Lantern, Seán Hewitt
Offord Road Books, 2019 £6.00/€7.00
The Light of the World
Both praise-song and prayer, Lantern shines its lyric grace on nature and faith.
Hewitt explores grief and desire in woodland settings, where ‘each tree is an altar to time […] each leaf traps light as it falls’ (‘Leaf’).
Fir trees offer consolation after a hospital visit, with their ‘quiet circles’ and ‘endless stretching upward’ (‘Härskogen’), and a birch becomes the object of veneration in a lovely version of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno:
for he is the light in a darkened wood
for in his way he is the maker of heaven and earth […]
for his flowers are winged
[‘And I will lay down a votive to my silver birch’]
‘Dryad’ transmutes tree to human. The ‘woman carved from the bole of an oak’ guards a wood where the speaker retreats with a lover, and where ‘each tree stood over me / in perfect symmetry with his body.’ He fears burdening the woodland with secrets, but concludes
what is a tree, or a plant, if not an act
of kneeling to the earth, a way of bidding
the water to move, of taking in the mouth
the inner part of the world and coaxing it out.
The vascular tissues of plants are named in ‘Oak Glossary,’ where ‘god is felt in the phloem and xylem / as a deep echo of water.’
In other poems, encounters with water suggest resurrection. ‘Petition’ recalls a submersion in holy water at Lourdes, and observes night-fishermen and interlocking trees, all ‘trying to bring some life / up to the surface, unharmed.’ in ‘Häcksjön’ the speaker, leaping into the lake, ’plumb(s) its dark core, and then its arms / rush in and lift [him] back to the light.’
Hewitt’s themes of nature and faith are allied to those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, about whom he has written elsewhere. Hopkins, in ‘The Lantern Out of Doors,’ observes the beauty of men who pass by with their ‘wading light,’ but he cannot follow them.
Hewitt’s Lantern illuminates a more compassionate and inclusive spirituality and sexuality: ‘The world is dark / but the wood is full of stars’ (‘Wild Garlic’).
The world is dark, but the wood is full of stars
Seán Hewitt’s pamphlet lives up to its name, offering glimmers of light in a world saturated by darkness. This collection is the soul-cry of a boy growing into an adulthood that remains vulnerable, but takes on a shine of unguarded wisdom.
In the garden, in ‘Kyrie’, the protagonist hears the cries of cats, and mistakes them for a child left outside. He is taken back to the suicide (or attempted) of a loved one, and to the memory of breaking the news to his mother, his crying over the phone:
[…] and how I made
an animal sound, a noise so primitive
that I felt inhuman
Throughout, Hewitt’s language is strikingly measured, enlarging the impact of the poems’ meaning. The significance of events transpires retrospectively in the reader’s mind with a slow awakening. This was particularly effective in ‘Moor’, where the separate pieces suddenly took on a complete picture towards the end, and I had to re-read it immediately, now with an awful dread at seeing much darker action buried within its words.
Nature serves as a balm for complicated love, for grief, and uncertainty. The cold quench of water, rain-saturated woods, and night-time wanderings, offer the narrator solace:
[ … ] On my knees, I put my hand
into the dark of the pond, watch it open
like a white flower.
Images such as the ‘strange geometry’ of the faces of two barn owls give delightful new vantage points for seeing the familiar. Patterns of repeated words create subtle rhyming schemes that encourage thoughtful reading. Allusions to prayer and mysticism depict Nature with reverence, but it’s a worship that remains deeply earth-bound.
The collection blends grief, kindness, and conflicted hopefulness. In many ways the mood remains constant throughout. It is beautiful, coherent, and evocative, but I also look forward to seeing what Hewitt does next. I hope he surprises us.