Castaway poet Anne-Marie Fyfe chooses three poems to take to a desert island. She talks about the stylistic simplicity of Emily Dickinson, echoes of traumatic events from childhood and how her coastal journey around Britain, Ireland and North America’s north-eastern seaboard helped her chart her own family’s past
I’ve met, over the years, so many poems I’ve admired, wish I’d written (mild envy’s a great spur to creativity), and to which I feel the need to return again and again, either as inspiration for workshop poets, or simply to re-live the sheer joy of a well-crafted, resonant poem. So given that fondness, that need, for re-reading, it’s inevitable that the poems I’d take to sustain me on my ‘Desert Island’ wouldn’t simply be those of which I know I’ll never tire, but those that have been with me for a very long time, that seemed to connect with my life at different times and in not-so-obvious ways perhaps, and especially those that made me choose poetry in the first place.
That path, that putting a toe in the water, writer-wise, and the sending out of poems into the world, is such a tentative and awesome business initally that one has to be almost overwhelmed by certain other poets’ achievements to want to take the initial steps. And interestingly all three poems I’m choosing to accompany me turn out to be by North American poets, under whose collective spell I fell long before my poetry travels took me to the US each spring for the past ten years.
The first inkling that I would write poems came with getting to know Emily Dickinson’s work. In fact I taught the Ted Hughes-edited ‘Selected’ on a college syllabus some time before I’d shared my own early work with anyone. Always a joy to find that students took to the poems as much as I’d done. And I enjoyed seeing that familiar blue-patterned Faber paperback peeping out from so many jacket pockets on college corridors.
Funerals would pass by Emily’s window with their ‘dark parade’ just as they’d pass through Main Street, Cushendall, with shop blinds drawn when I was growing up
I delighted in the stylistic simplicity of Emily’s poems (though they’re far from simple once you get to know them); enjoyed the lines’ brevity, their thriftiness, loved the staccato music, the absence of titles (no upfront clues!). In the opening of my own first collection I chose an Emily epigraph, ‘The Soul has bandaged moments’, which revealed, I suppose, something of the connection I’d made from the start with her encounters with pain and her ability to convey life’s ‘slings and arrows’ in controlled but depth-charged short bursts.
I was captivated, too, by Dickinson’s easy closeness to ‘the other side’, by the effortless way in which she slips from present reality into the afterlife. So number one on my survivalist list would be ‘Because I could not stop for death’, a poem I’ve talked about on Radio 3’s The Essay programme, exploring parallels with my own growing up – small-town life, churchgoing, and a not-uncomfortable awareness of death-in-life: funerals would pass by Emily’s window with their ‘dark parade’ just as they’d pass through Main Street, Cushendall, with shop blinds drawn when I was growing up.
Because I could not stop for Death –
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
For Dickinson the departed remain living (if elsewhere) presences, a sense I share in my poem, ‘Afternoon on Central Plains Avenue’, where (though the ‘central plain’ comes from James Joyce’s, ‘The Dead’) the setting is a mid-Western neighbourhood, with parallels to Emily’s liminal world in which the undertaker is a familiar figure, ‘the man of the appalling trade’. It’s a poem where the ‘late lamented’ carry on in some curious other dimension:
In the suburbs of the lamented it is always late. Rumour
is rife. None has forgotten the rattle of loam on a lid.
The next ‘companion’ in my isolation is Robert Lowell’s ‘The Scream’, a poem evoking Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood, spent at her grandparents’ Great Village, Nova Scotia, home.
(Derived from Elizabeth Bishop’s story, “In the Village”)
A scream, the echo of a scream,
now only a thinning echo . . .
As a child in Nova Scotia,
I used to watch the sky,
Swiss sky, too blue, too dark.
A cow drooled green grass strings.
made cow flop, smack, smack, smack!
and tried to brush off its flies
on a lilac bush—all,
forever, at one fell swoop!
In the blacksmith’s shop,
the horseshoes sailed through the dark,
like bloody little moons,
red-hot, hissing, protesting,
as they drowned in the pan.
Back and away and back!
Mother kept coming and going—
with me, without me!
Mother’s dresses were black
or white, or black-and-white.
One day she changed to purple,
and left her mourning. At the fitting,
the dressmaker crawled on the floor,
eating pins, like Nebuchadnezzar
on his knees eating grass.
Drummers sometimes came
selling gilded red
and green books, unlovely books!
The people in the pictures
wore clothes like the purple dress.
Later, she gave the scream,
not even loud at first . . .
when she went away I thought
“But you don’t have to love everyone,
your heart won’t let you!”
A scream! But they are all gone,
those aunts and aunts, a grandfather,
a grandmother, my mother—
even her scream—too frail
for us to hear their voices long.
Lowell’s poem begins with the ‘scream’ and through a series of five-line stanzas tells much of the tragedy of Bishop’s early years. The poem returns, in the final two stanzas, to the shattering scream from Bishop’s mother that precipitated her incarceration in Mount Hope Asylum, in Halifax NS, where she would die some twenty years later, without ever seeing her daughter again.
