Poetry

The Forgetting and Remembering of Air

‘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 

www.newwelshreview.com

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’s first collection, Division Street, is forthcoming from Chatto & Windus.
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.

Rachel Howard is represented by Blain Southern and Sue Hubbard’s new novel, Girl in White is published by Cinnamon Press and her new poetry collection, The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, by Salt Publishing.”
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

‘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

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2013
Images maybe subject to copyright

Publication details

Published 15 April, 2013
saltpublishing
Collection of Poetry
Hardback
ISBN 978-1-907773-39-6

Poetry

The Idea of Islands

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.
(The Idea of Islands)

‘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

‘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

‘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

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.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010
Images maybe subject to copyright

Publication details

by Sue Hubbard and
Donald Teskey
Published 2010
Occasional Press
Hardback 52 pp
ISBN: 978-0-9548976-9-7 (hardback)
ISBN: 978-0-9548976-7-3 (paperback)

Poetry

Ghost Station

‘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

‘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

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.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004
Images maybe subject to copyright

Publication details

Published 2004
saltpublishing
Collection of Poetry
122 pp
214 x 140 mm
ISBN 978-1-844710-35-5

Poetry

Everything Begins With The Skin

‘… 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

‘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 America, mines the unique riches of everyday experience.’
Publishers Weekly (USA)

‘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

‘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

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1994
Images maybe subject to copyright

Publication details

Published 1994
Enitharmon
Hardback 52 pp

Fiction

Rainsongs

UK editionUK editionUS edition

ALA Booklist review (American Library Association) in advance of the American edition of Rainsongs:

‘For her keen and gracious insights into the relentless grieving process, for her transcendent evocation of the rough charm and enduring splendor of Ireland’s rural treasures, Hubbard deserves a place in the literary pantheon near Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, and William Trevor.’
Carol Haggas, ALA Booklist

‘A compelling story, freighted with heartbreak and loss’
Shena Mackay

‘A beautifully-written and evocative novel about grief and greed, art and life, isolation and emotion’
Amanda Craig

‘A lyrical evocation of Ireland’s fragile, ancient coastline reveals a poet’s sensibility. This multi- layered story of love and loss, of a woman ‘erased by grief’, who finds solace in the heart of a community that is threatened from within, is exceptionally moving. This book will stay with you.’
Eleanor Fitzsimons

Newly widowed, Martha Cassidy has returned to a remote cottage in a virtually abandoned village on the west coast of Ireland for reasons even she is uncertain of. Looking out her window towards the dramatic rise of the Skellig Islands across the water, Martha recalls the losses in her life: Brendan, her itinerant husband and charming Curator, and her ten-year-old son, Bruno, who met an untimely death twenty years earlier. Alone on the windwept headland, surrounded by miles of cold sea, the past closes in.

As the days unfold, she finds herself drawn into a standoff between the entrepreneur Eugene Riorden and local hill farmer Paddy O’Connell. As the tension between them builds to a crisis that leaves Paddy in hospital, Martha develops a relationship with Colm, a talented but much younger musician and poet – roughly the same age that Bruno would have been if he’d lived. Caught between its history and its future, the Celtic Tiger reels with change, and Martha faces choices that will change her life forever.

Rainsongs conjures the rugged beauty of County Kerry’s coastline and the inner landscapes of its characters in richly poetic and painterly language, moving effortlessly between the lives of people and the life of the terrain; between the forces that shape character and those that shape the world. It unfolds as a compelling tale of grief, art, and the fragile, quiet ways in which time and place can offer a measure of redemption.

Sue Hubbard talks about the inspiration behind her novel Rainsongs:

Sue Hubbard reading from Rainsongs at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre Annamakerrig, Ireland:

Publication details

UK edition
Published January, 2018
Demy paperback, £11.99
242 pages
ISBN: 9780715652855

Buy now

US edition
Published autumn 2018
Overlook Press NY

Press

Ken Krimstein in The Star Tribune: www.startribune.com
The Irish Echo: www.irishecho.com
Sipora Levy in The Jewish Chronicle: www.thejc.com
Maniza Naqvi in 3 Quarks Daily: www.3quarksdaily.com
Leah Shaya in The London Magazine: www.thelondonmagazine.org
Anthony Cummins in Daily Mail: www.dailymail.co.uk
Stevie Davies in The Guardian: www.theguardian.com
Justine Carbery in The Irish Independent: www.independent.ie
Jean Morris in Shiny New Books: www.shinynewbooks.co.uk
Martina Evans in The Irish Times: www.irishtimes.com
Sue Hubbard writes in The Irish Times: www.irishtimes.com
Sue Hubbard talks about Rainsongs: RTE Radio Arena
Barton’s Bookshelf: www.twitter.com

