REVIEW by Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 101

The Forgetting and Remembering of Air

by Sue Hubbard

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 is an artist and writer currently living in mid Wales.




       


previous review: A Kingdom
next review: That Burning Summer



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