God’s Little Artist

Poetry

God’s Little Artist is a biography in verse of Welsh painter Gwen John (1876 – 1939). As with many female painters of the time, John’s work was often overshadowed by that of her male contemporaries, especially her brother Augustus John. God’s Little Artist is a celebration of her passionate life and work, illustrated with precision, authenticity and the keen painterly eye of the poet, novelist and art critic Sue Hubbard. 

“In fifty years’ time,” wrote the painter Augustus John, “I shall be remembered only as the brother of Gwen”. Now, nearly 100 years after Gwen John’s death, her younger brother’s prescient words don’t seem so surprising as her work experiences a resurrection alongside other previously neglected female artists. 

God’s Little Artist begins with poems about Gwen John’s early life spent in Tenby with her brother Augustus, under the dour glare of their solicitor, organ-playing father. They detail her time in London studying at the Slade School of Art, and her eventual move to Paris where she modelled for other artists. It was here that she met Auguste Rodin, who was thirty-six years her senior and by whom she was captivated.  

Through close observation, and a landscape of colour, these poems bring John’s artistic eye to the fore. Minute details from a ‘pink china cup’ to the way a shawl ‘hangs in a cloud of indigo grief’ bring these poems to life. Her heart-breaking affair with Rodin is told through a series of wistful poems depicting the loneliness and depression she felt as he drifted away. 

In her introductory essay, Sue Hubbard discusses how the loss of Gwen John’s mother when she was a child could have impacted her later life. She was an intensely private person, with a tendency to become fixated on people and relationships, as shown in the two thousand letters she wrote to Rodin over thirteen years, and, later, in her intense commitment to her faith. For John, God and art became inextricably linked and saintliness an obsessive goal.   

Gradually, John’s descent into poor health seeps into the poems, culminating with her tragic premature death, hastened, perhaps, by the use of toxic lead white paint. Regardless of the tragedies and challenges she undoubtedly faced, Gwen John was a woman of great passion. With precision and authenticity, succinctness and warmth, Sue Hubbard animates her singular life.  

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Reading from God’s Little Artist, St Johns Waterloo, London, November 2023

Publication details

2023
Seren Books
42 pages
ISBN: 9781781727164

Eurydice

Poetry

Eurydice has now been given a permanent home, due to the redevelopment of the South Bank, in the crypt of St. John’s Church, Waterloo. Carved in PUrbeck stone by the artist Gary Breeze and supported by the developers H. B Reavis.

The Battle of Waterloo

Poetry as public art is a fragile thing. Vulnerable as a butterfly it needs protection in a largely hostile terrain. In 1999 the acclaimed architect, the late Bryan Avery of Avery Associates, was responsible for the new IMAX project at Waterloo. This regeneration of the South Bank involved input from the BFI and the Arts Council. I was lucky enough to be commissioned as the poet – no doubt because I’d recently been nominated as The Poetry Society’s Public Art Poet – to write a poem for the rather grungy underpass that leads from the main entrance at Waterloo station down and through to the IMAX. My brief was to make a cold, dirty, urine soaked tunnel feel a better experience for those who walked through it. A tall order for a small poem.

I came up with the idea of a modern Eurydice. Going down into the tunnel felt much like entering the underworld. I wanted to provide a consoling, redemptive experience. The tunnel is quite long and it takes a while to walk through it. Long enough for words to penetrate the emotions, to stimulate thought and provide solace. The final image is of coming out into the light from the dark underworld.

Working with Bryan Avery was inspirational. He found a team of graphic designers who cooperated with me to produce a text that was both atavistic and ancient, modern and relevant. There was a small unveiling in front of the media and those for whom the tunnel was often home. The response was extremely positive. And that, I thought, was that.

Then in 2010, just by chance, I was alerted to the fact that the tunnel was being painted in blue and that the poem was being erased. No consultation had been made with me, the architects or any of the sponsors. Network Rail claimed they were ‘tidying it up’. My then poetry publisher, Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt, started a FB campaign and, much to my surprise, tributes and money poured in from the public. There was a huge press flurry with articles, in among other places, the Evening Standard and the Guardian. For some obscure reason I was even interviewed by Canadian Radio. A software firm, Neural Technologies, kindly put up the bulk of the money. A wonderful lawyer put herself forward on FB to work pro bono. The poem was restored by James Salisbury, a leading letter artist at the City and Guilds London art school. Eurydice is one of the largest pieces of text art in the city and had, before it was painted blue, just before been listed by Time Out as one of London’s best pieces of secret art.

Now there is a danger it could happen again. Early the other morning I received a text form my daughter with a photo of men in Bob the Builder hats plastering the wall. No one had consulted me. No one had informed me. I quite understand that these tunnels need maintenance and that they are the property of Network Rail. But they don’t own the poem. The contract says they should keep it in good order.

I tried to contact the person I’d dealt with in 2010. To no avail. So took to Twitter, not a social platform I normally use, except to post new projects. I soon found myself in a something of a Twitter storm. Peter Hendy, the Chairman of Network Rail, introduced himself on there for the first time.

Contrary to what’s being implied I’m not some publicity crazed poet. The poem exists in printed form in my second collection. This battle is about the fragility of public art in an urban space. The need to protect it in places where it provides succour and comfort in a gritty alien landscape. I’ve been incredibly moved over the years by the personal messages I’ve received from those who’ve come across the poem: some tragic, some truly uplifting. And that is the point. As artists and poets we put things out into the public domain and never know how others are going to receive them, what effect they might have. It’s for this reason that the Waterloo poem and other public art works are so important, so worth preserving.

And the purpose of this piece? To show that public art is a fragile thing, easily broken on the wheel of corporate bureaucracy. Sadly from the start, when I was working with Bryan, Network Rail have treated the project as an irritant, rather than being the proud custodians of a unique gift. This time around I hope they will show their attitude has changed. That they understand a small thing such as a poem can enter the city’s psyche and that they’ll take on the stewardship of this loved art work, which no longer belongs to me but to London.

Eurydice

I am not afraid as I descend,
step by step, leaving behind the salt wind
blowing up the corrugated river,

the damp city streets, their sodium glare
of rush-hour headlights pitted with pearls of rain;
for my eyes still reflect the half remembered moon.

