House of Small Absences

Anne-Marie Fyfe reflects on places past and present in her fifth poetry collection

Becoming well-known for hosting local literary evenings, Thyme & Co Café in Ballycastle is this evening, welcoming North Coast poet Anne-Marie Fyfe into its cosy, candlelit interior. Born down the road in Cushendall, the now London-based Fyfe is launching her fifth poetry collection, House of Small Absences, and the little seaside coffee shop is crowded with well-wishers.

Fyfe is also appearing at this year’s John Hewitt International Summer School (JHISS), which takes place next week in Armagh. For those unable to make the journey south however, it’s a treat to have her here tonight, thanks to Ballycastle Writers’ group and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council arts officer, Elaine Gaston.

Gaston, who recently launched her own debut poetry collection, The Lie of the Land, kicks the evening off. She describes Fyfe, who works as an arts organiser, as a 'tremendous advocate for other poets' and 'a multi-talented renaissance woman'.

Having previously won the Academi Cardiff International Poetry Prize, Fyfe is well-known for hosting the Coffee-House Poetry readings and workshops at London’s Troubadour, as well as being a poetry coordinator of the JHISS. A full-time resident in London, she does, however, spend some months every year in America, as well as in Cushendall, which filters into the poetry that she writes.

Fyfe subsequently begins her reading with a poignant poem entitled 'The Museum of Might-Have-Been'. 'I love the way that museums focus on the past,' she says. 'I wondered what a museum about the past you didn’t have would look like, particularly if it took you on a virtual tour.'

‘If you’re lucky and your number’s called

you can have any tour: Your Charmed Life,

Your Regrets, The Prodigal You…’

The next poem 'Where Are You Now, Amelia Earhart?' – is inspired by the famous woman pilot but also, says Fyfe, her father, who harboured a love for flying. The aviation theme carries on in 'The Red Aeroplane', which sees Fyfe look at the art of remembering and how particular objects and places can conjure up memories.

'There’s a part of Oxfordshire where you see a lot of small planes and hot air balloons,' she says. 'There’s also a museum which has a lot of information about the history of aviation, and there’s an enormous red aeroplane that’s entirely knitted. This poem is about what the redness of the aeroplane sparked off – it’s about how we remember.'

House of Small Absences is a collection where the poems seem threaded together by the shared element of contemplation of spaces past and present – and what this ultimately reveals to us. We listen next to 'Blue Skies, Nothing But Blue Skies', a poem inspired by the events of 9/11 in New York.

‘…What sky? they say, looking up. The one

that cracked wide one bright September,

while we were looking away…’

'St Paul’s Chapel is the oldest church in Manhattan,' Fyfe tells us. 'It became the place where the firefighters gathered after 9/11, as it’s near the World Trade Centre site. It’s full of memories and photographs and it’s a very moving place to be. I felt privileged when I was asked to read there back in April. Some of these poems are ghosted, in a way, by those awful events.'

Belfast also features in the collection however, with 'Splitting the Atomreflecting on life in the 70s and also, says Fyfe, on her mother living in the Short Strand for a while.

‘The blackness of damp, palleted stacks

waiting for the bonfires, the first lit spill.’

Fyfe weaves the past and the present into her poetry to great effect, recounting days from her childhood as well as her more recent past, which strikes a chord with many of her audience. She writes of 'Nights at the Memory Palace' when cinema played a central role in her young life, and of 'Kingfisher Days' of ‘late-setting evenings and exams finished’.

'I think the images that go deepest and last longest are those that go back to childhood,' she admits.

We learn afterwards that Fyfe, perhaps surprisingly to many, only came to writing poetry in her late thirties, after being inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poems as she taught the American poet’s work. Indeed, citing Dickinson as one of her favourite poets, Fyfe says her particular poetic style made her feel she could attempt to do the same. Although many of her favoured poets are American, she adds that Louis MacNeice and Seamus Heaney are two Irish poets she particularly admires.

'I think Seamus Heaney is a poet who makes you feel I could do that,' she says. 'His poems are just wonderfully accessible and strong and full of emotion, and they’re about the life that we recognise.'

As the evening draws to a close, the last poem we’re treated to is 'Headland House', which links in neatly with the cover art of Fyfe’s book and evokes the essence of this fifth collection.

'The image on the cover is of a child with a doll’s house, which looks like she’s leaving,' says Fyfe. 'I’ve always had the idea that we carry all the houses and rooms we’ve lived in around with us that we carry that with us like a house of small absences.'

‘There’s the same sycamore, the same

red door, unpainted, unlatched.

And your doll’s house is still in the attic.’

House of Small Absences is published by Seren Press. The John Hewitt International Summer School 2015 takes place from July 27-31 in Armagh, with a poetry reading from Anne-Marie Fyfe and Tess Gallagher on July 30.