All Down Darkness Wide, by Seán Hewitt, Jonathan Cape, 240 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1787333383
Although barely into his thirties, Seán Hewitt has already established his reputation as a poet, academic and Irish Times critic. Having won awards and accolades for his debut poetry collection, Tongues of Fire, followed by a study on JM Synge’s dramatic and prose works, his memoir has been highly anticipated. And it doesn’t disappoint.
All Down Darkness Wide is a beautifully wrought meditation on queer love and heartbreak. Aside from the (very different) 2009 book, Cissie’s Abbatoir by Eibhear Walshe (which captures the loneliness of a “nancy boy” growing up in a small conservative town), Hewitt’s memoir appears to be without contemporary Irish antecedents.
There is a continuous temporal and geographic circularity to this fluidly non-linear story, which begins with an anonymous sexual encounter in a cemetery in Liverpool after his great love affair with Elias has ended. Once we meet Elias, the emotional impact is all the more poignant, because of our advance knowledge of the profound depression he will slip into.
Seeking adventure before embarking on his degree at Cambridge, Hewitt decides to travel to Colombia – as this is the cheapest long-haul flight he can find. To him, Colombia is “a fantasy world where things could happen”, the landscape “so alive, so awake”. But of course it is the narrator himself who is alive, awake; through his eyes, the world glimmers.
There’s a frisson of sexuality in Hewitt’s descriptions even of nature. At a waterfall and river in Colombia, a group of boys are “pulling leaves from the trees around them, and watching them float off into the water, then shudder suddenly with the taut current, before being drawn over the edge”.
Hewitt doesn’t know how to behave around “straight boys”. He knows the pattern: “a kind straight boy recognises my attention, wants to be cool and gentle with my desire, and then begins to avoid me …” He falls for Elias, whom he meets in a hostel, and who turns up later in another town. Their journey together extends to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, months of intimacy that could never have been achieved so swiftly in “normal” life. After spending time in Liverpool, they move to Sweden.
The story weaves back to his life as a child. From a young age, Hewitt was strikingly self-aware, due to his alertness to social nuances around homosexuality. Even though he was a millennial child, he knew intuitively that he should conceal his real sexual identity, due to the lingering influence of the church. One poignant detail is his recollection of the “kind, large woman” who counselled the six-year-old Hewitt not to be gay, because gay people were “unhappy”. Even though he tried hard to conceal his “gayness”, people throughout his childhood and early teens warned him against it. It felt dangerous to be gay, and he did everything he could to hide the compulsion. At the same time, he suspected their motives.
When they said, ‘I’m just scared you’ll be unhappy’, what I really felt they were saying was, ‘I am scared that if you continue being yourself, we will make you unhappy.’ A sort of threat, veiled as a kindness.
“I’d always been guarded,” he writes, “when it came to my own desires. Perhaps it was some latent shame, or a longing, as someone who had spent years setting myself apart through books and cleverness, not to be reduced to my body, which was a thing everyone had, and something I wanted to distinguish myself from.”
When, back in Sweden, Elias slips into an all-consuming depression and becomes overwhelmed by thoughts of suicide, it impacts dramatically on Hewitt’s own state of mind. His account of the Gothenburg winters and his helpless anguish at being unable to help his partner are evoked with both honesty and tenderness. There’s also a heightened self-consciousness and perhaps defensiveness about his own feelings and responses, while we are left almost in the dark about Elias’s thoughts and conversations. One welcome respite for Hewitt and an opportunity for them to do something together during those long, dark months and years is when they begin translating together the work of Swedish poet Karin Boyes, whose suicide was precipitated by the death of the woman she loved. Like Elias, Boyes suffered from depression, and one has the sense that this is a mental health issue that affects a significant number of members of the LGBTQ community.
Hewitt has said in an interview that he wanted his memoir to be gothic and also “porous”, opening up to history, freely allowing ghosts to come and go, to guide and teach him. Each chapter, with its own distinct quality, is linked by ghosts – the ghosts of past and future lovers, of his beloved, late father, for whom he is still grieving, of the lonely, anxious child he was, and particularly, the ghosts of Gerard Manly Hopkins and Karin Boye.
The title of the book is taken from a poem by Hopkins. The poem begins: “Sometimes a lantern moves along the night …” The last line of the first stanza reads: “… all down darkness wide, his wading light …”. For his boyfriend, Elias, Hewitt feels that he must be the wading light – until that burden becomes too heavy.
Although the material is dark, a cinematic quality lights up the writing. There’s a slow, controlled, Proustian delicacy to the narrative, a heightened awareness, gifted by close memory of intense first experiences. Each paragraph amplifies the atmosphere. Colours and scents and textures are accentuated, objects are magnified. Already I can imagine the film, a camera lovingly lingering over the details of a cemetery, a snowy forest, a rushing river before the actors enter the scene.
In his book of essays The Written Word, Kevin Power quotes Susan Sontag describing art as “the intelligent gratification of consciousness”. In All Down Darkness Wide, the reader’s pleasure in the narrative is heightened by the presence of Hopkins, a poet and closeted Jesuit priest, who, for Hewitt, is the “wading light” through the darkness. Of the poet, Hewitt writes: “He loved other men, too, but could never say it, though his poems are full of their bodies, their beauty.”