Already your face recedes beneath the station clock,
a damp smudge among the shadows
mirrored in the train’s wet glass,

will you forget me? Steel tracks lead you out
past cranes and crematoria,
boat yards and bike sheds, ruby shards

of roman glass and wolf-bone mummified in mud,
the rows of curtained windows like eyelids
heavy with sleep, to the city’s green edge.

Now I stop my ears with wax, hold fast
the memory of the song you once whispered in my ear.
Its echoes tangle like briars in my thick hair.

You turned to look.
Second fly past like birds.
My hands grow cold. I am ice and cloud.

This path unravels.
Deep in hidden rooms filled with dust
and sour night-breath the lost city is sleeping.

Above the hurt sky is weeping,
soaked nightingales have ceased to sing.
Dusk has come early. I am drowning in blue.

I dream of a green garden
where the sun feathers my face
like your once eager kiss.

Soon, soon I will climb
from this blackened earth
into the diffident light.

First published in Ghost Station (Salt Publishing), 2004

Sue Hubbard was commissioned to write this poem by the Arts Council and British Film Institute for the Waterloo underpass leading to the IMAX cinema in London.

See also Hubbard’s thoughts on the links between poetry and the visual arts.

Eurydice, London’s largest public art poem, Imax Underpass, Waterloo

Campaign to save Eurydice

The Guardian – Save a great poetry landmark
The Guardian – Waterloo underpass poem to be restored
Art Daily
3 Quarks Daily
Wall Street Journal



Radium Dreams

2023

Poetry

‘I’ve never seen a book as impeccably produced as Radium Dreams – exquisite poems by Sue Hubbard matched by superb artwork by Eileen Cooper – a tribute to the life and work of Marie Curie, published by the Women’s Art Collection. Sue retells Marie Curie’s life in beautifully crafted spare poems, it’s such a moving and inspiring story, this woman who achieved so much despite the odds against her, and is buried in a lead coffin in the Pantheon in Paris because she is still radioactive. What a metaphor.’
Rosie Jackson – poet

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‘Radium Dreams at Murray Edwards College: Murray Edwards College’s latest exhibition is a stunning homage to the physicist Marie Curie featuring poetry by Sue Hubbard and artwork by Eileen Cooper. The exhibition, which opened 2 March and will be running until 3 September 2023, explores the idea of creative support, examining the relationship between Curie and her sister, and Curie and her husband. The exhibition works perfectly alongside “The Women’s Art Collection”, Murray Edwards’ long standing exhibition of women’s artwork, which celebrates women in the world of art and can be found interspersed throughout the hallways of the College.’
VARSITY

‘Marie’s story is by turns tragic and uplifting and has much to tell young women now. It is elucidated beautifully in this unique collaboration between two leading women in the arts today.’
Dorothy Byrne, President, Murray Edwards College

Patricia McCarthy on Radium Dreams
Radium Dreams exhibition information – Murray Edwards College

Sue Hubbard on Radium Dreams

I have long been interested in the lives of exceptional women. Those who make art or write against the odds, who have to juggle childcare, prevailing misogyny and, in many cases, poverty to fulfil their dreams and potential. Many creative and academic women would still recognise these hurdles today. But how much more difficult was it for a woman living at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries? In my novel, Girl in White, I explore these issues through the life of the young German Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker. Her desire to break free from her bourgeois Teutonic upbringing, to balance a domestic life in rural Germany with periods of being a (female) artist without means, in fin de siècle Paris. Many of the same problems were faced by the Welsh painter, Gwen John, whose singular life I have written about in my new series of poems, God’s Little Artist, published later this year.

As an art critic I naturally feel at home in the visual world. I wanted to challenge the use of familiar painterly language by borrowing that of science. This led to a series of poems on the remarkable life of the greatest female scientist, Marie Curie. Ever keen that poetry should escape the confines of the white page and converse with other art forms, I invited the artist Eileen Cooper, RA, whom I’ve known and written about for some thirty years, to make work alongside mine. Her fearless, muscular female images seemed just what was needed to complement my poems. Her work does not ‘illustrate’ the poems but rather adds another dimension. Slowly, I began to share the poems and she responded by experimenting with a series of paintings, drawings and collages. This produced the compelling images that form, along with the poems, the exhibition Radium Dreams – supported by The Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College Cambridge, for International Women’s Day.

A Helping Hand, 2022. Charcoal, pastel

Marie Curie was born Manya Salomea Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, at a time when Poland was under the grip of Tsarist Russian rule, and the Polish language outlawed. The daughter of an impoverished secondary school teacher, hers was, nevertheless, a household where education was taken very seriously. Radium Dreams explores the creative support between Marie and her sister Bronislawa, who was to become a doctor in Paris, and between Marie, as she started to call herself in France, and her beloved husband, Pierre Curie, Professor of Physics, whom she met whilst studying physics and mathematical science at the Sorbonne. Their early, joint research often had to be performed in poor laboratory conditions. At the same time both were forced to make ends meet with heavy teaching loads to support their two young daughters. The discovery by Henri Becquerel, in 1896, of radioactivity led to their isolation of polonium, named after the country of Marie’s birth, and of radium. For this they were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize in 1903. Marie would later go on to be sole winner of the 1911 Prize for Chemistry. The first woman to win a Nobel prize, and the only one to do so twice.

Radium Dreams showcases the moments of struggle, tenderness and joy that thread though Marie’s early life in Poland: visiting her grandmother’s house, taking sleigh rides though the deep snow and falling in love for the first time. As well as the hard graft she had to endure as a governess before being able, with the support of her sister, to go to Paris to study. It also covers her time at the Sorbonne and the long hours in the laboratory stirring noxious pitchblende, a mineral high in radio activity.

With the tragic and untimely death of Pierre in a carriage accident, Marie was vilified for her affair with his pupil the younger scientist Paul Langevin. Even so, she still managed to take over her husband’s university post. During the First World War she put her research on hold to create Les Petites Curies, mobile x-ray machines that she and her daughter took to the front. But her work with radium would slowly kill her. When she died, she was so radioactive that she had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin.

