To hell and back: Sean Hewitt's 'All Down Darkness Wide' makes literature of the memoir

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday July 19, 2022
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author Sean Hewitt  photo: Stuart Simpson
author Sean Hewitt photo: Stuart Simpson

Getting lost in a relationship is kid stuff, literally. People do it all the time, and it's the matter of some of our greatest literature. Rarer is the chronicle of making it back out, which is both the engine and the heart of Sean Hewitt's luminous new memoir, "All Down Darkness Wide" (Penguin Press).

A highly regarded poet ("Tongues of Fire") and scholar "("J.M. Synge"), Hewitt, 32, turned to the tools of prose —"creating a whole world," as he put it in a recent interview— to get into the experience of being in a psychologically harrowing relationship and then to get out of it if not, categorically, beyond it. It is about returning to the past to leave the past behind.

It is also, at its core, the story of Hewitt's relationship with and love of a man named Elias. He tells that story through the prism of other, perhaps loftier-sounding themes, principle among them the haunting of our lives by the spirits of others. And then there's Hewitt's coming out.

His exploration entails deep readings of two poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Karin Boye, the former a kind of stand-in for the English author and the less-well-known Boye for the Swedish Elias. So, there's profundity galore. This book will be passed hand to hand, as it should be.

My impatient wait for it meant that by the time I had it in hand, I was already well versed in it. I had read all the generous excerpts printed in the British press, digested the rave reviews as they tumbled out, agog, and watched an hour-long televised interview with the author.

The most remarkable thing about it all was that, beyond the tagline, there was barely any mention, let alone discussion, of the relationship and its breakup, precipitated by the corrosive force of depression.

For all its candor about sexual matters, "All Down Darkness Wide" will have a distinguished place in the canon of cruising literature. Its unsparing look at clinical depression is testimony to the fact that mental illness remains an even greater taboo.

Battling clinical depression

"All Down Darkness Wide," whose title comes from a Hopkins poem, is not an analysis of the "dynamics" of clinical depression. If anything, it addresses the adamant refusal of depression to be dynamic, to cooperate or to yield. It describes the wall depression builds around its sufferers at the same time it breaks down the walls between them and the people who care about them.

At the narrative level, it traces the relentless rubbing out of Elias' natural exuberance and the steady extinguishing of Hewitt's corresponding impulses, less to reach out than to reach in. It exposes the ineluctable death of self that is depression's goal and, for the survivors, the death-dealing process of escape from its clutches.

It's also about two men we come to know in three dimensions doing battle with the grinding activity of real time. Hewitt gives us the full arc of the relationship whose dissolution comes with a startling lack of drama, the way Hemingway said bankruptcy does: gradually and then all at once.

The language here is unsparingly blunt. "[Elias] was both the man I loved and the person who wanted to kill the man I loved." It is a critical moment of clarity when Hewitt sees, "There is no morality to depression, no way to apportion blame for what either of us did, but every day I felt that weight crushing down on me, tightening my lungs, making my breaths quick and shallow."

Language, and lying

For a poet venturing into the language of prose, Hewitt is disciplined about his words. Writing of the effect of Elias' depression on him, he is shockingly concrete: "I began to grind my teeth so hard that one morning I woke up with one of my molars broken in two. I lifted the shard of it out with my fingers and held it up." It stood for his reality.

Writing about his long process of coming out as a gay man, he begins, "Lying is something I had become good at with practice." He recalls that as a child, he alone among his siblings could consistently fool his mother, and his suspicions regarding what can and cannot be said is constant. Unable to get Elias to tell him what was "wrong," he slowly realizes, "I was looking for a reason and couldn't find one. It was like trying to shoot a cloud with an arrow."

For Hewitt, language is both a problem and its solution. Neither man is entirely fluent or comfortable in the other's first language, and trouble in their fundamentally happy relationship comes, Hewitt writes, when "I became strangely conscious that I could only say the things I had language for.

"I had worked out ways to simplify my speech, hoping that ... Elias might better understand me in his second language. But there were always the missing things, the less rounded edges of my thought that would be lost on the way. Ever since we met," he soon realizes, "Elias and I had to translate ourselves to each other."

Ghost stories

Unsurprisingly, Hewitt's writing is rich in metaphor.

"Ghosts in the water, ghosts in the blood. Everything, once you start to look, is haunted," he writes early on. He is almost scientific in his enumeration of the ways the spirits of the past, present, and future converge in all of us.

When he writes about cruising, both the immediacy and the latent excitement are palpable.

"Somehow, still, I feel haunted by a part of myself," he writes. "Meeting men at night, all those years, I let the ghost inside me out.

"It seemed right to me when I learned that 'haunting' used to be slang for cruising, 'ghost' for a closeted gay man. There's something purgatorial about it, and something tantalizingly otherworldly."

Reflecting on cruising as it is manifest in a Wilfred Owen poem, he writes, "And here I was, nearly a hundred years later, doing the same thing, I didn't learn it from anyone —I thought I was the first man in the world to have discovered it. How could it be that I carried that history inside myself, some instinctive urge pulling me out of the house at night?"

"All Down Darkness Wide" chronicles the whole of a life, not just a romance. Hewitt's journey into the underworld is, in the end, all about finding words, and the ones he has unearthed are sure to linger with readers.

'All Down Darkness Wide' by Sean Hewitt, Penguin Press, 338 pages, $26

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