Speak Against the Current: Lantern by Seán Hewitt & The Unquiet by L. Kiew


Review by Dominic Leonard

The mood of Seán Hewitt’s Lantern (Offord Road Books, 2019) is captured by its first poem, ‘Leaf’ – the uncapitalized sentences trace the delicate personalities of leaves and make the reader contemplate how something as small and gentle as a leaf, or a human being, can interact with and be worked on by colossal forces. ‘[J]ust hold it’, Hewitt asks us; he might be referring to the leaf in question, but more likely to time itself – the held snapshot of the moment this poet is so skilled at taking us into.

In ‘Dryad’, one of the book’s clear stand-out poems, the poet and his schoolmates plant trees behind a statue of the titular figure, and now ‘each tree ages alongside us.’ One of the book’s central themes is the mutuality between the rebirth and growth of nature and humanity; rebirth in the form of the Dryad herself, formed as she is from the wood of a tree, and the trees that grow and loom tall over the poet like the tall, muscular men he meets with in the dark of the woods. The Dryad acts as a kind of mythical guardian for men forced to ‘the dark spaces of towns’, drawing a comparison between the wooded dark, urban back-alleys, and a more metaphorical darkness: the cultural and personal shame that leads us to believe what deserves to be kept hidden in darkness.

Hewitt’s use of certain phrases, similes and metaphors are just ambiguous enough to imply a hidden connectiveness between things (‘the sky hidden under a rain / of leaves’). He is also fond of that Heaney-esque technique of splitting modifiers and their objects over a line-break (‘angled clutch / of leaves’, ‘pale / antler’), which also serves to knock us back into the world of the poem. Whilst some figurative language could’ve done with a slightly more coercive editorial hand and doesn’t quite land for me (‘a more solid darkness…like the darkness that lives behind eyelids’), I like the creative ways in which the poet brings us right up against the surface of the living tissue of the natural world.

The influence of Andrew McMillan is felt, but never in a way that feels tonally or stylistically intrusive; both poets are keenly interested in the sacred and the interaction of bodies, McMillan in urban centres and Hewitt in woodland (though I’m painting them with a broad stroke here). What Hewitt appears to have learnt from both McMillan and Heaney is the ability to create poems that have intense narrative drive whilst also being active moments of reflection, in which the poet sets up a narrative frame based around a human event – an interaction, a conversation, a crisis, an experience – and then travels through time and nature to find its requisite comparisons, its points of reference, to try to understand, before going back. At times, the poems’ movement in and out of contemplation can become a little too familiar – I found myself correctly guessing what comparison or narrative turn would come next – but on the whole, Hewitt shows a dexterity which overrides this. And, for the most part, the poems in the pamphlet that use these fable-like micronarratives are amongst the strongest (though there is also a splendid homage to Christopher Smart in the form of a votive for a birch tree). The stanzas are supple and well-controlled, and, divided into units of time as they are, there is a real sense of care and precision behind every step taken by the poems.

Lantern is a book of growth and interaction; when the poet bends down into a pond, a willow tree is caught mirroring his movements: ‘each thing quietly / at its work, trying to bring some life / up to the surface, unharmed.’ A pamphlet is the perfect length for this project – I am interested to see what Hewitt can do with longer forms in the future.

L. Kiew’s The Unquiet (Offord Road Books, 2019) is, for me, the most exciting pamphlet Offord Road Books have put out thus far. In the first poem, ‘Swallow’, Kiew combines the meaning of the title’s verb form, in which she ‘overeat[s] from the dictionary – / nouns sticky as langsat’, with its noun form, as the language she imbibes turns her into a bird: ‘becom[ing] / feathers poking through my skin. / I am fledging for the migration.’ This interaction and play with language’s constituent parts and ‘words’ tenuous moorings’ (to quote Sarah Howe) makes up an integral part of the pamphlet’s project. The poems are complex, slipping in and out of English, Teochew, Hokkien and Bahasa Malaysia; but there is a sense of warm welcome into a zone of play and experimentation, and I am delighted to see poetry which unapologetically speaks in languages other than English without italics, footnotes, or translations: ‘English bleeds / over the ground / onto my tongue.’

The pamphlet incorporates very impressionistic language and turns of logic, often landing us out of time or in moments of recollection that do not feel quite fixed in narrative. Images and people, snippets of drama and family, appear and fade as lines come and go: ‘Ah Jek visited that night, / breath stinking of arak. / Those black brogues. Give them back.’ Although at the end of the poem ‘Haunts’ the poet is ‘slammed awake’, there is still the sense of being not-quite-conscious: ‘Next door someone is crying. // Open fingers, palms up. / In the first hand, red silk / cord, a thin white braid of hair; / in the second, an egg.’ The images throughout the book are potent and give the reader the impression of having particular relevance within a certain kind of dream-logic. This is not to gloss over the poems in here that use a less experimental approach, such as the fantastic ‘Dinner’ which portrays a frantic kitchen along with an interplay of voices and movement, and ‘Immersion Learning’, in which the poet speaks to her daughter, comparing teaching her to swim to teaching her how to deflect ‘men [who] believe / they have the voice of storms, / downdraughts of revelation.’ It is a smart, witty, powerful poem: ‘To speak against the current / is to swim wild’, Kiew tells us. ‘Don’t sink // into silence.’

The experiments with syntax, space and line, often using line-breaks as implied full-stops or commas in poems devoid of punctuation, leaves us as readers to identify the exact movement of sentences. The accumulative imaginative impact of this is huge, leaving us thinking about the very possibility of poetic recall and encounter:

du jò du, sòi jò sòi
to marry a tiger
sacrifice that ox-hearted nature

jáobhǫlou drunk home
his chickenhead zooming
on my throat

(from ‘Pitched in’)

The occasional use of end-rhyme and assonance makes for particularly satisfying moments when spoken aloud, particularly when Kiew is testing the congruity of more than one language (‘wan’ rhymes with ‘can’, and ‘giftwrapped’ chimes with ‘bak’). Throughout, there is a real joy taken in the sound of words, and how sound can create sense: ‘I hear: ah, my flat ā springs from / my Mother’s granite cubes / of clipped clarity splashing into / the thick earth of Ah Ba’s voice.’ There are no loose ends and no flippant decisions to be found in this bold pamphlet, and the control of phrase and sound is immensely impressive (particularly in the final, brilliant poem, which I wouldn’t dare spoil a word of here). You’d be at a loss to miss it.


Dominic Leonard studied English in Oxford and Postcolonial Studies at Leeds University. His writing is published in Poetry London, PN Review, Oxford Poetry, and elsewhere. His debut pamphlet, love, bring myself, was published by Broken Sleep in 2019.

Continue to Hans Lucht ‘Played in Reverse’ >>

Return to Issue 6