Radium Dreams reflects a collaboration between women: a female poet and female artist celebrating the life of the greatest ever female scientist at an all-women’s college for International Women’s Day. Marie Curie was not only a brilliant scientist but a daughter, sister, mother, wife and lover. Radium Dreams illustrates not only her inquisitive mind and dedication to the intellectual questions posed by her line of scientific enquiry, but also throws empathetic light on her vulnerabilities, passions and frailties as a woman who struggled against the odds to make a ground-breaking contribution to science and secure her place in history.

Radium Dreams, 2022. Collage, drawing, ink, pastel, screenprint.

Publication details

Poems by Sue Hubbard, drawings by Eileen Cooper
2023
Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

Swimming to Albania

2021

Poetry

‘I read Sue Hubbard’s anthology of poems Swimming to Albania in one sitting yesterday and I think them wonderful. Luminous, rapturous and melancholy, full of vivid passionate description, boldly and bravely self-revelatory, offering raw melancholy and those so vital moments of self-acceptance, compassion and universal truth.

There are echoes of TS Eliot in the acknowledgement that humankind cannot bear very much reality. But The counterbalance is the sense of the author finding grace and possibility in Keats’s Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness.

But most of all there is Sue’s ecstatic descriptions of field, forest,beach and sky interwoven with an intensely crafted understanding of human emotions that will chime with many of us.’
Angela Neustatter, ex-Guardian journalist

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3 Quarks Daily – A Review of Sue Hubbard’s Fourth Poetry Collection Swimming to Albania

‘Swimming to Albania is Sue Hubbard’s fourth collection of poems. The opening poem Lost in Space teases out the preoccupations of the collection – longing, desire and loss – in its presentation of the poet as a child ‘lost’ and dreaming of ‘a boat that will take her home.’

More poems about childhood follow and the sense of being lost is reinforced in the tentative title of ‘1955, perhaps?’ and in the opening of Snow where the poet is ‘lost in an infinity of misted mirrors.’ The words ‘loss’ and ‘lost’ reverberate through the poems in the first of the three sections of the collection, along with ‘absence’ and ‘space.’ This emptiness is a space which cannot be filled because ‘the past is another country / one I barely remember’ and ‘the dead [are] impervious to our childhood questions.’ The truth is ‘a void’ they cannot fill, leaving the poet haunted by ‘all that was never said.’ 

From here, the poet invites the reader to accompany her on a journey in poems which take her from the west coast of Ireland by way of Lisbon, Siena and Greece, to Albania. It soon becomes clear that this journeying is loaded with metaphorical significance: it is a journey into the poet’s past, a voyage of self-discovery, and an Odyssean search for an idealised home where the self is known – a safe place on the other side of grief, a state of reconciliation, redemption, and understanding.

Between the coastal places of the opening and closing poems at either end of the journey, further images of water function as metaphors of psychoanalytic exploration – as the poet dives into deep dark places of self. The Albania which the poet is swimming towards in the title of the collection, and the penultimate poem, is the once-forbidden place that even now is difficult to reach.’
Jane Simmons

You can read more about Swimming to Albania by Sue Hubbard on Creative Writing at Leicester here.

In ‘Those Far Blue Hills’, Sue Hubbard self-identifies as ‘a storyteller / of absence and loss’. Appropriate then, to start with an image of what is largely absent from her poems. In ‘Barreiro’, a rundown town in Portugal is described: its people, graffiti, ‘opera-set houses’ and ‘wrecked staircases’. But what stands out is a young mother whose t-shirt brags in English: ‘I’m exactly where I need to be’. Of all the possible things to notice, this impacts this poet because her writing contrasts such assurance and existential confidence: Hubbard’s focus is on absence, not presence, longing, not fulfilment, what-might-have-been rather than what is (though what is, is often vividly and eloquently portrayed). There is a clear line to be drawn to this new work from Hubbard’s second collection, Ghost Station (2004), with its epigraph from Fernando Pessoa: ‘Some have a great dream in life and fall short of it’.

Growing up in the stifling 1950s, Hubbard’s poems of childhood are full of enjoyable period details. Two sisters, in a London park, are dressed in ‘camel coats / with beaver collars’ (‘1955, perhaps?’). A mother, in a photograph, wears ‘summer shorts’ and sports her ‘Hedy Lamarr hair’ (‘June’). A girl ‘dunk[s] net petticoats into sugar solution // to froth out the nylon frills / of [her] first dance dress’ (‘Snow’). But possessions, beloved of the middle classes, ‘cannot take [anyone] in their arms’ (‘Inheritance’) and family relationships, particularly with the young girl’s father, are summed up in the collection of hats left hanging in the tallboy after his death: ‘there’s silence everywhere’ (‘Hats’). Such an absence of contact and fulfilment seems to spill over into later life, throughout which – and this is the sort of naked declaration Hubbard excels at – the one thing that has always mattered is ‘to wake / mirrored in another’s gaze: / its unplumbed depths’ (‘one thing’). The directness and (even) ferocity of such a statement convinces, though in the aftermath one might want to scrutinise the assumptions, ironies, even the language of it.

An untypical dramatic monologue, ‘Earth-Dreams’, voices a mermaid’s yearning for life on land and the love of a human: ‘Over and over I’ve tried to imagine // a need for balance, that slow steadying of the inner ear, / metatarsals pushing into solid ground’. She pictures the absent love object, but wakes each morning only to water, where ‘there is only silence’. Taking up the watery imagery, the lonely narrator of ‘Lake’ finds its allure too powerful. Despite the business (above all the business of the poet, a business Hubbard pursues so well) of ‘being / in this moment and this following every / tilt and shift of the world’, the temptation to immerse herself is irresistible. Ironically providing stunning details of her descent, she dives, suicidally, ‘till I can no longer go on holding my breath’.

Perhaps travel promises escape from the self’s perceived failings, felt absence and self-consciousness? The final section of Swimming to Albania is rich in touristic details of southern Europe, but Hubbard knows ‘all travel / is a form of return’ (‘Those Far Blue Hills’) and even in Italy, the evening walk must be taken ‘in arm with what might have been’ (‘Lost’). Pessoa and the city of Lisbon still remain touchstones for Hubbard. In ‘Remembering Pessoa’, she imagines adopting the Portuguese poet’s mode of life (attracted perhaps to his continual re-invention of himself in his proliferating heteronyms). The modal verbs of imagined possibility structure this poem – the disengaged life of the flâneuse, the temptations of love – but in the end:

My head aches because
my heart aches, so I write
and write to give meaning
to what isn’t there.

