Planet: The Welsh Internationalist

Review of Anne-Marie Fyfe, House of Small Absences (Seren, 2015).

by Rosalind Hudis

in Planet, #222, Summer 2016

     Anne-Marie Fyfe’s fifth collection, House of Small Absences, unfolds a series of partial glimpses, like apertures, onto moments when the secure and the familiar are infused with the unknowable and unpredictable. We are in familiar Fyfian territory: hinterlands, both psychic and geographic, often shadowy and filled with unspecific threat. Like the four walls of a house, the four sections of the collection provide a sense of movement round a many-storeyed structure, full of windows which each reveal a small drama of unsettlement. They are peopled with characters — both living and ghostly — who negotiate these quirky intersections between the quotidian and its reversal, and with no map but their own, unstable, perception. The borders between reality and unreality are volatile. Memory may push into the present with a devastating surreality. Consciousness is a tremulous and risky business — what surrounds it even more so. The poems take us from physical height, the upper storeys — and indeed, stories — to the mid-levels and deep foundations. On the way the ‘house’ contracts and expands, can become a skyscraper or a hotel or the cockpit of a light aircraft. Locations, too, are mutable. We travel from Ireland to Ravensbrück to Bucharest to Paris to Manhattan with varied stops between. But although the space traversed is vast and nuanced, the same themes and tropes recur, like a dream obsession, taking one guise then another.
     
     Part of the (for this reviewer) almost compulsive excitement of this collection is that sense of ‘where next; what next? ‘ – rather akin to opening a surrealist’s advent calender. The irony, of course, is that the ‘where and what’ ultimately lie in what is absent, or hidden, beyond peripheral vision. The greater the intangibles, the more precise the images. In ‘The World From Small Windows’, seafarers’ widows in a ‘wrung-out seaport’ keep watch through dormer windows where
        
        seeing that volcanic outcrop rise and rise again
        past a fisheye porthole, a blizzarded,
        strobing moment, as the horizon
        lurches too low for sanctuary.

     
     ‘Strobing’ is a key image – lit up moments of clarity, or forewarning, alternating with darkness or murkiness, and creating intensely visual landscapes that have a film noir quality. In ‘Post-Industrial’, ‘Tom Burt’s diesel chainsaw catches/ a jagged glint of five o’clock streetlight/…All of us struggle in this low-lying toxic mist.’ This resembles the action of memory itself, which highlights moments on a dark surface and never alights on the same territory in quite the same way. In the opening poem, ‘The Red Airplane’, the narrator herself questions the validity of recollection, wondering if the memory of a plunging red aircraft is in fact a distortion of other memories, perhaps of a childhood ‘two-seater red pedal car’ or a toy seen on a stall. There are trails here to be followed. Frequently they lead to wreckage, or at best, a haunting, purgatorial, circularity. In the title piece, ‘House of Small Absences’, a ghost in a long-abandoned asylum repacks ‘nightly’ a going-home bag. In ‘The Outer Provinces of Sleep’ a state of insomnia prevails: ‘the same neutral shade from every hour travelled.’
     
     There are lighter moments – recollection of gloriously jeune aunts in ‘Neuchatel’ for example. Even in the darkest poems, the tone is conversational, comradely, matter-of-fact even, assimilating, at times, technical language with demotic; employing a continuous present, which lends a normalising veneer to the most surreal of circumstances. Language itself provides an illusion of security, but also stays close to the narrator’s perception, with its limitations and desire. We are always ‘in media res’ and in the dailiness of the workday or night-shift. There is a background sense of communities extending beyond the lone individual, like night-porters, or ‘pavement vendors’ – their functions part of the aura of ‘habitation’. Elsewhere we are with individuals sent out to the far peripheries, like astronauts, whose job it is to map unknown quantities. Again, this is echoed in language that utilises a hyper-visual precision to capture what is perceptually mutable and imprecise.
     
     The theme of plunging aircraft extends into a series of poems that evoke 9/11. A difficult subject to tackle, yet ‘The Window Washers’ must surely be one of the most moving. One feels that Fyfe’s own memories of a Northern Irish childhood, which inform several of the poems, lend resonance to her identification with events in NY. The sudden blasting apart of communities is within her experience, its ever-threat calibrated, like shadow, to the visual richness of this tightly meshed yet wide-panning collection that rewards the reading on every level.

Rosalind Hudis is a poet based near Tregaron in West Wales. Her publications include Terra Ignota (Rack Press 2014) and Tilt . She is an editor of The Lampeter Review and a previous holder of a Literature Wales New Writers Bursary.

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