Fiction

Girl in White

Interview with Sue Hubbard about Girl in White
Elatia Harris 3 Quarks guest blog

‘The poet and art critic, Sue Hubbard, has written a richly layered book about Paula Modersohn-Becker, … In Hubbard’s moving imagining of Paula’s story, she creates a believable, parallel tale about Paula’s daughter Mathilde, a violinist.’
Sipora Levy Jewish Chronicle 27th February 2013

‘Imagine a chest of drawers – unopened for a hundred years. Inside small garments carefully folded. A woman today opens the drawers, unfolds what she finds and, as she does so, the garments become stories. The chest of drawers belonged to the painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). … (and contain) the secrets of some exceptional, very lonely paintings, which had a considerable influence on “modern” German art. …those intimate folds become interstices of History, beyond any notion of what is modern or not. I recommend this haunting book.’
John Berger

‘Beautifully written and wholly knowledgeable – Girl in White is a triumph of literary and artistic understanding, a tour du force: masterly, moving. ‘Hubbard goes where few dare go, and succeeds. You are the less for not reading it.’
Fay Weldon

“In art,” the Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) declared, “one is usually totally alone with oneself.” For a female artist in the early 20th century, such aloneness was radical in itself. It is Modersohn-Becker’s radical aloneness, as artistic pioneer and independent woman, which particularly fascinates Sue Hubbard in her new novel, a fictionalised account of the artist’s life.

During her most productive period – her last stay in Paris – she is destitute, and repeatedly compelled to appeal for financial aid from others, including her estranged husband. Ultimately, she returns from Paris to her husband in Germany, forced by history into this “compromise”. As one character puts it, “I don’t believe the world is yet ready for a woman artist to make it alone.

Yet it is precisely this “aloneness” that is a prerequisite for art. “Art without pain, without sacrifice, without loneliness,” says Rainer Maria Rilke, one of Modersohn-Becker’s lovers, is “impossible”. It is the impossibility of Modersohn-Becker’s position – torn between the loneliness of art and enforced selflessness of her role as wife – that destroys her. After returning to her husband, she falls pregnant, and dies shortly after childbirth.
The power of Hubbard’s novel for contemporary readers is in its distillation of dilemmas which, of course, are still pressing for women today. As Rilke wrote of Modersohn-Becker in his great poem “Requiem”, it is her spirit which, of all his dead friends, most seems to haunt the future.
Jonathan Taylor The Independent

Set against the backdrop of the darkness of Germany 1933, Girl in White begins its narrative with the character of Mathilde, a young woman pregnant by her married Jewish lover. Fleeing to the remote village of Worpswede, previously a commune for artists, she begins the emotional journey of unravelling the life of her mother – the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Paula Becker is not a well-known artist, nor was she much admired by many of her contemporaries. Reading this novel I have no doubt you will wish she was. Hubbard, having studied the events of Becker’s life through her paintings and letters, obviously believes this is a story that needs to be told and how right she is. Using knowledge she has gained from her study of Becker, as well as, admittedly, a little of her imagination Hubbard’s skill here is to literally bring Becker back to life. The depth of the narrative reveals the tortured and lonely soul of Paula as she struggled to gain the revered status she desired. The reader feels her pain and sacrifice as she fails time and time again to reach her own ridiculously high standards, yet her unwavering belief in her potential to get there shows an admiral level of self-courage and belief. Often lonely, often brave and often selfish the reader gains real insight into Becker’s ambitious and obstinate mind, desiring her success as much as she does.

This novel is an incredible testimony to the tortures and struggles many artists see necessary to put themselves through.


‘Any artist reading this book will feel a great amount of empathy with Paula. I particularly recommend this to those with an interest in the art world as it captures perfectly the romance and excitement of the industry while sympathetically capturing the dark emotions, poverty and confusion that often follow alongside. With particular nostalgia it delves into the Expressionist’s community of isolated and beautiful Worspswede; thus emphasising the alienation of many of the Expressionist poets and artists and the strong bonds they formed between one another. The use of characters such as Rilke and Rodin shows how the novel is a great exploration of this great cultural movement.

