Review of A Dance with Hermes by Lindsay Clarke
by Diana Durham
Gods are forces with which we as mortal humans eternally engage. This is the fundamental insight writer Lindsay Clarke explores in his new collection of poems A Dance with Hermes from Awen Publications:
Where is the habitation of the gods
if not in us? And where are we if not
inside the mysteries they perpetrate
about us and around?
And in particular, as the title tells us, these poems are about the multi-faceted, shifting forces embodied by the winged god Hermes – messenger god of thresholds and trade, guide of travellers and of the newly dead, part unreliable trickster, part helpful companion. In addition to these attributes and roles, Hermes holds the Caduceus, entwined with two snakes, which is associated with healing and, as precursor to the magic wand, with the transformative powers of the imagination. Hermes, inventor of the lyre, also represents music and poetry. And in his many guises, moods and roles Hermes represents the unpredictable, spontaneous dance of our imaginative and creative potential.
In addition to a foreword by Jules Cashford (translator of The Homeric Hymns for Penguin and author of The Moon: Symbol of Transformation from Greystone Press), there is a helpful introduction by Clarke, in which he lays out a condensed yet clear overview of the evolution and attributes of Hermes from primitive times to his appearance in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes around the seventh century BC, and how later his name was given to the western Hermetic tradition of thought, an influence vital to the energies of the Renaissance and to the occult, symbolic world of alchemy.
Clarke also recounts how the origin of this collection was inspired by his friend John Moat’s memoir Anyway … about a ‘life lived in service to the Imagination’, which Moat equated with the figure of Hermes. Moat, founder of the Arvon Foundation, was in the later stages of a terminal illness when he finished his memoir, and in the poignancy of this transition, a time when the god waits on us with compassionate equanimity, Clarke wrote a poem for his friend about Hermes.
The poem is called ‘Koinos Hermes’ and, to quote Clarke, it ‘conflated the attributes of the Greek god Hermes with those of Mercurius Duplex, the agent of transformation in alchemy while at the same time making use of anachronistic contemporary references’:
light-fingered god of crossways, transit,
emails and exchange, the wing-heeled, shifty
wheeler-dealing go-between, who’ll slip right
through your fingers if you try to pin
him down. For he is labile, street-wise
and trans-everything. He is the one
two-fold hermaphrodite who’ll rise
up sprightly from the earth and turn to air,
and then descend into the underworld
to point his wand at philosophic gold.
This poem, which now begins the collection, catalysed what Clarke modestly terms the ‘procession of poems, verses, squibs – call them what you like –’ that comprise these 50 pages of poetry. The poem’s tone and its form of ‘four quatrains held together by the regular use of half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god – something almost grasped but not quite – with occasional full rhymes echoing on his sudden presence’ set the style for the poems that followed in a swift and easy way ‘almost by dictation’.
Clarke explains that therefore not only in this collection’s content and form but also in the manner of its emergence the nature of the god is present and at work. The verses roll along in carefree, sometimes careless ease of movement in which moments of literary buffoonery –
What he loves
best is to astound the mind with such deceptive
art as brings about true transformation,
and it’s the virtue of his wand to wide-awaken
into lucid dreams of the Imagination
those who don’t yet see we are myth-taken
– mingle with lines of soul touching lucidity (in my opinion, Clarke’s default and hallmark) –
He is the tutelary deity of night,
close kin to burglars and to writers and to those
asleep in cardboard boxes on the street.
He oversees the drowsy and the comatose,
has heard the chimes at midnight and will
act as a prison visitor to those for whom
the lonely stretches before dawn become
the penitentiary of mind.
– and deft light-handed wisdom – like this:
and Hermes knows the universe expands
each time we think we’ve got the explanation.
Not this, not that, but both, or maybe none
of the above, his tricky wisdom understands
what unassisted reason often fails to see:
the tongue can’t taste its buds; the only snake
to swallow its own tail does not mistake
itself as literally true … and nor, he thinks, should we.
For nothing speaks more truly than a dream,
and where else (asks Hermes), in the jangle
of a time so fast to change that even
wisdom seems redundant, shall we keep
those secrets that the soul discloses
for our welfare while we sleep?
The task of any writer using archetype – especially in today’s world when ‘wisdom seems redundant’, when we seem to be in danger of succumbing to a dense and stupified literal-mindedness, or, as writer Iain McGilchrist would say, to the depleted values of a left-brain dominated society – is often to teach and explain as well as evoke. And Clarke robustly and effortlessly incorporates this responsibility into his verses, so that we learn the context at the same time as we make the connections and absorb the personal meaning:
The god in the louche hat, the liminal,
crepuscular and volatile grand master
of quick whispers and shady deals, can pull
deft tricks and optical illusions faster
than the pixels shift in CGI. He seduces us
and mystifies our senses with his wand,
the Kerykeion or (latinate) Caduceus –
that snake-twined staff he carries in his hand
to work such vivid magic as draws doves
from darkness, or releases some poor captive
from a cabinet of knives.
While the gods are alive, so are we, and while Hermes dances, no one else can take over our imagination. Mythic archetype, narrative and pattern belong to this realm in ourselves, and their symbolism helps guide our way back to a life that has mystery, potential and zinginess. Many thanks to Anthony Nanson of Awen for making this unique and life-affirming collection available from one of our greatest lyric masters of language.
Diana Durham is the author of the nonfiction The Return of King Arthur from Tarcher, three poetry collections including Between Two Worlds from Chrysalis Poetry and a novel The Curve of the Land from Skylight Press. www.dianadurham.net