this book, in one respect at least, as an inspirational series of poetry prompts. Why not use it in that way to make your own maritime journeys, as a starting point for imaginative and creative voyages of your own, in this time of lockdown?

Review by Jane MacNamee, New Welsh Review

Monday, February 3, 2020

‘So, what was it actually like,’ asks Anne-Marie Fyfe, ‘growing up on the edge of something vast and exciting, on the edge of both calm and danger?’ Born to ‘the beat of waves’ in Cushendall on the rugged Antrim coast of Northern Ireland, she was drawn to the sea’s edge like a sandpiper, from the very beginning. As an adult, she returns to it year after year, and calls on it frequently, a ‘repeated motif’, as the inspiration for her poetry, research, and writing workshops. Caught up in her obsession for as long as she can remember, she decides that now is the time ‘to confront whatever it is that has some of us constantly looking out to islands, or far horizons, and wondering.’

In this travel memoir, she sets out on a coastal odyssey, looking for some ‘edge-of-the-depths understanding’, weaving her personal family story together with the histories of other coastal dwellers and migrants. She explores the shorelines, islands and promontories of Britain, and crosses the ocean to the Atlantic’s western edge, from Cape Cod, to Martha’s Vineyard and further along the north-eastern coast of North America, on to Nova Scotia. It’s a compelling project, made more enticing by her insistence that she will undertake the quest without a map. Whilst she is a proclaimed map enthusiast, this journey, she tells us, will have none of that cartographic pinpointing. With a nod to Graham Greene, she explains, ‘the heart of the matter is that matters of the heart, of the emotions, are invariably a journey without maps.’

As fluid as its subject, No Far Shore takes ‘no settled form’ but hovers along edges and ‘continually changing margins’, dipping in and out from prose to poetry, past to present, blending myth, fact and fiction. It spans centuries across continents within a single chapter, then hones in with skilled precision on touching details from her childhood, like a summer at the shoreline with her family: ‘fish-scales clustering like my brother’s stamp-hinges’. The shifting nature of the journey also brings Fyfe unexpected and welcome connections in some places, and incongruity elsewhere. There are, for example, the odd pink and lime-green macaroons put out as refreshments for visitors alongside the displays of ‘leviathan’ whale skeletons and vast blubber vats in Nantucket’s whaling museum, Massachusetts. And at the beach-head nearby, she spots her old neighbor, John Finlay’s, fishing hut, at least her mind would have it there: the same shack from back home in Antrim, where he would sleep at night before setting out across the bay, ‘all the old magic still there, still here’. Most poignant are the seemingly small connections, like suddenly remembering that the name of her mother’s nursing home towards the end of her life, shared its name with her parents’ first ‘newly-wed’ home, Glendun.

This might be a mapless voyage, but it is not without expert guides in her travel kit: these are the literary figures who fired her imagination as a child, the poets and writers whose lives and works resonate with her as an adult, all of them touched by the hypnotic and unpredictable powers of the sea. Their presence enriches the voyage in illuminating references, from Herman Melville to Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bishop,‘ ‘the’ poet of the Canadian Maritimes’, to name a few.

Recognising ‘missing mothers’ as a persistent theme on her quest, Fyfe finds a strong affinity with Elizabeth Bishop and Woolf (particularly in To the Lighthouse’) in their shared experiences of the death and absence of parents at a young age. From Woolf, she comes to understand that gazing out is less about lighthouses and horizons and more about ‘loss and irretrievability’. She follows the trail of Bishop even closer, staying in the house in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where Bishop spent her early years with her maternal grandparents, and would have been surrounded by descendants of migrants from Scotland and the North of Ireland. She offers thanks for Bishop’s unique understanding of the value of ‘aloneness’ and expression of it as the mind finding ‘its Sea’. It is not the bleak loneliness Fyfe encounters on revisiting Achill Island in County Mayo, or in her poem, ‘A Northern Litany’, but a celebration of solitude she echoes, discovering a deeper self again ‘whose heart quickens at the sound of a kittiwake’s cry’.

Is it this ‘aloneness’ that holds the answers to Fyfe’s questions? At the end of her voyage, she finds not answers, but some sort of settlement. There is heartfelt optimism in identifying her constant looking out, as a state of being, rather than simply longing for solace or to regain a lost past. She acknowledges that she, like others, simply needs a place to gaze out beyond the busy distractions and limitations of the familiar and the everyday, to find herself ‘endlessly, and not discontentedly, all at sea’.

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