Hubbard’s use of the entirely fictional character of Mathilde creates a deeply emotional resonance within Paula’s story as it is slowly revealed in alternating chapters. As the reader delves into Paula’s secrets and thoughts so is her daughter – now just as vulnerable and lonely herself. Paula’s unsettled mind and the conflicting society of Worpswede become reflected in the unsettling Germany that now exists and the uncertain future that awaits Mathilde. What is never called into question though is the strength and courage of the Becker women. This is an incredibly nuanced and intense work and one which I strongly recommend.’
Francis Smithson Cardiff Studentmedia 28 November 2012

‘I have just read a beautiful novel about a real person. In The Girl in White, the English poet Sue Hubbard has written an imagined life of the German expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker; it’s an art form with the unattractively scientific sounding handle ‘biofiction’. I already knew a little bit about Paula’s work, but from a historical perspective: after her premature death in 1907 her work was denounced by the Nazis as degenerate. What I did not know was how she was in fact just beginning to find her confidence as an artist after an intense inner struggle to balance her many roles as daughter, mother, wife – and, above all, painter. In trying to live independently and survive on her earnings in an intensely male dominated world, she was ahead of her time. This was little more than a century ago but in some ways the difficulties she faced appear medieval, in others merely variations on the same struggle many women still face today… (click here to read the full review)’
Anna Seba 22 October 2012

Publication details

Published 1 October, 2012
Cinnamon Press
Paperback 288 pages
198 × 130 mm
ISBN: 978-1-90709-068-4

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Art Books

Adventures in Art

‘Her pages about Rothko are the best I’ve read about the extraordinary painter. She honours Sam Becket as few others are able to do. We follow Sue Hubbard because she has the precision, the respect for words and pain of a poet. We follow her because (as she writes in one of her poems) “What if … one night swimming in the freezing water, you look own to find the bottom littered with stars.’
John Berger

‘Sue Hubbard’s Adventures in Art fluently archives her very impressive 20-year trajectory of critical writing within the art world, transporting us into a multiplicity of artist’s lives and methodologies, and forming a portrait of contemporary art today. Nothing is left untouched and unconsidered. These selected writings narrate her discovery of the meaning of art and provide a useful tool of understanding for readers.’
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine Gallery

This is a really insightful book. Sue Hubbard has been looking at contemporary and modern art for twenty years: her keen poet’s eye leads her to perceive things not always evident to the rest of us. Most gratifyingly, she writes a pleasing, lucid prose which makes complex ideas accessible and leaves us enriched by the clarity of her values.

These essays tackle a swathe of all that has been happening in painting and sculpture over recent decades. Their range is truly impressive: from Christian Boltanski to Helen Chadwick, from Anslem Kiefer to Jane and Louise Wilson. Along the way, Hubbard’s own taste and judgement evolved, giving us a vivid sense of what these turbulent creative times have been like. Their cumulative effect is to indicate the direction modern art is taking, and help us grapple with its meaning.
Joan Bakewell

Publication details

Published 2010
Other Criteria
248 x 190 mm
Hardback 160 pp
76 B&W illustrations
ISBN 978-1-906967-21-5

Fiction

Depth of Field

‘Highly evocative… the rare quality, not of a text but of a place. It surrounds its readers and waits until they see in the dark and make their own discoveries.’
John Berger

“This is the first novel of a writer with genuine talent. Sue Hubbard’s originality lies in the gritty detail of the imagined past she pursues amongst the realities of a contemporary East End. This gives a remarkable freshness to a theme of a lost Jewish identity underlying Hannah’s moving story’
Elaine Feinstein

‘Depth of Field is a poet’s first novel in the best sense of the word; lyrical highly visual and beautifully observed. At its heart is the profound and moving study of one woman’s struggle for self determination…’
John Burnside

‘Highly evocative… the rare quality, not of a text but of a place. It surrounds its readers and waits until they see in the dark and make their own discoveries.’
John Berger

Depth of Field is an acute observation of the nature of identity and memory. Hannah’s close observation of the physical world, both in the country and the East End, embues it with a deep sense of both history and place. John Berger has described the novel as ‘highly evocative’ giving ‘the rare quality, not of a text, but of a place. It surrounds its readers and waits until they see in the dark to make their own discoveries.

Having grown up in the Home Counties, with her Jewish identity submerged and largely unidentified, Hannah experiences a sense of alienation and otherness. An early marriage to an emotionally repressed academic and their subsequent move to rural Somerset in search of the idyll of family life and self-suffiency, is shattered by her husband’s infidelity.

Hannah returns to her embryonic career as a photographer, moving from the country to London’s East End – convinced that if she can find her roots, some connection with her grandparents’ Jewish past – that she will make sense of her life. A failed affair leads to a breakdown, and to her ex-husband gaining custody of her two children. Left alone to rebuild her life she begins to realise that we each have to construct our own lives. Identity is not dependent on spurious notions of ‘roots’ or ‘romance’.

