Published by Cape in 2020, Tongues of Fire is Hewitt’s first full collection after the remarkable ‘Lantern’, a pamphlet published by Offord Road Press.
It’s difficult to write about this collection without a heavy reliance on superlatives. It’s a wondrous book, full of hope and beauty. There’s a lot of darkness too – grief weighs heavy in many of the poems – but the escape door is always left open so it’s never too claustrophobic.
Hewitt could almost be described as ‘New Neo-Romantic’ in the way he meshes personal experience with Nature. Rather than humankind interacting with Nature through the role of awe-filled omniscient, we co-exist and our experiences are enriched through our closeness to the Natural world.
The opening poem ‘Leaf’ imbues this sense of hope in the face of grief. Opening with “woods are forms of grief” it closes on the more positive:
“For even in the nighttime of life
it is worth living, just to hold it.”
In addition to the weaving of human experience and nature, what makes many of the poems in the collection so magical is the musicality of Hewitt’s language. Phrases such as “the day held on the light edge of breaking” (‘Dryad’) and “considering all the ways/ a mind can uproot itself” (‘Kyrie’) show Hewitt’s deftness at mingling the two worlds in a way that feels both fresh and timeless. Nature is not just a foil against which human experience is mapped – it’s part of a symbiosis. The first section ends with ‘Wild Garlic’ and the hopeful “The world is dark/ but the wood is full of stars.”
The second section of the collection feels Yeatsian in its treatment of Celtic mythology. Like in earlier poems, there is a heavy emphasis on the natural world in ‘Buile Suibhne’ and stars feature prominently:
“no matter where I go
my sins follow. First
the starry frost will fall
at night onto every pool.”
The next section of the poem opens with ‘Ghost’ which marks a subtle shift. This is a more urban, more personal poem. The poems that follow are more of an exploration of self as the speaker draws wisdom from nature, such as in ‘October’:
“This is how the world turns:
love like a marrow flower closing,
like another trying still to open.”
Grief beings to ring more loudly as the collection develops. We see more questioning of the cycle of life in poems like ‘Lapwings’ and ‘Evening Poem’, where the speaker muses: “It is hard to tell where heaven/ starts, and where it ends.”
There’s a tenderness in the later poems as the speaker explores his father’s last days, drawing on the minute detail of the experience to explore his feelings about death and the afterlife and the legacies that linger in the empty space left when someone dies. The longer poem ‘Tree of Jesse’ is astonishing in its declaration of love for his father:
“… I felt in that moment
the privilege of being alive
in your mind”
This last section examines the relationship between memory and legacy and how we remember those who have left. Poems such as ‘Two Reflections’ use nature as a foil to interrogate the theme.
Despite the grief, the collection ends on a note of hope, coming full circle back to the hopefulness we see in the earlier sections. In the final poem ‘Tongues Of Fire’, Hewitt returns to nature for answers – but there’s also some strong references to religion here. Hinted at in earlier poems, it’s at the forefront in references to the Pentecostal flame. There’s a sense of conclusion in this poem as the speaker openly questions the relationship between God and the natural order of the world. In the end, only love matters:
“..when all is done,
and we are laid down in the earth, we might
listen, and hear love spoken back to us.”