Hubbard’s work has a relatively narrow range, her palette of forms and tones likewise. But we do not (if we have any sense) want Wordsworth to show more knowledge of the streets, ask Larkin to cheer up a bit, insist Lowell should stop talking about himself. There is a type of art that confidently positions itself early and continues to work that seam.
Martyn Crucefix, ACUMEN

On reading Sue Hubbard’s collection Swimming to Albania, the concept that comes to mind is saudade. A. F. G. Bell writes in his study In Portugal, published in 1912: ‘The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future.’

Indeed, we may feel a stronger form of saudade towards people and things we have lost: old habits and sayings; lost lovers; a faraway place where we grew up; loved ones who have died; and faded, though treasured memories of youth. Although it relates to feelings of melancholy and fond memories of what we have lost, it can also be characterised by a sadness coupled with a paradoxical joy emerging from the acceptance of fate and the hope of recovering or replacing what is lost.

In Sue Hubbard’s collection Swimming to Albania, we encounter this longing. The first poem, ‘Lost in Space,’ evokes this vividly with the image of the poet’s childhood room:

Somewhere amid black holes
and the absorption of light
beyond the mass of Milky Way
there’s a distant room:
the walls covered with faded flowers,
a meadow of flecked sunlight,
where a child lies beneath
a bleached quilt in a narrow bed
dreaming of a boat
with a single blue sail,
a boat that will take her home.

In ‘1955, perhaps’, Hubbard offers an image of herself and her sister as children feeding the ducks in a London park. In compiling a collection the order in which poems are placed is crucial. This evocation of longing for a lost past is powerfully followed by ‘June,’ which begins with memories evoked by a photograph of her and her sister on the Côte d’Azur:

You stand in your scuffed Box Brownie square,
pretty and slim in your summer shorts,
your Hedy Lamarr hair, in front of a stage-left
parasol somewhere on the Côte d’Azur

But then this saudade for a lost past turns into a far darker longing for a lost sister:

Years later as you lie trying to catch
your shallow breath in the summer heat,
the same month as your name,
the same month as your birth,
I sit beside your cot holding
your frail hand in mine—
like a child in danger of getting lost—
wanting to tell you: this is who I am,
this has been the story,
that there are no drafts,
no proofs to be corrected,
that we don’t get to write it again.

In ‘Churchyard,’ Sue Hubbard evokes another bereavement, describing the wonderfully surreal moment at which the local vicar empties the poet’s father’s ashes into a newly dug hole in the earth:

It’s the plastic Evian bottle
that throws me, with which
she rinses the caddy,
swirling round the water
to make sure she has every
last speck, every particle
of ash that was you.

The following section of the collection describes a different sort of saudade, a powerful mourning for lost love or lost youth. In ‘another side of desire’, the poet evokes the nostalgia of remembered passion:

in contrast to the loss of small things
the conspiracy of 2
that sets the world on fire
the urgency of that midnight kiss
the tangled sheets of desire
those loves that do not appear
the l o n g i n g
for what might have been
in a space without gravity
there’s no weight
so I listen for the skylark
singing in the high wild blue.

In ‘face,’ the poet offers the reader an unflinching and relentless perspective on lost youth:

why is she stitching her skin
into neat pleats and pouches to tuck
discreetly behind her ears so no one
can see her thin mouth sutured with fear
the smell of age on her like the stinking breath
of a dog the pelt between her crotch
going bald
dis-gust-ing
who would want to touch something
so dirty so broken puddle their fingers
in those dried up holes

Critic Martyn Crucifix has made the very perspicacious observation that in Hubbard’s poems one encounters rage against loss, along with the paradoxical desire to recover at least a measure of order and redemption. He adds, ‘…in the act of each poem’s creation, Hubbard triumphantly snatches positive value from the very precision and courage with which she renders disillusionment.’

This is particularly evident in the poems in the third section, in which we encounter the image of the poetic subject as woman travelling alone in foreign climes, far from familiar scenarios and terms of reference. In the page introducing this third section, Hubbard inserts a quotation from Henry David Thoreau: ‘…not until we have lost the world do we find ourselves, and realise where we are.’ In ‘Lost’, as she wanders through the streets of Siena,

‘…desire fills the empty spaces. There’s nowhere
to get to anymore, so in arm with what might have been,

you make your passegiata, past courtyards and shuttered windows,
with no way of knowing which direction points home.’

In the down-at-heel Portuguese town of Barreiro, the poet experiences a certain saudade for past beauty:

‘Villages die. Towns die. History
is never satisfied. And the similarity
between decay and earthquakes?

The beauty of ruins.’

But paradoxically, it is in solitude that we are able to find or construct our most real selves. As Hubbard points out in ‘Travelling Alone,’

‘How did I get from there to here?
What route lead me in search
of a heart to call my own?
(…) Voices I don’t understand blow in
through the open window.
I pick up my pen and begin to write
unpacking these words to discover
what I’ve become.’

In the words of Fernando Pessoa, the poet of saudade, ‘tudo vale a pena/quando a alma não é pequena,’ roughly translated, ‘All is worthwhile when the soul is not small.’ Sue Hubbard’s Swimming to Albania is an extraordinary achievement of poetic craft, forging a self characterised by depth of soul, unflinching courage, and literary sensibility.
Susan Castillo Street, Ink Sweat and Tears

Click for interviews…

Sue Hubbard presents a programme focused on her fourth poetry collection, Swimming to Albania on Clear Spot, Resonance FM:

Book launch and reading at Vout-O-Reenees:

Introduced by poet and sculptor Stephen Duncan:

Reading from Swimming to Albania at Salmon Bookshop, Ennistymon, Co Clare:

Publication details

2021
Salmon Poetry
76 pages
ISBN: 9781912561063

The Forgetting and Remembering of Air

2013

Poetry

‘There is nothing safely aesthetic about these poems, beautifully observed though they frequently are. The watching intelligence reaches so far into the places, situations or works of art that it nearly forgets itself, and maybe desires to. The central block of poems on the tragic deaths of women signal that danger, and make it all the more of an achievement when the closing poems journey to the edge of the Atlantic, almost beyond comfort or habitable land, and come back with a final, hard-won ‘…yes’’
Philip Gross