Depth of Field is an accute observation of the nature of identity and memory. Hannah’s close observation of the physical world, both in the country and the East End, embues it with a deep sense of both history and place. John Berger has described the novel as ‘highly evocative’ giving ‘the rare quality, not of a text, but of a place. It surrounds its readers and waits until they see in the dark to make their own discoveries.’


Opening Section of Depth of Field

Setting the focus

I am in the dark. This small room is like a nun’s cell. Everything in its place. Neat, spare and entirely functional. There is a sink, the developing trays, a shelf of chemicals. Above the workbench the safety lamp glows a womb-like red. 1 have got used to doing things by feel or touch, by intuition. On the other wall, away from the water is an enlarger and a stack of boxes containing different grades of photographic paper and my books. The walls are bare except for a small spot where the paint peeled when I finally took down the photo of Liam. It left a small patch like pale new skin after a sticking plaster has been removed. In the developing trays black and white shapes are beginning to emerge from the bromide like thin ghosts. They seem to come out of nowhere, fragile as those transparent moths that gathered in our garden porch, clustering round the storm lantern on late summer evenings. They surface silent as memories and like the moths will only last for a while until they too perish; their paper yellowing or torn, lost or crumpled at the back of some dark damp drawer. Born from silver grains, they will eventually begin to age, will suffer attacks of light, of humidity; fade, weaken, and then vanish. Once transcendence was achieved through remembrance; through the images we keep in our head, or a smell, a taste, the chance sound of a voice. Perhaps it isn’t coincidence that this is the century that invented both photography and history. But whereas history is simply a construct, the photograph is a device through which we try, for a brief moment, to hold time still before it moves relentlessly, indifferently on.

Sometimes I work listening to music. To Bach’s late cello concertos or a Brahms intermezzo. But this morning I need quiet. Being here in this silence, among the faint whiff of chemicals reminds me of the labour room, of all that whiteness. Only the dull electronic blip, that thin line pulsating on the green screen monitoring the foetal heart beat, the sound of my own breathing; the icy tiles and starched linen.

Through my lens I have raised them from murky obscurity. Particularised and named them. In a way given them birth. Mary, Winston, the small girls with black braids like oiled rope, in pink nylon dresses, skipping. The abandoned synagogue in Princelet Street.

In order to obtain a positive picture, in which the light and shade corresponds to the original subject, it is necessary to print the negative. Everything contains the potential to be its opposite.

Content and Text © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images maybe subject to copyright 

Publication details

Published 2000
Originally published by Dewi Lewis
192 pages
ISBN:1-899235-82-5 (paperback)

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Fiction

Rothko’s Red

‘Evidence of the poet’s gift for imagery – “the wind snaps at the washing, filling out the drying shirts like the bloated bodies of the drowned” – is in plentiful supply. Of the ten stories, only two are in the first person. The second and last in the book is nakedly personal, and all the more powerful for it.’
The Independent, 9th September 2009

‘Each story in this, Hubbard’s first collection of short fiction is nominally centred around art. But what truly links the pieces herein is the themes of longing, loss and melancholy, and a sense that not even an intimate knowledge of the beautiful and the sublime can protect one from the daily tragedies of life. The collection is quiet, almost to the point of defiance, but in its understated, delicate descriptions of the mundane, Rothko’s Red has an acute power.

While several of Hubbard’s protagonists ultimately find redemption, it is always at a cost to themselves; the academic who gets away with cheating on his wife, but not without being fleeced by his mistress; the widow who realises that she is content alone, but only after a disappointing sexual encounter with a man she meets on the internet; the middle-aged divorcee who has an affair with an immigrant you enough to be her son and who she regards with distant amusement.

With Hubbard’s background in art criticism and poetry, it is not surprising that her writing is painterly and vivid. She lingers on colours and textures, edges and scents: “Mummy grew tomatoes, red gems, that what she called them… I remember that special smell when she watered them in the early evening after a day of sun.”

The collection is quiet, almost to the point of defiance, but in its understated, delicate descriptions of the mundane, Rothko’s Red has an acute power.
The New Statesman

‘She certainly fashions an arresting opening in which Adam and Maggie gaze at a large magenta Rothko that prompts him to utter a paean to her genitals. But Adam is just the first in a long line of disappointing men blundering naively or selfishly through Hubbard’s stories. Inability to commit, unreliability, unfaithfulness – just some of the character faults her protagonists encounter in male partners.

Other recurring motifs are mildewed books and broken frames, silvery stretch marks, women washing under their breasts and their armpits, doing up ruins in Italy. Art links the stories and all the artists invoked are men. Unexpectedly, perhaps, the most powerful results are achieved when Hubbard ventures beyond her middle-class creative types. Janice, the farm worker’s abused wife whose knowledge of art is limited to the lid of a biscuit tin, wins our hearts when she starts stockpiling apple chutney in her son’s toy cupboard as a hopeful means of escape.