Like McGahern, Hewitt is sensitive to environment, with a poet’s eye for disparate connections. For example, the evocatively portrayed church grounds, where he meets an anonymous man for sex, and the darkroom where he develops timeless black and white photographs of Jack, with whom he’d had an early, on-off college fling. These two environments both evoke a ghostly atmosphere: the gothic St James’s Cemetery in Liverpool, and the ghostliness of Jack’s image as it gradually develops under the chemicals.
Ghosts meander throughout the book. In chapter one, a sentence that gave me pause for thought was “Ghosts in the water, ghosts in the blood.” After one random sexual encounter, he sits up in bed and notices swollen glands. He subsequently becomes haunted by terrors of the dreaded virus associated with the gay community: “I could almost feel the virus pricking and spreading in my body. I panicked. I sweated cold and then hot.” His imagination extrapolates each moment of intimacy: “every encounter, every man, and from there, all of their men, all of their encounters, spreading outwards and outwards over the city, then the country, then continents, linking thousands of us together by what we had given to each other, and what we had taken. That night in the cemetery was just one node in a huge, sprawling network. History seeping from one man into the warm body of another …”
Hewitt’s descriptions are both lavish and a means of sustaining suspense. He constantly sets up the stakes – for example, when he’s on his way to meet Jack for the first time – then spends two pages stalling the meeting, by describing the route from the pub, through the elaborate formal Cambridge gardens, to Jack’s college room. This constant pressure of the writing gives an indication of the level of suspense and anxiety the author must have felt as a boy, constantly alert, constantly straining to hide his true nature from others. Nevertheless, he also knew that a “dangerous sense of inevitability” stalked him. “I had so much of the world to cast off if I was ever going to be free.”
At times the narrative is heart-wrenching, as Hewitt learns “how to hide a lisp, how to correct a too-expressive walk, how to pitch my voice lower …” Perhaps discretion is the reason he avoids that pivotal moment of “coming out”. Nevertheless, the omission feels like a crucially missed moment in a memoir that painstakingly portrays the concealment of his identity throughout his early years. Certainly, he allows his family privacy in this memoir, and they are almost never mentioned, except in one key moment when his mother walks out of the church as the priest is denouncing the civil marriage referendum.
Religion is a key undertow that haunts the narrative, evoking the potent sense of shame and guilt that dogged the young author, even as he tried to finesse his way into conformity. Scattered throughout the book are oblique reminders of his Catholic upbringing: the cross hanging from a ring in his left earlobe, the “bible-thin paper” of his battered copy of the bawdy, picaresque Tom Jones, his first encounter with Jack and Hasan, “a sort of trinity”. After sex in a graveyard, the speaker stopping at a spring to rinse his mouth, “cleansing myself back into sanctity”. As a teenager he even volunteers to assist disabled pilgrims in Lourdes.
By the time he reaches Cambridge, he has cultivated himself into “a sort of inviolability”. After his meeting with Jack, “a bravery of sorts” breaks through. But these two empowering moments are tempered with the moderating “sort of / of sorts”, suggesting that a constant undercurrent of anxiety pulls him back from the arena of declarative confidence.
Reserved in manner himself, Hewitt is drawn to Elias for his initial ebullience, his knack for spontaneous joy, and he responds to Hopkins, the visionary poet he is studying, in a similar way. Hopkins’s poems are “so ecstatic” that he feels the urge to stop reading, go out and appreciate the wonder of the world. Hopkins’s presence is constantly alive in the narrative. His classic poem “Pied Beauty” is etched in stone in a park in Hewitt’s home town of Liverpool, where it perhaps first embedded in him Hopkins’s vivid rhythm and language. Hewitt, in the first throes of his new life with Elias back in Liverpool, is grateful for the drag queens who hang out on the steps of the gay sauna across the road, and “all things counter, original, spare, strange”.
Throughout the book, Hewitt artfully interweaves atmospheres, encounters and meditations. One way that he sustains tension and suspense is via a complex conflation or fluidity of time and place. An example of this is in the development of the following paragraph:
In the blue Volvo I was already steeling myself, anticipating something, trying to think ahead. What if we met one of his friends? What if he ran away? We turned out of the apartment, down the narrow hill-road and out on to the carriageway. Ten minutes later we got caught in the traffic lights waiting for the trams to leave at Korsvägen. I closed my eyes and remembered that other time when I had been driven through that junction, desperately willing the lights to change, with Elias out at the summerhouse, his faltering voice on the phone. I opened my eyes and looked into the rearview mirror. He was in the backseat now, leaning his forehead against the cold window. The grey light played across his empty face, the clean glass shimmering it over his body.
The physical movement of the paragraph is not simply by means of the car, but via his thoughts, which take the couple from their current location on the carriageway to a future where the possible meeting of friends is seen as a threat, to the past, when they were in separate places, Hewitt in the car at the same junction they’re at now, Elias at the summerhouse, his voice on the phone, “faltering”, but acting as a thread, pulling Hewitt closer to him – and back to the present again, where Elias is in the back seat, his face “empty”. While the language moves effortlessly along, the reader is confronted with a multitude of impressions of both inner and external realities.
More than anything else, the quality of conveyed emotion is what will mark out this work as a modern classic.
“It was as though he had perfected the art of himself,” Hewitt writes of Jack. I could say the same of the author. The strikingly titled All Down Darkness Wide is destined to be a “wading light” for the LGBTQ community and an exceptional addition to the Irish literary canon.
Afric McGlinchey’s most recent book is Tied to the Wind, an auto-fictional hybrid memoir, published by Broken Sleep Books: https://www.brokensleepbooks.com/product-page/afric-mcglinchey-tied-to-the-wind