‘There are two kinds of islands’ begins the poem, Dreaming of Islands, ‘those born of erasure and fracture’. From the ‘river’s dark skin’ at Bow Creek to Yves Klein, from St Ives to Prussian Blue; from Cliff and Elvis to Charing Cross, from Dora Carrington to Diane Arbus, Sue Hubbard locates places and people with a lyrical precision of voice, following those erasures and fractures to a ‘fragile yes’. The poems surge with a natural force breathing the world ‘into and out of itself’. A mixture of nature and art, this is an impressive book.
George Szirtes

‘Whether describing the Thames estuary or the remote west coast of Ireland, Sue Hubbard pays close and exact attention to the elemental world and the vulnerability of the human within it. These moving poems face the “anthracite dark” outside and inside us, and emerge renewed by it, like prayers “written on the waves”.’
Pascale Petit

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‘The cover image of The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, Sue Hubbard’s third book of poems, is one of devastation. An immense edifice, a once imposing mansion, stands, like Manderley, razed to the ground. Only its façade remains, the rest blown through, empty. The landscape is bare, treeless, against a Titian sky. A turquoise blue. A promise of blue.

The collection is in three parts. Part one, A Meaningful Speech, is about voices: the undeclared, imagined voices of the slipware vessel in ‘Conversation with a Bowl’; the artist’s model in ‘Naked Portrait 1972-3’, ‘After Lucian Freud’; the silent daughter in ‘Figs’, contrasting with the juddered puttering of sounds in ‘Radio Days’. Part two, Over the Rainbow, begins with ‘The Fall’, the story of a suicide. Described with the luminescent graphicness of a Jane Campion film, Margaret Moyes lies ‘amid the smashed lilac and fallen birdcage, [her] spine snapped like a twig’. Her descent, her death, with her ‘black silks billowing’, is a thing of beauty, as are the deaths of the other notorious characters who populate this second section. Dora Carrington in ‘Dora’, Eva Braun in ‘Eva’, Marilyn Monroe in ‘Eve Arnold Remembers’, Assia Hughes in ‘Note for Ted’, Diane Arbus in ‘Last Supper, After Diane Arbus’ and Isabella Blow in ‘Blow by Blow for Isabella Blow’. Such a relentless, exquisite falling, one after another – begun with Yves Klein’s ‘stepping out from that high window’ in ‘Klein’s Blue’ and ending with the ‘flash, the muffled boom’ of the suicide bomber in ‘Black Widow’. Part three, The Idea of Islands, represents a stripping down of life’s rich promise – the Black Widow’s reward of ‘cool gardens’ lies ravaged and desolate. The poet is exposed, like Mary Oliver in ‘The Journey’, to ‘the wild night and the road full of fallen branches’, as she strides ‘deeper and deeper’ into the world, the inner world of self – a self that she has come to realise has ‘more loving within than those who are easily loved.’

Hubbard, a poet envious of the artist, tries ‘to write a line of colour’. And she does, masterfully. Her poems are a shock of colour – zinging and connecting with hue. The ‘endless’ ultramarine of ‘Klein’s Blue’, flooding into the ‘welkin hyacinth, azure and Prussian blue’ of ‘White Canvas’. The yellow of the marigold gloves in ‘Keeping Hens’, finding the yellow in the Chinese dressing gown ‘hanging limp upon the door’ in ‘Dora’, the infirmary green of the model’s skin in ‘Naked Portrait 1972-3’, remembered in ‘the glutinous green mucus in the cold bathroom sink’ in ‘Bronchitis’. Colour and deftly chosen detail stands us still, picking out the moment like an Edmund Dulac illustration in a children’s book, resonant with bejewellled exquisiteness. And yet there is horror too at noticing, amid the destruction, the Mayflower cooker and the smell of Vosene in ‘Note for Ted’, the Ladybird Airtex vest in ‘Nits’ and the Ferragamo shoes in ‘Eva’. Repetition sets the tone, tells and moves the story on through its repeated saying – the unremitting use of words like ‘water’, ‘rain’, ‘mist’, ‘wind’, ‘ink’, ‘window’, ‘home’ creating an impasto of sensation that drums at our feelings like storm-rain on a pane.

The Forgetting and Remembering of Air is a stunning piece of work – an achingly moving narrative of love for a child, parent, sibling, lover or icon. In these poems Hubbard is travelling through love and its possibilities of home, moving fast towards the acceptance of the disappointment, the ruin of it, like that great house of the cover. ‘The Idea of Islands’ finds her acquiescent to the dark – the ‘forgetting’. In these final poems the voice – ‘I’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ – holds us rapt. The promise of blue, the previous sumptuous oozing of colour, of life, has gone; there is just the ‘green fuse, the quiet heart beating’. Hubbard drags her nascent grief, like Robert Bly’s black bag, through the body of all these poems – a heavy journeying through which she ‘had hoped for miracles’ and the ‘merging of I with you’ but finds only a ‘returning again and again’ that is ‘always indifferent’.

‘…Yes’, the final poem in the collection, is the same word that greeted John Lennon in November 1966 as he climbed that ladder in the Indica Gallery. Before doing so he had been handed a card that simply read, ‘breathe’. Hubbard, with such tender self-compassion, shows how pain, fear and rejection of life make us hold our breath. And that to breathe, to remember air, is to will, to contract oneself to life, to yield to that ‘fragile… yes’.’
Ellen Bell, New Welsh Review, Issue 101

By contrast, The Forgetting and Remembering of Air finds Sue Hubbard troubled by the difficulty of trying to convey the physical details of a landscape exactly. In ‘White Canvas’, a poem set at Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, she describes:

Such blue that only a painter’s
pigment can achieve a simile.
I try to write a line of colour,
but words are a string of biro scrawls
without air or light or hue…

