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 Norbert Hirschhorn, London Grip

Monday, July 20, 2020

The front cover startles, a vision of a poem before even opening the book. A photograph showing a flat, calm sea, the sky pink-dimmed at twilight. In the foreground, a huge rock on which ships might founder unawares when the tide rises. Many yards off there is a wreck: the cargo ship Kaffir, a coal-fired, single-masted vessel, one of the class of Clyde Puffers that plied the western coast of Scotland hauling supplies, mail and a passenger or two. It sank in February 1974. The photo evokes an ethereal beauty, a calm belying storm and tragedy. But look further: notice a barely discernable ‘line’ between sea and sky, one almost within reach. That line, the horizon, is a fantasy, as Fyfe’s poetry will teach us.

Thus, we enter No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters, Anne-Marie Fyfe’s omnium gatherum paean to coastlines, the sea, horizons, maps, the people; a memoir of growing up on the margins of Antrim, Northern Ireland, looking across the bay to Scotland at the Irish Sea’s narrowest point, the Straits of Moyle. The book is about ancestors, and about contingencies that led to her own origin. Fyfe’s grandfather, William Reilly, was a ship fitter who helped build the Titanic, a Protestant (such jobs weren’t given to Catholics), but because he eloped with Mary McNeill, a Catholic, he was not taken aboard that fateful maiden voyage.

Fyfe summarizes the intent of the book: “Like the coast waters it sets out to explore, this book takes no settled form. It hovers on edges, on shifting shorelines. It weaves a course between prose and poetry. It dips in and out of both, steps continually off the dry land of travel writing, diary extracts, and observation…. as is always the case with poetry, continually changing margins.” Indeed, some of the poems take the shape of a ragged coastline, right-justified:

Earlier today my horizons disappeared.
No trace of lines between sky & sea.
No joins, no delineations, between earth & the heavens.
I steady my gaze on a point
where the line ought to be

Here, a clouded-over sky hides the horizon, a line in any case constructed only in our minds because we’re not high enough to see the curvature of the earth. New England women looking out from their cupolas for the whaling ships’ sails to rise out of the sea knew this. (Not for nothing were those lookouts called ‘widows’ walks’.)

Robert Frost in his poem, ‘Neither Out Far Nor In Deep’, marveled that instead of looking at houses and active life, “The people along the sand/ All turn and look one way./ They turn their back on the land./ They look at the sea all day.” Fyfe wonders, “Perhaps it is only the horizon that has us hypnotized with the urge to contemplate our one quotidian hint of the infinite.” That infinite is a chilling prospect. It is the meaning of the one-syllable declarative word in the title: NO. There is no ‘far shore’ of redemption, afterlife, heaven. One of Fyfe’s fine poems, reproduced from an earlier collection (‘Late Crossing’) describes the poet’s journey to oblivion, starting out from a metaphorical family home, rowing to the horizon, acting her own Charon.


It will be winter when I untie
the boat for the last time:
when I double-lock the back door
on an empty house,
go barefoot through bramble
& briar, measure each
Stone step to the slipway.

It will be night-time when I row
to the horizon,
steady in North-star light
the darkened house at my back.

It will be winter when I draw
each oar from the water,
& bite the cold from my lip

(I can’t resist pointing out the prosodically apt hard ‘b’s and ‘c’s)

Fyfe is firm on this: Death comes without afterlife. Recall Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’, where the traveler sets out from a similar ocean shore but will meet his ‘Pilot face to face.’ But one must find that place, writes Fyfe, “Where we can gaze on a distant horizon that we know is imaginary anyway, a geometric and geographical construct, an optical illusion, and recognize that we are, some of us, endlessly, and not discontentedly, all at sea, with no promise of, no need for, the solace of a far shore.” An agnostic if not atheistic vision of destiny. Nonetheless, Fyfe testifies to power of belief in her poem, ‘Canticle: Star of the Sea’ (Stella Maris, an ancient title for the Virgin Mary). The priest recites a litany of waves: epic, doomed, ice-laden, etc., followed by the people’s response, “Pray for us,” closing with the Hail Mary, “Pray for us, now & at the hour of our death.” How can one not bow to the majesty of the sea?

Elizabeth Bishop ¬— the Nova Scotian Bishop — is the presiding spirit over the book. Her community of Great Village is so much like Fyfe’s Antrim, down to similar ESSO station pumps. Bishop visited Antrim in the 1930s. Fyfe stayed in Bishop’s house, her bedroom, looking up at the stars through the skylight. Both contemplated “missing mothers.” Both poets were sensible to rain, clouds, stripped thorn trees, deserted houses, bleak gull sounds, variations in light, remoteness and solitude. Aloneness. The word island cognate with isolation.

Other spirits visit whose lives overlap Fyfe’s, present or past: Robinson Jeffers, Virginia Woolf, Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather who built lighthouses Fyfe knows well. Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of long-distance radio transmission that allowed the radio telegraphers on the Titanic to tap out Morse code, -.-. –. – -.. (CQD, ‘all stations: distress’), then … — … (SOS), bringing nearby ships to the rescue of passengers in lifeboats. Fyfe incorporates Morse code into a final, long poem of memory, ‘Night Music’, to read, “No Far Shore.” She also includes a musical notation for violin, viola and cello the melody played by the band on the Titanic as that great ship went down, ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ A plangent version should be heard: Not only icebergs on the wide Atlantic, Fyfe also contemplates what is seen from her house on the coast: “This solemn home has witnessed/ too many shipwrecks, too few survivors./ The whole house heaves in early hours.” (“North House”).

The ‘Unknown Waters’ Fyfe charts with her poetry and reminiscences are longings for family, homes, and especially the coasts and islands she grew up near and explores again. An ancestor left Ireland for America but to find a home where, “the kitchen door opens/ & voices rise

what took you so long/, we’ve been here all day.

No Far Shore — rich in islands, shores, horizons, history, and reminiscences — may be savoured several times over.

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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