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This review is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Cover of Tongues of Fire
Sue LeighSeán Hewitt, Tongues of Fire (Cape Poetry) £10
Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire is a beautiful book, thoughtful, tender. It is an assured debut collection. The poems live among trees, plants and creatures – a world encountered with reverence. There is darkness here, decay, but also love, light, a sense of the sacred. The opening poem, ‘Leaf’, with its repeated ‘for’, has the quality of a prayer of thankfulness: ‘For even in the nighttime of life / it is worth living, just to hold it’. ‘Ilex’ also becomes a prayer (for a new-born child) as the poet, coming across a cluster of pale holly at the base of a tree, imagines it becoming a crown that ‘the people approach one by one / to witness how a fragile thing is raised.’

There are a number of epiphanies, ‘Evening poem’ for example, in which a mother and son, unspeaking, share the ‘stifled warmth’ of the greenhouse. The luminous moment, its intensity, is held in the image of the dove in the garden ‘like a paper lantern…bobbing / in the apple-blossom’. In the poem ‘In Prince’s Park’, the speaker feels as if he has sleepwalked there and woken as a woodpecker ‘shakes hold of the quiet – / its echo / ricocheting, knocking / at each tree for the unsuspecting / bright splint of life’. In ‘Clock’, he leans on a cedar, senses the tree as stillness, ‘a circle of quiet air’.

The central section of the book consists of translations, or reimaginings, from the Irish Buile Suibhne. (Hewitt is a teaching fellow at Trinity College Dublin.) This story – of the mad exiled king who composes poetry as he ...

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