This is a highly visual collection, painterly in its sensibility. ‘Meeting’ captures ‘that moment when the sun / breaks through to illuminate the crumbling mortar’ of a garden wall, a scene both fragile and temporarily complete. In ‘Songs of Andalucia’, lightning briefly silhouettes a wrecked building, a radio pylon and a dirt track, and the narrator reflects ‘there must be something to be learnt / from watching’. Hubbard sees correspondences of form everywhere. In ‘Nits’, a basin left ‘stippled with black stubble’ brings back the memory of a young boy having his head combed for nits, ‘the sink filling with a shower / of snowy eggs and broken black bodies’. The act of looking leaves behind a longing for what can’t be visualized. In ‘Conversation With a Bowl’, the narrator laments ‘I cannot exhaust you simply / by looking, / cannot reach the secret interior of your dense clay body…’. Elsewhere, in ‘A Meaningful Speech’, Hubbard asks ‘What do things know?’ and imagines how objects might bear traces of their histories. The poems in this collection are often preoccupied by what cannot be seen or what is no longer seen. In ‘The Idea of Islands’, form is imagined even when it’s invisible:

I know that out there
there is not nothing
for my mind recalls the idea of islands…

Meanwhile, the enigmatic poem ‘Smokers’ considers the forgotten art of smoking indoors (‘you hardly ever see them now, banned from every pub and bar…’) before moving towards a tender, half-buried memory of the narrator watching her father smoke a pipe as in the gloaming of that smoke-filled gloom, I longed to be what I could never be, a light between despair and luminosity: his chosen girl – and how the yearning only made the room feel darker.

Hiraeth at work again, tantalizing, precise in its imprecision. It’s in this territory – between landscapes, between languages – that poetry seems to happen.
Helen Mort

‘In this, her third collection, Sue Hubbard meditates on art and the natural world. By going to the extreme edge of western Ireland, to a Cornish beach, to the rim of the Solway Firth and the mouth of the Thames she explores, in these disarmingly direct and evocative poems, in a language that is muscular and lyrical, painterly yet spare, the illusion of romantic love and the letting go of childhood grief. In the central section, based on paintings by the artist Rachel Howard, she examines the psychology of different women in extremis.

Suicide is known in all human societies. For Freud, it was one possible outcome of severe manic depression, of being caught between feelings of intense love and hate or in an unresolved oedipal conflict. The sociologist, Durkheim, claimed it was the result of anomie – the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community – which causes feelings of powerlessness, lack of meaning and isolation.

For women, a sense of self-worth is still largely based on appearance, youth and relationships. Yet the lives of many are dominated by the fear of rape, unwanted pregnancy, male violence, poverty and ageing. While some women experience a fundamental lack of autonomy and self-determination, others are lambasted as ‘over achievers’, who are assumed to be ‘unfeminine’ ‘difficult’ or ‘feisty’. For the creative woman – even in this post-feminist age – there is still a constant pull between the demands of motherhood and creativity, along with the sneaky, guilty belief that she does not have the right to pursue her own vision. The reasons for suicide are, nevertheless, varied: depression, the loss of a relationship, shame, a sense of failure and despair, all play their parts.

Celebrities live under a particular set of pressure-cooker circumstances. Often an innate low self-esteem has been bolstered by a life-style full of unrealistic expectation and false notions of perfection. Those whose careers are failing or who have become enmeshed in scandal are often forced to play out their battles with loneliness, depression, alcohol and drugs in the public domain.

Rachel Howard’s ”Suicide Paintings” were first shown at the Bohen Foundation in New York, in 2007, and exhibited at Haunch of Venison, London in 2008. The series evolved after an acquaintance of Howard’s committed suicide. He was discovered, not in the imagined drama, ‘swinging from the rafters’, but kneeling in a pose almost of prayer. It was this particular detail that Howard found most disturbing, and which led her to create the series, coupled with the fact that for her, suicide is one of the last taboos. The source material came from trawling through forensic magazines and internet sites. These images were then abstracted from their contexts within Howard’s rapidly executed line drawings.

In response to these the award-winning poet, novelist and art critic, Sue Hubbard, who has written about Howard’s art work, has created a series of poems that sit alongside the images in an emotional and visual dialogue, and illuminate the deaths of women as various as Diane Arbus, Judy Garland, Dora Carrington and a female suicide bomber. Taken from her newly published third collection, The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, these disarmingly, direct and evocative poems explore, in a language that is muscular and lyrical, painterly yet spare, the psychology of these very different women in extremis.

This brave, bold, collaboration between two women artists, each highly regarded in her own field, demonstrates that there is still something important to say about the poignancy and tragedy of the human condition.’
Wall Street International Magazine

‘In this third full-length collection, we are made to feel the elemental forces of weather, the ‘exhalation of tides’, the rhythms of language searching to reach beyond its limits in the need to apprehend

a landscape of shadowed voices,
beating wings and tumbling streams
where we’re not so estranged
from the language of stars.” Dreaming of Islands

Whether the poems evoke the isolation of the human and the harsh but redemptive power of landscape, the attempt to come to terms with the ravages to self, the struggle to survive and to continue to love, there is an acute sense of journeying to the edge of the ‘habitable world’ in order to return, better able to live.

In ‘Love in Whitstable,’ dedicated to a grandson, Louie, Hubbard writes,

“Believe me, if I could, I’d
make a deal
with that God
I hardly believe in,
just to show you what
it takes to be here.”

Alongside an unswerving urgency, this work is peppered with felicitous detail and wry tenderness:

“the homely brown cow
with the film-star fringe” (A Meaningful speech)

‘your small body shivering
inside your Ladybird airtex vest,
towel draped prize-fighter style
around your shoulders,’ (Nits)

In a beautifully atmospheric backward glance, Hubbard gives us:

“as in the gloaming
of that smoke-filled gloom, I longed
to become what I could never be,
a light between despair and
luminosity:” Smokers

Hubbard’s painterly eye has a natural affinity for the page which she would imbue with the sensual layerings of a visual medium:

“I try to write a line of colours,
but words are a string of biro scrawls
without air or light or hue.” White Canvas

But neither does she shy away from the predatory nature of art, the colonising role of the artist, such as in Blood Paintings, after Andy Goldsworthy:

“he stuffed the sac of its stomach
with blood and snow,
hanging it by its hind legs
from a hook in the Dutch interior
of the cold pantry.”

A much respected art critic, Hubbard uses her knowledge and understanding
of this medium to powerful effect.

