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.’
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
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