Seán Hewitt – Lantern (Offord Road Book, 2019)
I used to love metaphors, but now I’m happiest with a raw noun. Oak. Leaf. Bud. River. Natural stuff that just sits there. These words seem like enough in themselves, like runes. They capture solid living things and print them as symbols, ready for the mind. I can stare at the paper for hours and they stare back, magical: whole and complete.
But the subject of nature is so done at this point, it feels as if to notice a tree is to become instantly anachronistic. Perhaps this is true. There aren’t that many trees left, after all…
Which is why it was such a pleasant surprise when I discovered Seán Hewitt’s collection Lantern. Hewitt has done what, prior to reading his work, I would have doubted was possible, which is to bring new life to the pastoral form.
His poems are dense with foliage. If not explicitly being about trees – “Leaf”, “Oak Glossary”, “Dormancy” – his work engages with fauna – “Barn Owls in Suffolk” – and landscape – “Evening Poem”. In each, the beloved nouns are arranged with precision and elegance.
The originality of the collection lies in what Andrew McMillan describes as a “queering” of natural imagery. In part, this refers to the Ovidian transformations that enfold nature and language into each other, turning solid noun into solid noun through a more fluid stream of verbs.
Yet it also refers to sexual antics taking place in the woods. The woods as a common location for teenage countryside adventures. Nature as a backdrop for sex, with the pantheism of the Romantic poets creeping its way in on top:
As I looked up, the sky hidden under a rain
Of leaves, each tree stood over me
In perfect symmetry with his body.
The initial emergence of this sexuality did, I admit, take me by surprise. It served at first as an imposition but then, on rereading, I felt how it fit in to the verse. Hewitt has a masterful control of language and imagery, with all his poem’s edges being rounded; not exactly smooth, but well-carved.
It’s a thin collection, staple-bound, and one that would benefit from locational reading. I plan to take it away with me to the countryside on my next visit out there as I feel that even more could be found in these poems when read in situ.
Although perhaps, like Wordsworth, these poems are better understood as emotion recollected in tranquillity. Both the lure of the woods and the adventures of youthful sexuality are made beautiful by the writing. Perhaps they are frozen too, or pinned down like butterflies.
Either way, I would very much recommend Hewitt’s poetry for anyone interested in rural verses. It offers a new and exciting voice in an area that struggles with its own stasis. It’s a collection you’ll return to often, and find new things each time.
– Joe Darlington