In the section, Over The Rainbow, the poet explores, with a deft touch, a precise working of the image, representations of women in art and history; the destructive, sometimes violent force of love and sex, rigidly defined and culturally restrictive:

“alone amid the long
shadows of the bunker,
gave me
my wedding gift, the thin glass vial
placed like a fresh-water
pearl in
my palm.” Eva

What remains with me above all else, is the poet’s evocation of place, both spiritual and visceral, and most potent perhaps in the sequence Dreaming of Islands, a gathering into itself of the inchoate, ‘anthracite dark’, the expanses of light –– the dark just about mitigated by the light –– which the poet must shape into human utterance. There’ s a defining sense of the healing properties of close observation, of how landscape can focus and restore us against the noise and clamour. A profound instinct that here in these forbidding landscapes, these islands, less shaped by the human, a language of compassion and redemption can patiently, courageously be brought into being.

In a postmodern world, there is an unapologetic desire to create a rich, mellifluous language within the spareness and anti-Romanticism of a post-modern world, one which can recalibrate the atavistic, almost Pantheistic presence of nature in a secular, degraded world. Again and again, these poems articulate what it is to work through pain and hardship, towards hard-won acceptance and the possibility of forgiveness:

“as the morning slips through
my fingers like sand,
like love, and the tireless waves push on 
into their own futures, as I reach
for a pen, struggling to transcribe
word by word, sentence by sentence,
this fragile
… yes”
Linda Rose Parks

Publication details

2013
saltpublishing
96 pages, hardback
ISBN: 9781907773396

The Idea of Islands

2010

Poetry

The Idea of Islands is a unique collaboration that brings together a series of emotionally incisive poems by English poet Sue Hubbard and powerfully atmospheric drawings by Irish artist Donald Teskey RHA, inspired by a remote and starkly beautiful location on the wild, western seaboard of Ireland.

‘Poet and artist collaborations are generally more exciting than novelist/artist ones, if only because the artist in the latter tends to be regarded primarily as an illustrator. That is distinctly not the case with The Idea of Islands where the dark, painterly, drawings of Donald Teskey and the atmospheric, but sharply observed poems of Sue Hubbard add up to something more – more in fact than a kind of joint-reportage on sense of place. The sense of place here is also the place of body and mind where, as one poem puts it, “we feel ourselves / to be made from earth / our cells are filled with water”. Life and place move around and within each other becoming each other’s memorable conditions.’
George Szirtes

‘Cill Rialaig is at the edge of the beautiful and atmospheric southernmost peninsula of Kerry. Sue Hubbard writes her spare poems about a harsh winter pilgrimage there, testing the body and mind to its limits. Donald Teskey depicts the landscape surfaces of the place in magnificent drawings. ‘Now His Days’ and ‘Light Breaks Celestial’ pick up the words of the poems, but the pictures could be of nowhere else. This is a magical, searching book.’
Bernard O’Donoghue

Letting the images speak is also a feature of the collaboration between poet Sue Hubbard and artist, Donald Teskey whose large black and white charcoal drawings add depth to the poetry. Poetry and images emerge from Cill Rialaig, a remote peninsular of Co. Kerry where an abandoned village has been saved from dereliction by becoming a project for artists in residence who brave harsh winters far away from modern conveniences. The pictures are full of dark energy, waves crash from them in sparks of light, fence-posts bow in the wind against a back-drop of unforgiving hills, cottage in the shadows of the cliffs. The same sense of place in both images and words is immediate and visceral. The islands are empty, ‘the battering sea/lashing/their glassy rocks with the spittle of lost tongues.’ (Ballinskelligs) while at ‘Cill Rialaig’ the poet realises, ‘I understand the loneliness/of storms’ and how on ‘the edge of the world’ the ‘stones breathe/destitution and loss.’

In this raw landscape in the depths of winter the place seeps into Hubbard’s bones so that her reflections on land and her own body and mind become one,and how life is only this moment at midnight, a guttering candle and a terrible wind.

Set in a wild, remote landscape, on the west coast of Ireland, Cill Rialaig is a pre-ramine village that clings to at steep slope 300 feet above the sea on the old road that leads to Bólus Head. The restored stone cottages of the village, which now support residencies for visiting artists, are about as far west as you can go in Europe without falling off. From this rugged coast the island rock of Skellig Michael is visible, some eight miles out into the Atlantic, where pre-Augustinian monks once built their beehive huts. This is a landscape permeated with history and memories. It was here that the poet Sue Hubbard and the painter Donald Teskey met and initiated a collaboration that resulted in this book.

The Idea of Islands comprises a suite of fifteen emotionally incisive poems by Sue Hubbard and eleven powerfully atmospheric drawings by Donald Teskey RHA.

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‘In this place where ‘the motions of mind/have nothing/to hang onto’ (New Year) and where what is learnt is ‘how old I have become’ (Odyssey) there is nonetheless a fragile but deep vein of optimism; the water ‘endlessly adapts//fluid against the rigidity of rock’ and ‘though we feel ourselves/to be made of earth/our cells are filled with water.’ Moreover, there are occasional rays of sunlight, and although this ‘does not erase/this vast emptiness’ yet, ‘we are not so alone/in this disappearing world’. (Bólus Head) and the final work is ‘…yes’ (…yes).’
Jan Fortune-Wood, editor Envoi

‘What Donald Teskey and Sue Hubbard have produced in The Idea of Islands is a marriage of shared lyric sensibilities and their own harmony of ideas that serves to sustain this coupling of word and image. A perfect marriage it is too, and those sensibilities are acutely attuned to the distinct and atmospheric qualities to be found out at the “edge of the whip-lashed Atlantic”. The imaginative responses of both artist and writer are perfectly complementary. When the poet describes the sea as being “black as a saucer of spilt ink”, the painter renders it so with all the power and drama (and dark foreboding) that the sea itself often yields. Like the islands themselves, bare and austere, Teskey’s evocative, beautifully textured drawings and Hubbard’s sequence of reflective and highly visual poems stand unadorned but infused by the same sense of mystery that emanates from these desolate outposts. This double focus accumulates into a vividly thematic book that, in the making, has resulted in a fine example of the craft of book-making.’
Gerard Smyth, Literary Editor, The Irish Times

Publication details

Sue Hubbard and Donald Teskey
2010
Occasional Press
52 pages
ISBN: 9780954897697 (hardback)
ISBN: 9780954897673 (paperback)

Ghost Station

2004

Poetry

In this long awaited second collection, Sue Hubbard gathers together five major sequences which combine to form in a journey of love, loss and redemption. The central theme is an extended elegy to the poet’s brother. Hubbard guides us into labyrinths of haunting emotion and dares to give utterance to our deepest concerns. Exploring both the dark and the light, she gives voice to raw emotion, to our vulnerabilities, so often concealed, and through its disclosure suggests the possibility of renewal.

