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Followed by Silence

Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Lantern, by Seán Hewitt, Offord Road Books, 26 pp, £6, ISBN: 978-1999930493

There is so much speech in this collection ‑ not all of which is spoken. Voices are “alien”, language is that of folkloric trees, mouths are mossy; the undergrowth is full of moans.

Even in the (almost) silence, there is a need for one’s ear to remain ready, on alert. At moments when we fear that all sound could so easily be lost – faltering radio signals, water’s “hushed” orchestra, the sounds of winter; so nearly drowned out by the elements – all is still within our clawing grasp.

I don’t recall ever experiencing a more arresting opening line than that which we are gifted with in “Leaf”:

for woods are forms of grief’

and none other could have so properly determined the rest of the route. This is a collection with loss, sorrow, fear and longing buried at its roots. But in the new growth, some leaves still not even unfurled, we also find such hope, such dedication to life; able, rather than unable:

 to turn the light into strength.

The authorial voice is strong and authentic, forcing us to keep up, though shattered we may be. These are words about life and birth, and we must listen:

an animal sound, a noise so primitive
that I felt inhuman, how I cried
like something new-born.

During moments when the air is circular and seemingly still ‑ still, even then ‑ in that weightless quietude; a lone fox, barking. We are ready for him. He is all at once the place both in and of itself. He is the poet that has written him into being; he is, too, nothing more than a creature made of blood and bones, is that fox. Hewitt’s work takes the natural world and unearths it from the places in which we so keenly try to entomb it. He brings us that little bit closer to ourselves, the deeper into the work we go; in doing so we are more in the world, (writhing, almost, in the humus) than when we entered. We are on an overgrown pathway – watched but not hunted; the way untrodden yet somehow as familiar as the womb.

In this current moment in our world where many among us find our voices increasingly silenced, the odd, almost ancient means of communication afforded in Hewitt’s work to things unseen, unnamed objects; leaves the reader with the sense of all not being at all how we have been told it is. We leave the work grateful for the naming, the showing, and thus the knowing of such truths:

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

Here are relics, creatures, glimmers of the past, secrets, markings and the body in all its gothic splendour. There are traces to be found, as with all great writing, of many, if not all, other writers that have come before; a palimpsest of language.

In particular there are many echoes of Alice Oswald, but an echo in the sense of the actual mythological figure as opposed to any repeated trope or structure.

In Greek mythology Echo was a mountain nymph; an oread. In Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it is related that Echo offended the goddess Hera by keeping her in conversation, thus preventing her from catching her cheating husband. To punish Echo, Hera deprived her of speech, except for the ability to repeat the last words of another. This resulted in the story of her unrequited love affair with Narcissus.

From that moment of rejection onwards she lived hidden away in caves, in holes burrowed into trees, on the edges of settled society. The Greek writer Longus has her rejecting the god Pan’s advances, upon which the god drove the shepherds mad, and they tore her to pieces. Little by little, her form faded with grief until, finally, fully, her flesh began to shrink away into the forest. There was almost nothing left but her voice. The earth enveloped her limbs, buried them deeper than history, but allowed her to keep her voice; to retain the power of song.

Hewitt has his “Oak Glossary” and Oswald her “Footnotes”, her poem in which we find a dryad and an oak and the “mouth of every corpse”,but this is almost in an entirely different language from those woods we are taken to in Lantern.

Hewitt’s figures are almost Homeric, his subject matter, whether it be a stone replica of an oak spirit, an imagined child abandoned, a moor, a wych elm, the sick, are all very much a mouth of the living, with all the pleasure and grief such existence holds in its beating heart.

In “Dryad” we are drawn in so close to the poet’s past we can almost smell his humanness:

Here was so unlike the places other people went …

The bed was the bed of all the plants
and trees , and we could share it.

Hewitt contemplates if he has used these wild places as a space in which to rid himself of all that he can no longer carry, of the immeasurable weight of things unspoken. All at once though, he accepts he has done no wrong in this place, in the wild:

But then
what is a tree, or a plant, if not an act
of kneeling to the earth?

There is augury in the writing, meaning brought to us, winged and untranslatable, on the cutting wind.

A heron walks its white zed
along the bank and out into the water …

and what of those barn owls;
everything – their whiteness,
their sense of having slipped
through from another world …
in the end it all comes down
to their silence?

In Oswald’s “The mud-spattered recollections of a woman who lived her life backwards” from Woods etc we find

in the grief of the world when at last
there began to emerge a way out, alas
the in-snowing silence made any description difficult.

In Hewitt’s Lantern we find this thread picked up from the snow; these poems are the description of that emergence, like moth from cocoon.

During my reading of this ethereally beautiful collection, a young journalist, Lyra McKee, was murdered in Derry-Doire-Londonderry, my home town. I was reading “Härskogen” as the helicopters circled over the city yet again, a city in flames once more. Half an hour later, the news also reached me of the death of a close friend.

The name Derry derives from the old Irish word Daire meaning an oak grove, particularly on an island surrounded by water or peat bog. Some scholars consider this the origin of the term “Druid”, since Druids have always been associated with sacred groves, particularly oak. The Sanskrit word duir gave rise both to the word for oak and the English word “door”, which suggests that this tree stands as an opening into greater wisdom, perhaps an entryway into the otherworld itself. On the morning of that traumatic, grief-laden day, the two oak trees in my back yard, flitterns of not quite three years old, had started to show green. (Flittern: a young oak tree, the bark thereof, from flitter, Old Norse, “to carry about, convey” – OED)

Often it is the softest lantern that shines the most delicate and brilliant light, the quietest voice that leads to the most crucial of all listening. I will always remember this collection. I know that to be true. I will remain ever grateful for its ability, even when “everything was silenced”, to remind me that, yes

The world is dark
but the wood is full of stars.

1/6/2019

Kerri ní Dochartaigh lives in northwest Ireland. She writes about nature, literature and place for publications which include Caught By The River, New Welsh Review and The London Magazine. Her first book - Thin Places - will be published by Canongate in Spring 2021. 

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