A Review of Sue Hubbard’s Fourth Poetry Collection: Swimming to Albania

by Maniza Naqvi

I find Sue Hubbard’s writings to be an invitation to feel sorrowful. And therefore a beckoning towards a search for beauty, an attempt at forgiveness and redemption and reckoning; a belief in the possibility of joy.

Swimming to Albania, Sue Hubbard most recent and fourth collection of poem’s reveals once again, the poet’s third and internal eye, which searches and sifts through cold water and cinder to find the source and alchemy, the gift to distill it all into words which reach right into her own and perhaps the reader’s soul. Her gift is to reach through her poems to possibilities and safe shores—where the view collapses all three, past, present and future; to the point that hope, sorrow, grief and memory—-become one. Through this, past it and to it, it becomes deeply comforting. And this merging into one, is a balm as soothing as swimming, helping us to understand that we go on and on—in memory—and this then, this now is the future.

It is the universe, which is a most childlike place of dreams and wonder and wandering; an endless journey towards adventure—a discovery of self and who we are and will always be. Her poem Lost in Space speaks thus to me:

Lost in Space

There are galaxies inside me,
interstellar stars and dust.
I am full of dark matter,
quarks and spirals
of deep love that cannot memory-become
be seen with the naked eye,
lives that might have been
different under other alignments.
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.

Hubbard’s poetry in its sense of loss and recovery of what is lost through memory is deeply moving, and yes Proustian in its attempt at excavation. In her poem Those Far Blue Hills, this line stands out as a through line and theme for this collection of poems “Longing for wilderness I’ve become a storyteller of absence and loss, though all travel is a form of return as well as departure.”

Reading through this emotionally vast metaphorical geography captured in a slim collection of poems Swimming to Albania felt like a journey of a person through the memory of someone who feels that the larger share of life’s summers are gone and now life is spent in trying to recover, grow and make sense through recollection. It reads also as fact and metaphor of yearning for youthful days from colder climes and waters to warmer shores from along the Atlantic into the Mediterranean from England and Ireland to Portugal, Italy and onwards—to Balkan shores—through cooler to warmer waters. It feels like an aspiration to swim metaphorically as far as possible into eternity—all the way to a far away ancestral collective memory perhaps and at times it is an elegy or perhaps a regret or a rebuke made to a father. Her poem And Soon ends thus:

“While in those far off Surrey hills
you falter and wane, so I wish my childhood songs
had not been mined in dust and pain,
those black diamonds of hurt and absence.
And now, when all that’s unspoken
is cinders on my tongue, I want to call out:
daddy, oh my daddy, I’ve been here all along,
waiting, waiting across this cold violet sea.

Swimming to Albania feels like an autobiography written in verse. A recollection of memory that in recall while having the clarity of a poet’s imagery paints a murkier sense of reality—like a dream, like plunging into the depths of a cold lake. Autobiographical because it takes us through the emotions of a childhood, a teenager, an adult—a daughter—through longings and loneliness and a sense of abandonment. But those ‘cinders’ , Hubbard, the poet has spun into beauty that upon meditation, give us a sense of hope and light and a sense of communion.

About Swimming to Albania, her fourth collection of poems, Hubbard says: It deals with memory, loss, desire and the process of aging. Divided into three parts, there are elegies to both my parents and tactile, Proustian remembrances of childhood and the everyday. The poems wander between the west coast of Ireland, Lisbon, Siena and Greece in an attempt to find reconciliation, forgiveness and meaning, to come to terms with different forms of grief. As I say in the final section, ‘we travel to discover who we are.’ Threaded through the collection is the sense of an Odyssean journey, a longing for an idealised home, which is captured in the title poem: ‘Swimming to Albania’.

Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist, broadcaster and art critic. Swimming to Albania is her most recent work published by Salmon Poetry in late 2021.

Sue Hubbard was a contributing columnist to 3 Quarks Daily for many years. As an art critic she has written regularly for The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, Time Out, The New Statesman, and other journals and magazines. Her lyrical third novel Rainsongs was reviewed here in 2018. She is the twice winner of the London Writers Competition and winner of third prize in the National Poetry Competition, her publications include Everything Begins with the Skin, Ghost Station and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, The Idea of Islands: a collaboration with the artist Donald Teskey. Her poems appeared in Oxford Poets in 2000: an Anthology (Caranet) and as the Poetry Society’s only Public Art Poet, she was responsible for London’s largest public art poem, Eurydice, at Waterloo. Her poems have been read on Poetry Please, The Verb and Front Row and appeared in The Irish Times, the Observer and numerous magazines and anthologies and have been recorded for the Poetry Archive. Her prose and novels include Rothko’s Red: short stories, Depth of Field and Girl in White.