Poems full of painterly, sensual detail that balance eye and ear. They tell the story of the perceived world with intense lyric accuracy yet their true power lies in describing a terrain coloured by loss yet redeemed through love and poetic observation.

‘Sue Hubbard, as you would hope of an art critic, pays close and sensitive attention to the appearances of things. At the same time, she has a feeling for what is going on underneath. So the world of her poems, in which phenomena are noted with great precision, seems at once stable and highly unstable. Under its exact surfaces much is fluid, shifting and uneasy. She may delight in appearances, but under all there is the trouble of an unsettled grief. ‘Loss,’ she writes, ‘goes on and on’. Her poems will never evade that that fact, but bravely, by the act of memory, and by insisting on the continuing beautify of life in the real world, they answer back.’
David Constantine

‘Ghost Station is a marvellous book. Whether she is writing about art, love or memory, Sue Hubbard pays attention to the important things: the details, the incidentals, the faraway, the everyday, all the things we are inclined to neglect which make up the real fabric of our daily lives.’
John Burnside

‘From its opening poem, ‘Nude in a Bathtub’, about the wife Pierre Bonnard painted again and again until her death, the poems in this collection repeatedly move from a powerful evocation of the intimacy of relationships to a painful sense of what it is to experience their loss. In the title poem ‘Ghost Station’, a list of lost objects – ‘a bent hair-pin lodged for years under a wooden carriage seat, a single collar-stud trapped beneath the floor’ – creates a haunting but general regret for lost lives. But a moving sequence of lyric laments about a brother who committed suicide deal powerfully and bravely and with the poet’s personal grief. This is a collection by a poet who is not afraid to employ strong emotion and who uses her visual imagination to powerful and vivid effect.’
Vicki Feaver

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‘Here then is a poet who serves as an antidote to the chirpy shalllow materialism of much of our culture, one whose most apparent quality is an honesty about the difficulties of living in the early 21st century.’
Martyn Crucefix, Magma

‘Sue Hubbard brings passionate and prophetic visions into the sphere of family life… An accomplished art-critic, Hubbard can convey the pictorial in vivid and startling language.’
Peter Lawson, Jewish Chronicle – The Weekly Review

‘It is hard to get poems ‘right’ about the death of a close relative, lover, or friend; mawkishness and sentimentality are dangers as is indulgent reminiscence and nostalgia. Hubbard avoids all of these with her pared down lines and stark scene setting, ending with startling directness with a powerful acknowledge of nature’s indifference to the matter of our small deaths.’
Richard Dyer, Ambit

Publication details

2004
saltpublishing
122 pages
214 x 140 mm
ISBN: 9781844710355

Oxford Poets

2000

Poetry

This first Oxford Poets anthology introduces the work of six new writers whose poems extend the rich tradition of the Oxford list, now continuing to develop through Carcanet in association with the English Faculty, Oxford University. The Oxford Poets editorial panel makes the selection, acknowledging promise and achievement. There is no editorial programme or ideology beyond a desire to represent the best. Drawing on a wealth of submitted manuscript material, the editors chose what they found most compelling in terms of formal and rhythmic invention. Verse metred or unmetred, rhymed or unrhyming, with sure or fragmented syntax, makes specific claims. The poem, not the poet, answers.

Stephanie Moorgate
Tim Kendall
Joe Sheerin
Sue Hubbard
Jenny Lewis
Rebecca Elson

‘Physical, elegiac and intensely visual.’
Ruth Padel on Sue Hubbard

‘Haunting, powerful material, beautifully realised, poems that kept coming back to me, kept making me think…poignant, frank and open-handed.’
Jo Shapcott on Sue Hubbard

Publication details

2000
Carcanet Press
144 pages
212 x 134 mm
ISBN: 9781903039038

Everything Begins With The Skin

1994

Poetry

‘Haunting, sensuous and at times disturbingly sharp in their revealed intimacies; her eye – and her touch – are vividly alive to the pleasure of surface, as well as to dark depths of anger and melancholy.’
Marina Warner

‘She reminds me of Gwen John in her stillness and love of the ‘actually loved and known…giving generously of life and warmth and technical mastery.’
Sebastian Barker

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‘… poems of genuine power.’
Alan Brownjohn, The Sunday Times

‘This is a woman’s life and love. It is not hard to respond to the celebration of these rich interiors, the warmth and the grief.’
London Poetry Newsletter

‘A painter’s eye for detail.’
Orbis

‘Full of lush, sensual detail … bleakly moving.’
The New Statesman

‘In her first full-length collection, this London poet informs her poems with a painter’s vision, sketching intense portraits of domesticity. When her daughter begins menstruating, she refuses to echo her own mother’s whispered “The Curse,” and urges the girl to “Feel your roots, deep/ and damp as rusty beets smelling of earth.” Going beyond the visual, these unflinching poems take into account all the senses as they mark one woman’s journey from childhood through motherhood, from love through, as one poem is titled, “Betrayal.” Focusing mainly on women, Hubbard juxtaposes friends and relatives with legendary and artistic figures in a well-crafted collection that, taking an approach less common in British poetry than American, mines the unique riches of everyday experience.’
Publishers Weekly

Publication details

1994
Enitharmon
52 pages, hardback
ISBN: 9781870612494

Venetian Red

1993

Poetry

‘Lyrical, sensuous, genuinely passionate things, Sue Hubbard’s poems are full of clearly realised images. The passion is not too breathy or fragile though the poems are definitely feminine.’
George Szirtes

‘She reminds me of Gwen John in her stillness and love of the ‘actually loved and known’ …..giving generously of life and warmth and technical mastery.
Sebastian Barker

Publication details

1993
Hearing Eye
24 pages
ISBN: 9781870841276