It’s not often that a poetry book comes complete with an introduction and notes but both do sterling work in providing a context for these poems about the life of the artist Gwen John whose achievements have been somewhat overshadowed by those of her more famous brother Augustus.
Sue Hubbard brings her characteristic empathy and inventiveness to bear in telling John’s story from her life in Tenby, to her time at the Slade, to her move to Paris with Dorelia McNeill, on whom she may have had a crush, and who later lived in a ménage à trois with her brother and his wife Ida Nettleship. Gwen had to model to earn money and Hubbard concisely and dramatically evokes the humiliation such work could involve: ‘insolent hands on her small breasts.’
The majority of poems in this splendid collection concern Gwen’s fateful relationship with the sculptor Auguste Rodin who was 36 years her senior. The verse pulls no punches in its evocation of desire: at one stage I had to loosen my collar. Hubbard is no less deft when it comes to conjuring the agony of being displaced by another in the affections of the beloved. One of her many gifts is to present love in the round, how it can abase as well as elevate: ‘she wants only to button his boots.’
After her affair with Rodin ended, John threw herself into her work. ‘The Poetry of Things’ is one of the standout pieces in the volume where ‘clouds of spray’ become ‘strings of prayer beads / lucent as benedictions.’ Art and religion offer a way forward for the broken self ‘only paint and prayer / can offer salvation.’
With its wonderfully glowing imagery this is a work to be treasured.