Seán Hewitt, Tongues of Fire – review

Tongues of Fire is finely honed in expression, unsettled and unsettling in content. It combines intellectual analysis with extreme sensuous alertness. There are many fine short poems on wild nature, including a series on the mythical Irish outlaw Suibhne. Beyond these, Hewitt uses metaphors both Christian and pagan – sometimes in startling ways – to suggest an almost religious reverence for life’s processes. However, such positive feelings have to maintain themselves against grief, pain and emotional conflict. Several poems deal with Hewitt’s father’s impending death by cancer. Others seem implicitly shadowed by it. Some explicitly present gay love and sexuality, and others seem to touch the same themes indirectly. All are bold and original in thought, feeling and expression. They draw these qualities from apparent personal experience, but their breadth and depth of resonance come from their familiarity with traditional forms and genres, which they remodel and combine in striking ways.

One example is the relatively long ‘Dryad’. Framing personal memories in reminiscences of Ovidian myth, eighteenth century topographical poetry and Romantic nature worship, this recalls a period of furtive homoerotic encounters with strangers in a wood at night near the poet’s old school, once with a man he thought might kill him. He remembers suddenly seeing the trees around him as being like a man he was fellating:

Each was like a man with his head bent,
each watching and moving and making slow
laboured sighs.

He wonders whether such associations have ruined woods for him, but then asks what trees or plants themselves are, if not acts of kneeling to the earth. So, in a way that homophobia and sexual repression have made startling, he claims a place for homoerotic adventuring within the ancient idea of Eros as the fundamental life force of the universe. It’s a stunning moment that seems to touch a vital nerve of existence in the way it combines compulsive attraction with terror.

In ‘Dryad’, violent emotion is recalled in a reflective spirit. ‘Tree of Jesse’, in contrast, seems almost manic. The memory of a Portuguese baroque altarpiece showing Christ’s genealogy as a tree, with Jesse at its root and the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms at its crown, becomes an image for the poet’s feelings about his father’s approaching death. Short, powerfully propulsive lines whose endings cut against the grain of the syntax create the impression of a rollercoaster of sensations and ideas. The surreal picture of a tree with “twelve men / like gaudy fruits blooming” on its branches becomes an image trembling between horror and exaltation:

The body clasped at the root,
the tree lifting its blood

in ropes through the trunk, feeding,
and at the top the Christ-child
like the sun ringed

in hammered gold

Hewitt tells us that the memory of that altarpiece came to haunt him as a representation he couldn’t unsee of his father’s living death:


                        instead of Jesse,
it is you lying there – your body
proliferating upwards, being

reconstituted, broken down
into growth

After saying what a privilege it felt to be living a life beyond himself in one of his father’s dreams, Hewitt writes

You are not leaving, I know,

but shifting into image – my head
already is haunted with you.
I have become a living afterlife.

On one level that last line says that the dead live on in their descendants. However, it also carries the sense – typical of bereavement – that the poet himself feels unmade by his father’s approaching death.

Hewitt wrestles again with the anguish of this death and what it means for his sense of God and the value and meaning of life in the last poem, ‘Tongues of Fire’. In this, the horns of a parasitic fungus destroying a stand of juniper trees are compared with both the tongues of fire that appeared when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and the cancer destroying his father’s lungs. There are no conclusions, only apprehensions, recognitions on the one hand of the inherence of destruction in life –“Some mute violence is budding / on all these shaking forms”– and on the other resounding but uncertain declarations of hope:

                                                this is when

we make God, and speak in his voice.
Crying, again, amongst the shivering wild.

“Our life is a theophany” – a visible manifestation of God – Hewitt declares, and the sense of passionate religious enquiry runs through his whole book, even where it’s not explicit in a given poem. There’s hardly a piece that isn’t striking and rewarding on its own, but the way recurring archetypal images and thematic ideas fold into and ricochet off each other means that each individual poem means most when seen in dialogue with the others around it.

Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt.  Jonathan Cape. 80pp.; £10.00.

I would like to thank the Acumen editors Patricia Oxley and Danielle Hope for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 100.

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