A Scream, the echo of a scream,
now only a thinning echo…
I’m struck by how the ‘echo’, Lowell says, thins over the years. But we know, as poets, that echoes keep returning – echoes of traumatic events from childhood may become more distant over the years but they don’t disappear – and so often they demand to be written about in our poems.
One of my own poems, ‘Mount Carmel, Sunday’ is set in a hospital car park, where there’s an all-enveloping cry so powerful that it strikes a weatherboard church spire (like the steeple in Bishop’s story) in a neighbouring ‘province’, that last word chosen as homage to Bishop’s Nova Scotia. Eight months after Bishop was born in Boston, her father died and her mother moved ‘home’ to her own parents’ house on Cobequid Bay. There she succumbed to mental illness and hospitalisation, with Elizabeth brought up, in the end, by grandparents.
The crucial scream happened in the front bedroom of that grandparents’ house, and three years ago while writing ‘No Far Shore’, I stayed there, sleeping in Elizabeth’s sky-lighted bedroom with a strange awareness of the ‘scream’ that took place in the next room. I also visited Mount Hope, recalling my own ‘cry’ poem as I looked up to those tall, incarcerating windows.
Another poem ‘Pilgrimage’ (in my fourth collection) finds me revisiting, as an adult, the hospital where my mother spent time after her mental breakdown when I was a child, and finds that returning to a painful scene from the past actually brings comfort. Those visits brought me close to my mother again after her death from cancer, decades away from those early, quite different, hospitalisations, a consequence of her losing, like Bishop, her own mother in early childhood.
Like it’s a rerun of Sunday visits,
but once a year, late evening, summer usually.
The poem notes how time, for the poet returning to a place of personal pilgrimage, stands magically still:
The tower clock’s shown 1.30 for nineteen years.
My sense of my chosen ‘Desert Island’ poems is that they send out waves that ripple endlessly, crossing and criss-crossing with my own writing, as the questing in ‘No Far Shore’, a poem in my first collection, expanded five collections later into a poetry / prose / travel odyssey, No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters. The subtitle hints at how my planned coastal journey around Britain, Ireland and North America’s north-eastern seaboard (combined with a literary exploration of some of my favourite ‘coastal’ poets and authors) helped me chart much of my own family’s past – much that had driven my desire to write.
I like to think, with my love of lapping waves crashing on a shoreline, that, like Bishop, I’d weather island life pretty well, taking solace from Caliban’s ‘Be not afeard’
I undertook that expedition to lighthouses, sleepy harbours, rocky inlets and seaside boardwalks, equipped with the same spiral-bound yellow-paged notebooks and green Pentels, of which I’d have to somehow have an inexhaustible supply on my remote island.
Being born in the third-last house on a promontory with the sea on three sides created, I’m sure, my obsession with tidelines, horizons, and ‘what’s beyond’. That’s both geographically, and perhaps, like Emily, what’s beyond the present world. And it’s an obsession that’s complicated by the ever-present phenomenon of straight horizons on a curved planet, and by the fact that the Scottish highlands and islands, the ‘far shore’ I grew up watching, frequently vanished in an ethereal mist.
Islands, disappearing and otherwise, fascinated me with their cut-off-ness, their sense of isolation, the promise of solitude. And it was amazing to discover, as I followed Elizabeth Bishop’s trail to Great Village, to North Haven Island and to Cape Breton Island, that three of her ‘loved houses’ were coastal, weather-boarded houses within yards of the sea, just like Grandpa and Grandma Bulmers’ where she grew up. And I like to think, with my love of lapping waves crashing on a shoreline, that, like Bishop, I’d weather island life pretty well, taking solace from Caliban’s ‘Be not afeard’, from The Tempest, in the ‘Complete Shakespeare’ I’d be given.
My other book, my personal choice, would, unsurprisingly, be One Art, (titled for the poem with the ‘three loved houses’), the collected letters of Elizabeth Bishop: so many of them, naturally, written from those coastal houses, so many of which I’ve read, along with the poems, on the back porch of one or another clapboard, coastal, Bishop house.
It’s in ‘Crusoe in England’, giving voice to the first desert-islander, that Bishop most fully explores, in a long poem, her own feelings about islands, horizons, and the ocean’s persistence. But a favourite – and my third chosen poem – is ‘The Map’, whose penultimate thought is that ‘topography displays no favourites: North’s as near as West’: (‘North’ has been a constant in my own explorations).
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors? –
What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, have been with me more than any other poet’s perhaps, all along the way, and she wasn’t far from my mind when writing ‘Mapping the Unmappable’, a fragmented memory sequence in No Far Shore in which maps, those attempts to chart the unknown, played a major part, on early childhood car-journeys, in school days, in dreams. Maps, as a key to the future, and – I would discover in the end – as a guide to that uncharted past.
The territory is coastlines, islands, the liminal, headlands that reach out to the far deep, down to the fathomed, unfathomable sea floor.