Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire – Review by Pauline Rowe

This December on the Land Lines Blog, we are delighted to share with you a miniseries of reviews of key contemporary nature writing texts – including creative nonfiction and poetry – contributed by some wonderful writers and academics. Keep a look out for more instalments of the series over the next few weeks!

‘the living thing/pulled from the earth and lifted’: Seán Hewitt’s poetics of vital materialism in Tongues of Fire

Seán Hewitt’s accomplished debut collection Tongues of Fire (Jonathon Cape, 2020) celebrates the natural world through unashamed lyric poetry that examines the relational connection of bodies and creatures and things. It surveys the edge-lands of towns, urban ghosts and hauntings, grief and loss, male desire embodied in woods and earth, as well as weather and light, and the ontology of creatures and other living things, including trees and ‘their endless stretching upwards’ (‘Härskogen’, TOF, p.12).  Hewitt’s is more an aesthetics of vital materialism than queer eco-poetics, as he is concerned to challenge anthropocentric preoccupations and offer, in part,  a study of the affective relationships between bodies and living things, the creatureliness of creatures, the tree-ness of trees and their ‘long/ suffering bodies (‘Psalm’, TOF, p.16). 

The first poem ‘Leaf’ is a credo or prayer to trees and collections of trees:

For woods are forms of grief
grown from the earth. For they creak

with the weight of it…

We are located in the world where collectively trees carry the grief of the earth. What is this grief? It is a heavy burden as it has such weight that the bodies of trees creak beneath it. And the tree becomes a symbol of prayer and sacrifice: ‘an altar to time’ and a preserver of precious life giving elements with each knot of the oak’s body becoming ‘a hushed cymbal of water.’ The sound of life in the tree is contained. This first poem is driven by the need to name the essential elements of Hewitt’s landscape: woods, grief, earth, tree, altar, time, oak, water, water, heavens, eye, axletree, heaven, wind, moon, leaf, light, life.  He often includes a single reference to a colour in a poem (in ‘Leaf’ it is ‘silver’) or time of day.  The final lines of ‘Leaf’ affirm the essential imperative, to live:

For how each leaf traps light as it falls.

For even in the nighttime of life
it is worth living, just to hold it.

This poetry is concerned with the matter of the world and cycles of living, where the bodies of men meet in the woods and live, where matter decays and is renewed. Tongues of Fire is brimming with trees, and parts of trees, woods and plants;  leaf,  oak (many oaks), hawthorn, rhododendron, green moss, pines, lilac, grass, conifers, St John’s Wort, pines, fir, wych elm, oak, wild garlic, watercress, wood-sorrels, blackthorns, and more. The collection also pays attention to seasons and birds, as the poems move across the world and through time, from local woodlands in North West England to Suffolk, to Sweden, to the ancient mythical Ireland of Suibhne, to Liverpool’s Princes Park, from woods and heaths, from dark quiet places and frozen lakes, to minds and bodies. Hewitt’s poetry also speaks of pain and human desire,  as it pursues the close, careful study of the visible and invisible to reveal the wondrous life abundant in, and of, the earth, as well as the fragility and perseverance of human life and suffering love. 

Hewitt says of his own approach to poetics:

The natural world is full of bodies, full of things constantly in motion, at work. Like a poem, nature pulls things up from the earth and brings those things into new form and meaning. Poems, I think, are the artefacts of our mind, just as trees, or birds, are the artefacts of history, biology, weather, all those things we might think of as the mind of the world. Each is an inflection of it, some moving part of the greater whole.

(‘I Would Give All My Poems To Have My Father Back’, The Irish Times, 23 April 2020)

Respect for the community of living things is central to this collection. Its structure also mirrors ‘things…from the earth’, ‘artefacts of …mind’, and the ‘mind of the world’: the first section of poems from ‘Leaf’ to ‘Wild Garlic’ is immersed in what the philosopher Jane Bennett calls ‘affective currents coursing between human and non-human things’ (‘Encounters With An Art Thing’, Jane Bennett, p.76) and a circuit of pathos between different kinds of bodies ‘that bridges the gap between self and object’ (‘Encounters with An Art Thing’, Jane Bennett, p.79). In the poem ‘Barn Owls in Suffolk’ (TOF, p.2) the connectedness of bird and air and earth comes through silence, the owls’ distinctive non-human non-verbal bodily silence:

and everything – their whiteness,
their sense of having slipped
through from another world,
their focus on the hunt –

in the end it all comes down
to their silence –
the way each feather disperses
the air, how each wavers –

The integrity of owlness, or thing-power of the bird is a kind of hypnotism that connects with the observer in and outside the poem. It creates affect, it places the reader in the midst of this strange daylight flight of two hunting owls as we too:

wonder what omen it is
to see two barn owls hunting
in mid-morning, so quietly
secretive, for surely

there is something in the slow
spread of the wing, the moment
of inverted flight, the living thing
pulled from the earth and lifted.

