London Grip Poetry Review – Sue Wallace Shaddad & Sula Rubens

Poetry review – SLEEPING UNDER CLOUDS : Sarah Mnatzaganian admires these vivid and compassionate poems by Sue Wallace Shaddad which draw inspiration from the paintings of Sula Rubens

Sleeping Under Clouds 
Sue Wallace Shaddad and Sula Rubens
Clayhanger Press 2023  

Sleeping Under Clouds is a beautifully produced collection of poems and the paintings which inspired them. As poets, we wander through life, panning for gold, and it’s clear that Sue Wallace Shaddad has found a rich seam of inspiration in the work of artist Sula Rubens. The first seven poems in this collection reflect on Wallace Shaddad’s encounter with nineteen paintings in watercolour and acrylic by Rubens entitled Kin, which tenderly and colourfully depict displaced children and animals in unidentified landscapes. The poems and the paintings can together be seen as a compassionate response to Mahmoud Darwish’s urging ‘When you go home to your own house, think of the lives of others./ Don’t forget the refugees in their tents’ ( from “Think of the lives of others” by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by A K Mnatzaganian).

The first section of the book, Maps, introduces the reader to the main theme of the collection: and the poet uses an introductory sequence to express the depth of her response to the paintings she will deal with individually in the second half of the book. Maps refers to the fact that eight of the Kin series of paintings use an atlas or map as their ‘canvas’; the transparent pigments used by the artist allow the map to show through the paintings. For example, the image chosen for the book cover depicts a child holding a baby whose head and spine are clearly bisected by a vertical line of longitude; the map’s mountains and rivers are indistinct but still visible beneath the surface of a wide sea behind the children.

The second poem, “Traces”, begins:

Each line marks a border
drawn by the suffering 
of humankind, a map

where rivers, blue-veined,
crisscross the skin
of an ancient hand,

delicate, paper-thin.

Like many poems in this collection, “Traces” speaks quietly but confidently to the reader, conveying a perspective which is sensitively but firmly grounded in common sense. Short lines, natural phrasing and simple vocabulary are a feature of the poems in this collection, in harmony with the large font size of the text and the child-centred images. Wallace Shaddad is candid with her reader:

I can never hope to understand
the language of their pain or see
the images that fill their sleep
at night.
                                             [from "Keeping Going"] 

“On the Road” focuses on a nanny goat. The empathy of the poet for this helpless animal is a subtle vehicle for her concern for all refugees:

She remains close, tethered.
She has no name.

Soon they will pack and leave,
shifting like desert dunes.

The journeying will be long.
She will not die where she was born.

The second part of Sleeping Under Clouds is a series of ekphrastic responses to nineteen paintings by Rubens. The paintings and poems are beautifully reproduced on excellent paper, in square format, so that the book opens easily and naturally to reveal each poem and image, side by side. Like the paintings, some of which are reminiscent of early Picasso with their statuesque figures and blue palettes, Wallace Shaddad’s poems are earthy, physical and deceptively simple. As well as deftly describing each painting, they offer the reader and viewer a subtle suggestion of how to approach a picture such as Self Portrait: “Protecting, till the danger past, with human love”, a powerful image, inspired by a poem by WB Yeats, of a woman holding her half grown son.

There’s solidity in the gesture,
a certainty which states

no-one may come between.  
                                        [from "Held"]

Most poems describe their subject in the third person, but “Watch Out” is addressed to a small child hugging a lamb to his chest. A touch of the surreal enters the poem as the leopard pattern trousers on the line behind the child personify the dangers of being on the move:

Watch Out

there’s a leopard behind you,
all yellow with brown spots,
balancing on the washing line!
[…] 		He fancies
a taste of fresh meat,

Rubens’ paintings are full of life and colour. The strength of her identification with her subject transforms many of her images into icons. Wallace Shaddad responds in kind, weighing her words carefully, using skillfully chosen titles which create a sense of wonder and possibility for the shortest of poems, one of which I’ll quote here in full and which responds to the image on the book cover:


Head against cheek,
arms holding tight,

they rise from the water
like disembodied ghosts.

No words to explain
from where they have come.

The sea is a foreign place.
Not all will escape. 

Wallace Shaddad’s poems are as translucent as the watercolours they describe; calm commentaries on images of children out in the open, undefended, caring for themselves. Emotion is controlled, leaving the reader space to respond. “Tipping Point” responds to a painting of a boy beside water, painted over an antique marbled book cover whose pattern mimics the ripples across the boy’s body and the sea behind him. It’s unclear to me if the boy is really separate or safe from the water, or whether he has, in fact, drowned and is drifting with the current. Wallace Shaddad explores this possibility with characteristic subtlety in “Tipping Point”:

Tilting his curved body
like a moon on its axis
he calls out to the tides.
Suspended, he listens 
to the siren sea,

This memorable and beautiful book will surely move the reader’s heart and mind to compassion for all displaced and marginalized people who are driven to leave their homes and all that is familiar.