‘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.
‘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
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,
my wedding gift, the thin glass vial
placed like a fresh-water
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,
Linda Rose Parks