Evidence of the poet’s gift for imagery – “the wind snaps at the washing, filling out the drying shirts like the bloated bodies of the drowned” – is in plentiful supply. Of the ten stories, only two are in the first person. The second and last in the book is nakedly personal, and all the more powerful for it.’
Nicholas Royle, The Independent, 9th September 2009

‘The ten stories in this dazzling collection share a connection – sometimes direct and sometimes oblique – to a painter or painting, ranging from Goya to Rothko, from Bernini to Jackson Pollock. Sue Hubbard is an art critic as well as a fine poet, and her understanding of human motivation is as highly developed as her feeling for language and art. She writes with perception and sensitivity about contemporary English women, and about the men who give them so much pleasure and pain.’
Ruth Fainlight

‘Compelling and authentic, Sue Hubbard’s stories have the unmistakable feel of reality. Bleak, yet always tinged with love, the reality comes from the joining of distinct skills: the artist’s eye and talent for composition, and the poet’s touch, with imagery which is never laboured but always the perfect expression of a story’s theme. Not a word or picture is out of place.’
Bernard O’Donoghue

Rothko’s Red is a collection of ten stories, subtly linked by painting and art, about the lives of women: their hopes, fears, failures and challenges. They reveal the choices and destinies of a number of characters from very differing backgrounds, embracing the harsh realities of desire, loss and ageing. Powerful, yet tender, psychologically intricate and emotionally perceptive, these fearless stories examine the complex lives of modern women. Substantial, moving and beautifully written they call upon both Sue Hubbard’s wide ranging knowledge of and feel for art, as well as her skill as a poet.

Extract

Goya’s Dark

The light is fading as the evening draws in across the banana plantation. It laps round the walls of the Marimanti Rural Methodist Centre where she is the only guest like the incoming tide. Down the long hallway she can hear the tinny amplification of the TV at full volume where the caretaker is taking advantage of the single hour of electricity, provided by the ineffectual generator, before they are plunged into complete darkness. He is sitting in his vest, his dark skin covered with beads of sweat; his dusty feet up on a white plastic chair in the middle of the large room that is used for Bible conferences. Swatting flies and swigging beer from the neck of a bottle he scratches his groin as he watches the election rally, which flickers in the corner on the black and white set that’s normally covered by a lace nylon cloth.

She doesn’t much like him. There is something insolent and over familiar about his manner; quite different to all the other Kenyans she has met. The other evening he had walked into her room without knocking as she was standing wrapped in nothing but a towel, to tell her to stop using her hairdryer.

‘Makes TV picture go,’ he had said without apology.

The sound of the set bounces off the lino floors and metal window frames, echoing through the empty rooms of the long concrete bungalow that’s the only substantial building for miles amid the scattering of wooden shacks and mud huts with their corrugated tin roofs. She can hear the voice of the opposition leader Raila Odinga haranguing President Mwai Kibaki. There are still months to go before the election, but her heart sinks every time she hears the obvious barefaced lies about bringing electricity, roads and secondary education to all the people of Kenya. For ever since she has been here she’s watched the women trudging in the heat backwards and forwards from the river with oil drums of untreated water strapped to their backs and the barefoot children in patched uniforms trailing the five miles to school in the early morning along unmade roads.

She looks out of the window and sees a young boy in a torn T-shirt, grubby shorts and battered flip flops making his way home in the fading light over the dusty fields with a bundle of firewood. The fields are cracked and dry as the soles of his feet and he is caked in red dust.

She gets up and gathers her torch, her mobile phone and glasses and places them under the mosquito net next to her pillow. Her room is clean but spare. There is a desk, on which there is a copy of the Gideon Bible in fake green leather, and two beds covered in incongruous pale blue flowered satin bedspreads ruched with pink nylon, the sort of cheap decorations that she images you might find in a brothel. Hanging above each is a blue mosquito net. She searches for some matches and melts the stub of a thin candle onto a chipped saucer so that she will be prepared when the lights suddenly go out. That has been the hardest part, the dark. When she’d arrived here in the charity land rover from Nairobi all she had been able to see was a huddle of shacks and groups of shadowy figures lit by the occasional paraffin lantern.

Content and Text © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images maybe subject to copyright

Publication details

Published 15 September, 2008
saltpublishing
Trade Hardback 160 pp
Short Stories
B format (198 × 129 mm)
ISBN 978-1-84471-444-5