Six poems by art critic, novelist, award-winning poet, lecturer and broadcaster Sue Hubbard, under World Poetry/Prose Portfolio, curated by Sudeep Sen
soon it will be over,
the voyage’s end coming into sight
like a bright spit of unmapped land,
as the old yawl turns slowly back into harbour
with its arbour of rusty fish sheds
shrouded in late evening fog.
The saffron light of portholes already dimmed,
the tattered sails lowered,
halyard and spinnakers stilled and trimmed,
furled jibs lashed against the mast.
A sea away I wait on this Atlantic headland
where icy galaxies keep me company in the dark
and a dog-fox barks in a high wet field.
While in those far off Surrey hills
you falter and wain, 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 for you across this cold violet sea.
The tallboy’s empty now except
for your hats: three battered panamas
trimmed with striped Petersham bands
that squat in the mahogany dark.
One a jaunty fedora, the sort worn by
a Cuban paterfamilias with hairy arms,
sporting a large Havana cigar.
The other more elegant,
with a wide brim and a Mafioso air
that would be at home on a terrace
above the sparkling bay of Naples,
with a plate of frutti di mare
and a carafe of local wine,
or on the bald pate of an oncologist
watching his young mistress
slowly tanning in the sun.
The third, the most battered
with a hole in the crown,
is the one you wore to deadhead
the roses in your rust-coloured
chinos and old cashmere, before
settling with that glass of G&T
as the sun went down.
Now afternoon fades
into evening and the deep wardrobe,
mute with mothballed memories,
radiates its own particular light.
This is the world you’ve left behind
and there is silence everywhere.
Somewhere on the other side of evening,
where the weather hangs heavy
in the darkening sky,
I search for you in the firelight
as the room turns its face to the past.
I can’t tell the year,
though you’re young,
dressed in flying gear, looking upwards
beyond the camera’s edge
with a touch of Kenneth Moore, say,
in Reach for the Sky.
Though I look for you
in the present tense, you remain
obdurate in black and white.
Your life ahead — a choice of wives,
three, as yet, unnamed children.
How do I make sense of dust —
insubstantial as the shadows
on these whitewashed walls,
might give you substance,
invest this space with
all that was you
as the evening slowly lengthens,
and I collide with your absence;
with all that was never said?
You stand in the scuffed Box Brownie square,
pretty and slim in your summer shorts,
your Heddy Lemarr hair, in front of a stage-left
parasol somewhere on the Côte d’Azure
between your two young daughters,
like the border guard between rival nations.
All of us squinting in the unfamiliar sun.
The past, they say, is another country,
one I barely remember as I search
our eyes to understand the real story.
I forget what was going on in front of us.
A man waving to his wife from the sea,
perhaps, a barefoot boy in a sombrero
selling sugared almonds on the beach,
children in a pedallo, laughing.
Years later, as you lay
trying to catch your shallow breath
in the summer heat -
the same month as your name,
the same month as your birth -
I sat beside your cot holding
your frail hand in mine
like a child in danger of getting lost -
wanting to tell you,
this is who I am, this has been the story.
That there are no drafts, no proofs
to be corrected, that we do not
get to write it again.
who is that young women over there half-hidden
behind a mask bubbles of saliva coating
her dry lips little hairs sprouting from her chin
thinking she’s still the person she is meant to be
why is she stitching her skin into neat pleats and
pouches to tuck discretely behind her ears so
no one can see her thin mouth sutured with fear
the smell of age on her like the stinking breath
of a dog the pelt between her crotch going bald
dis-gust-ing who would want to touch something
so dirty so broken puddle their fingers in those
dried up holes that patch of psoriasis better turn
a blind eye tell her to take off that ridiculous
disguise it’s a silly game anyway
e -m -b -a -r -a -s -I -n -g
pull back the curtain wipe up the spilt pee
show some decorum some con-sid-er-a-tion
for others that’s quite enough now don’t rub our faces in it
Day break and a mint light unfurls in the bottega’s
dark corners. Between church bell and dog bark
he bends to strengthen seasoned panels of poplar
with strips of linen, size them with rabbit glue
and chalky gesso sanded smooth as a woman’s skin.
A reed marks out the ghost of angels,
smudged charcoal is erased with a feather.
With squirrel brush and ink-wash he fills in drapery.
Shadows are applied with something blunter.
And then the gold. Tooled and punched with flowers
and stars. Cusped Gothic arches polished to burn bright
in deep church dark. At last the tempera:
terre verde, orpiment and cinnabar bound
with egg yolk and water that takes years to dry.
Yolks from country fowl for swarthy peasants,
pale ones from town hens for the blessed saints.
And in the dusty silence he murmurs
credos, paternosters, an Ave Maria:
asks the Virgin to infuse his tongue
with that metallic taste of miracles
so he can paint the face of God.
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