Tongues of Fire, by Seán Hewitt

Juliano Zaffino

“For woods are forms of grief / grown from the earth” : Seán Hewitt’s debut full-length collection of poems, Tongues of Fire, begins in familiar territory, both figuratively and literally: of the forty exquisite, tender, exultant and exalted poems, fifteen were previously published in his acclaimed pamphlet Lantern, and ten of these iridescent poems appear in the first of four sections in Tongues of Fire. (Incidentally, only two poems did not make the jump from Lantern – ‘And I will lay down a votive to my silver birch’, and ‘Waterlily’.)

Some of the poems which return are changelings, altered in slight and subtle ways. ‘Dormancy’ has gained an additional three lines: “Like hanging wombs – / ghosts of seed speaking / in their dried-out bristle of tree-skin.” ‘Leaf’, the first poem of both books, is not identically transposed. Now, in Tongues of Fire, it ends “For even in the nighttime of life / it is worth living, just to hold it.”, while in Lantern, the poem ended slightly differently: “just hold it”. And so a single word has been added, substantially changing the meaning of the line, the poem. The weight of this “to”, this amendment of the verb from imperative to infinitive, is exactly the kind of subtlety in communication which Tongues of Fire is concerned with.

The book also houses twenty-five new poems, a veritable feast for the senses, many just as steeped in nature and the divine as the earlier poems from Lantern, many of them moving deeper into these territories and more, charting an unparalleled psychic topography, a survey of sex and want and love and grief, and how time transforms these things and the individual, their spirit. In ‘Ghost’ Hewitt notes that “there is always the soul waiting / at the door of the body, asking to be let out.” Throughout these poems Hewitt does just that, letting out his soul, inviting ours to let themselves free too, for a short while.

The second section of poems, a partial translation of Buile Suibhne, presents a dark narrative steeped in curses, madness, violence, that somehow insists upon devotion and beauty, the cries of the heron, and the necessity of companionship. This fact hits closer to home now than ever in ‘Suibhne Is Wounded, And Confesses’: “things are different now.” Seán Hewitt may be our generation’s answer to/lovechild of John Clare and Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially seen in ‘Vestige’, which directly quotes from Hopkins’ diary, and Lapwings, a poem whose natural beauty is quintessential Clare and whose essence, rhythms and phrases invoke Hopkins at his ‘Windhover’ best: “embers gashed… the sound was dropped, / caught, then dashed to earth.”

Perhaps unavoidably, to write on nature and its beauty is to write about life and death, sex and the soul. Death stalks these pages, but sex is resilient against it, from the vividly sensual ‘Callery Pear’ to the youthful ‘Dryad’. Hewitt’s most jubilant lines come from ‘Adoration’, a poem which moves through the “organ-warm, pulsing” interior of a club in Berlin, where “a white pill held up, / broken”, this ecstatic quais-eucharist, propels joy through movement and union: “and then the music, a congregation / undoing their bodies over / and over into beaming shapes.”

Earlier in the collection, back in ‘Ghost’, Hewitt conjures queer togetherness: “I knew, even then, the rumours about him… how we might share, / once the truth was out, a bond, an elective bond.” These images of queer bodies and their safe closeness, their unabashed glory, manifest themselves perfectly in ‘Adoration’ and resonate far beyond the club, even later in “some dimension / we’d slipped into by chance.” But it’s the end of the poem where Hewitt – returned to his familiar expansive “heath”, the freedom of exterior space – reaches the zenith of love and submission, pleading “Leave me always // in these waste spaces, where / my head is tilted up to God / and I am a wild thing, glowing.” With Hewitt, we do not need to go searching for the divine: it is here, it moves us and moves in us.

There is a gradual move towards the Pentecostal, beginning there. As the poems move towards their end they acquire an increasingly acute taste of grief, as Hewitt’s “pre-elegies” for his father ask us to consider such things that we may never be able to fathom: “Are we all / just wanting to see ourselves / changed, made unearthly?” he asks in ‘Petition’, and ‘“How am I to wear / his love’s burning mantle?”, the final lines of ‘In The Bode-Museum’. The last trio of poems, ‘Tree of Jesse’, ‘Ta Prohm’ and the titular ‘Tongues of Fire’, evoke the most gorgeous and devastating blend of hope and loss, so that the final few stanzas of this book – which proclaim “Our life is a theophany” and that “there is nothing lost, only translated” – are some of the most transcendent lines to ever be committed to verse.

In the image of “yellow fruiting / thorns”, “the Pentacostal flame”, the doubleness of this collection’s title and its final poem define Hewitt’s search for the soul, for spiritual communication through the natural world, joining us to one another, to the earth we have come from, and to whatever place we are “translated” when we go. In the very final lines of the poem/book, Hewitt is “asking over and over // for correlation – that when all is done, / and we are laid down in the earth, we might / listen, and hear love spoken back to us.” This poem is rich with real-life grief, and yet it is nourishing, this collection a testament to life and its glorious vibrant living, to enduring love and the seemingly boundless capacity of the human soul. Hewitt’s poems are, to borrow a line from ‘St John’s Wort’, “a light to illumine / the dark caves of your eyes”. Today I am illumined, and what a genuine blessing that is.

Seán Hewitt’s debut full-length poetry collection, Tongues of Fire, was published 23 April 2020 by Jonathan Cape.

Juliano Zaffino is a writer and reader, and runs the online literary community YourShelf, including The YourShelf Podcast and The YourShelf Press. His debut poetry collection, All Those Bodies And They’re Moving, was published 31 January 2020. Currently, he is studying for his PhD in ‘Cutting Shakespeare’, with the Shakespeare Institute and the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can find Jay on both Instagram and Twitter as @jayzaff and @_yourshelf_.

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