“listen as the world hums quietly/ to itself”

The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, Sue Hubbard, £12.99, Salt
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

9781907773396frcvr.inddSue Hubbard‘s not a painter although I suspect she might quite like to be; poetry’s a poor second to most visual art. My initial response, after scanning an excerpt of this collection, was, “I’m not a great lover of nature poetry (I’m frankly not sure what’s new to be said on the subject) but let’s see if she can win me over.”

In an article Hubbard writes:

“Today landscape painting is viewed as marginal, peripheral to the philosophical and conceptual concerns of contemporary art. Traditionalists see it as upholding a nostalgic vision of timeless values, whilst for most modernists the landscape is essentially urban, tainted and dysfunctional.”

The same could be said about landscape poems. In Hubbard’s poetry Nature’s role is to provide a giant metaphor for the human condition: trees aren’t lonely, winds don’t drink, stars might no longer be visible but they’re not hiding. Long (admittedly eloquent) descriptive passages set the scene/tone and then the human observer appears to add a touch of profundity or pathos. “What do things know?” Hubbard asks in the opening poem followed by “What do they tell us?” in the second. In the third we find her walking through a wood “in search of a poem”:

I try to write a line of colour,

but words are a string of biro scrawls
Without air or light or hue,

[White Canvas]

I know exactly where’s she’s coming from. I, too, once wandered aimlessly seeking inspiration and have the bad poetry to prove it. She writes:

Open your heart like a door
and listen as the world hums quietly
to itself

[Love in Whitstable]

I did try but evidently was looking in all the wrong places.

Nature’s huge and we’re so small. This is evidenced in ‘riverrun’ which devotes a whole page to setting before the observer holds her “breath/ and listens to the wood/ waiting for something to happen”; a tiny diamond in an overpowering setting.

The book is divided into three parts:

‘A Meaningful Speech’ could’ve come out as a chapbook in its own right. There’s interesting stuff here but the poems don’t cohere as well as the second and third sections. There are some good pieces though like ‘Keeping Hens’ and ‘Naked Portrait, 1972–3’.

‘Over the Rainbow’ comprises ekphrastic poems responding to the suicide paintings of Rachel Howard. Minus the accompanying art, the poems inevitably feel like they’re missing something. Shame too there’s only nine; this would’ve been a nice chapbook in its own right.

‘The Idea of Islands’ has already been published separately accompanied by paintings by Donald Teskey and so also suffers a little from the estrangement.

“…writing a poem, as for the visual artist drawing from life, is a ‘process’, a ‘reaching towards’ something that is largely unknown,” writes Hubbard. That may be the case but it can’t stay unknown. It becomes known during the reading. I wasn’t entirely won over by these poems—my fault undoubtedly—but I can see why others might be.

Jim Murdoch
http://www.jimmurdoch.co.uk/

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