Caught by the River

Archipelago: A Reader

Katherine Venn | 5th January 2022

Katherine Venn delves into an extensive volume celebrating the output of Archipelago magazine, which published poetry, prose, and visual art on the subject of islands, coasts and waterways until 2019.

Reading the dauntingly hefty Archipelago: A Reader it’s difficult not to rue the fact that this is my first encounter with the ‘occasional magazine of literature and art’ that ran for just twelve issues from 2007 to 2019; there’s the sense that I was entirely ignorant of a swell of writing that I’d have loved to have read, and supported, while it was current. Still, this is exactly what this monumental book is for: as the editors write, this book’s intent, almost six hundred pages of ‘an emerging body of coastal writing around the Irish and British Isles, and further beyond’, is ‘to mark the journal and its achievements and provide a frame for future readers’, offering ‘the pleasure of reading and the promise of looking’. 

The editors, Nicholas Allen and Fiona Stafford, have made a selection of key contributions from the journal’s twelve years, which takes the reader on a tour by turns bewitching and bracing of Ireland, Scotland, Other Worlds – a ‘gesture towards Archipelago’s consistent attempt to look beyond the known horizon’ – England and Wales. The richness of the material they have to drawn from is evident from its launch point: three instantly compelling poems, Derek Mahon’s ‘Scratch of a match / fierce in the dark’ (‘Insomnia’) and Bernard O’Donoghue’s ‘Ballybeg Priory’: 

Writing from Lisbon in 1705,
the Bishop of Cloyne lamented how
oxen and asses ruminate
under the shadows of the Austins’ church
at Ballybeg, the stone coffins of the monks
their watering troughs, and the tombs
where rest the bones of abbots are their byres.

– a fitting introduction to a project that sought to mark ‘the deep tides that make for history and place’. (And, for this reader at least, how pleasing to have poetry centred like this; so often it feels side-lined, as though it’s prose’s pretentious cousin.)

Tim Robinson’s bewitching ‘The Gods of the Neale’ takes us down little roads to odd monuments and their even more puzzling inscriptions, forgotten folktale and mistaken memories: a sketch that begins as though it feels it’ll turn into a ghost story and then, wonderfully, lives up to that premonition, with ‘birdless shrubbery, the ivy weaving its nets around the fallen masonry’ of an abandoned mansion, where time seems to have telescoped alarmingly and strangers recede into the distance. 

This eeriness transmutes instantly into the toughness of Deirdre Ní Chonghaile’s ‘Greim an Fhir Bháite’, one of the pieces (along with Sally Huband’s troubling ‘Black Stane’, an account of what was done to women accused of witchcraft) that lingered with me. We only learn a few pages in that the title translates as ‘the grip of the drowned man’; it’s a heartbreaking account of drownings and the devastating effect they have on small island communities. 

Artist and printmaker Norman Ackroyd was a regular contributor and his exquisite etchings are threaded through the first three sections of the book, along with ‘Spring flowers’ by Gail McNeillie and ‘Woodcut’ by Barbara Greg, and new hand-drawn maps by Malcolm Sparkes. Even in proof form Archipelago is a gorgeous artefact, one to dip in and out of according to whim or weather, or to doggedly chart the course that the book itself lays out. 

As a long-time fan of both her prose and her poetry I’m biased, but one of my favourite pieces was Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Well Doubtful’. It featured in the ninth edition of Archipelago but seemed as though it could have been written for the arse-end of November this year, charting an extended moment of being out of kilter with things, ‘edgy and listless at once, my thinking lazy and fragmented.’ On a walk Jamie plots a route out of the rut – ‘three things, near at hand’ – which are then forgotten, a confession I loved her for. But, later, a path never taken before delivers her to a sink in a field, the ‘well doubtful’ of the title – a well that the nineteenth-century architect J. Russell Walker couldn’t establish as being one of Scotland’s Holy Wells, associated with a particular saint or tradition of healing – and a thawing of language: 

Better. No longer out of kilter. Thinking again, but to no great conclusion. But then, I’m not sure if conclusions and judgements are the proper end of thought. Maybe a constant deer-like uncertainty carries the day. Better a well doubtful, than a striding emperor.

It’s perhaps inevitable that a venture such as Archipelago turns out to be very masculine; working in publishing myself I know just what an uphill slog it is to even steer towards gender parity in a sphere that has traditionally been male, which nature and travel writing inevitably has been, for all sorts of reasons. (And it’s this that makes Unbound’s Women on Nature, which I reviewed for this site earlier this year, both necessary and a profound delight.)

But despite this rather noticeable imbalance there’s a kind of austere generosity to Archipelago that hooked me. A quote from Keats in Mary Wellesley’s ‘Ailsa’, a piece about the ‘craggy ocean pyramid’ off the coast of Ayrshire, seemed to me a motto for the project as a whole. Wellesley weaves together – as does Archipelago – natural history with the personal, historical with the literary, as well as the stubborn insistence of place and its seeming imperviousness to the small human tides of history. At the beginning of a walking tour that took him within sight of Ailsa, Keats wrote ‘I shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials.’ And this is what it seems to me that Archipelago: A Reader absolutely does: in a gloriously sprawling, craggy, salt-spattered stomp of a read, it dares to add something genuinely new, genuinely beautiful, to the mass of beauty that surrounds us. 


‘Archipelago: A Reader’ is out now, published by Lilliput Press.