The second section of the book offers seven poems of translational interpretation of Buile Suibhne, the 12th-century narrative of the Cycle of Kings, known in English as ‘The Madness of Sweeney’ and most widely known in Seamus Heaney’s versions, Sweeney Astray and Sweeney’s Flight. The mad king wanders Ireland after being cursed and sent out naked to live in the treetops (‘This was where all the mad men came’  ‘Suibhne in the Glen’, TOF p.21).    In the preface to the 1992 edition of Sweeney’s Flight Heaney writes about the Suibhne myth:

This material belongs to everyone, it has the given anonymous, in-placeness of hillside and shorelines and even though it dramatizes the predicament of an individual character, the character himself is often less an individual than a mouthpiece for the common primary sensations and emotions which everybody experiences in the presence of the natural world.

What is so affecting in Hewitt’s ‘orphan’ versions of the Suibhne poems is their focus on the human need for community:

         …It is hard
to be without the sound of children
or music or the voices of women

and it is cold, cold for me now –
since my body has lived outside

They also celebrate Eorann and Fer Caille’s and Moling’s love for Suibhne.

O Suibhne, let’s keep guard
over each other, now
that we have found ourselves.   (ToF p.270)

and again:

     …let us care
for each other. Let us never sleep
more than two trees apart
for the whole length of the year.

In the third section of Tongues of Fire we find a closer concern with human spaces and relationships, with remembrance, meditation and reflection on the fragilities and vulnerabilities of human life and the consolations offered by the natural world:

the slow year becoming flesh
in amniotic colour, its soft fruit
hung along the corridor of gorse,

and all the while a constant
systole and diastole in the fog
as though the whole wrecked world

were a heart beating.

In the final section of eight poems that start  with ‘Lapwings’ (p.51), we encounter grief poems (or what the poet refers to as ‘pre-elegies’) surrounding Hewitt’s father’s death. These poems retain the aesthetic of vital materialism in deeply affecting ways. The title poem ‘Tongues of Fire’ (p.65) opens with a celebratory meditation of wonder at the sight of the bright orange fungus, that grow directly from the branches of Wild Juniper trees.  This is a visible, pentecostal and beautiful blight that announces itself to the world in contrast to the invisible cancer destroying his father.

…Only the rattle of his chest lifting
and sinking (hardly any words

for weeks now – the tumour
suppressing the vocal chords)
and then a sudden need

to see inside, to know for myself
which cells on the lung were splitting
each minute and breaking time

into this kaleidoscope
of slow haul and frantic loss.
No apparition, no tongue of fire

to tell us before too late
of the blight on his frame…. (ToF pp.67-68)

Tongues of Fire is an extraordinarily affecting book that celebrates human life, living and mortality as part of earthly change; queer sexuality is interrogated as an integral part of the natural world, and death is mourned and questioned with uncanny wisdom.  This poetry celebrates life in all things for even the strangest phenomena here are considered to possess integrity.  Hewitt voices a radical eco-poetry distinctive in the recent lyric tradition of poets like Kathleen Jamie, Michael Longley and Alice Oswald – for his poetry pursues integration and connectedness between the desiring male and the natural world, between the human body and other bodies, not simply voicing landscape, or noticing the world or speaking through a natural object but being integral to it, emerging from it; being in communion with the earth. 

by Dr Pauline Rowe

Photo of Seán Hewitt (Credit: Bríd O’Donovan)


Jane Bennett ‘Encounters With an Art Thing’

Seán Hewitt, Tongues of Fire (London, Jonathon Cape, 2020)

Irish Times article:án-hewitt-i-would-give-all-my-poems-to-have-my-father-back-1.4218852

About the Author

Dr Pauline Rowe was awarded a PhD in 2019 from Liverpool University. She also has an MA in Creative Arts, a degree in Law, and is currently working on a study about the American poet, Frank Bidart. Her poetry pamphlet The Ghost Hospital (Maytree Press, 2019) was shortlisted in the 2020 Saboteur Awards. Her pamphlet The Weight of Snow is forthcoming with Maytree Press (Feb, 2021). She is an Associate Tutor at Edge Hill University, and her broader research interests include:Frank Bidart, photopoetry, writing & wellbeing, eco-poetics, collaborative practice, sexuality, motherhood, contemporary lyric poetry, women’s poetry, mental health, and modernism. She has 6 children and lives in Liverpool.

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