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A Dance with Hermes Paperback – 1 Dec 2016
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'Clarke brings his considerable erudition and love of language to allow the intellectual and the poetic mind to come together, imagining where and how Hermes might be concealed in everyday life - the whisper in the inner ear, the sudden silence when "the air hangs watchful", or "the fitful flare that lights our way".' Jules Cashford 'This is an impressive collection, with an ancient and perennial wisdom, and language that is modern, even "street-wise" without being cheap. I admire the range of contemporary reference; the "voice" of these poems suggests a real freedom of mind, and expresses a live imagination.' Jeremy Hooker 'Deft, witty, wing-footed - Lindsay Clarke's poems wonderfully embody what they describe: the god Hermes, who is comprehensively shown to be just as revelatory and double-dealing in the digital age as he ever was in antiquity.' Patrick Harpur
About the Author
Having worked for many years in both conventional and alternative education, Lindsay Clarke is a freelance writer living in Somerset, whose work has been widely translated. His novel The Chymical Wedding won the Whitbread Fiction Award in 1989 and more recently The Water Theatre was long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award. He is an Associate of the MA Creative Writing Programme at Cardiff University and Creative Consultant to the educational work of the Pushkin Trust in Northern Ireland.
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The poems themselves are well-structured and each has something new to say. Mythology fans will love this new way to look at Hermes.
Like all poetry, this repays reading and re-reading, and this is a book that will stay on my shelf. Recommended.
I have missed my friend and mentor John Moat since his passing three years ago. No one else I know speaks much about being, ‘fingered by Mercurius’ – that is except our mutual friend, Lindsay Clarke. So, when I saw Lindsay’s new book, A Dance With Hermes and his dedication in the prelims to John, I knew I was in for a treat.
As Jules Cashford writes in her exceptional Foreword to the book – which sets it perfectly in context – Lindsay brings the elusive Hermes, ‘brilliantly and vividly to life, dreaming the myth forward’. And what a myth. Hermes the Trickster; Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, Hermes the Greek god of writing and magic; the psychopomp, guiding souls to the afterlife. But, it seems, what interests Lindsay most in all of Hermes’ many guises is the fact that he always provokes imaginative thought, helping us to refine and understand the complex and ambiguous creatures we are.
Without being academic or arcane, Lindsay uncovers Hermes at work in the modern era through this series of 49 poems, the mere titles of which revealing mischief at work: ‘He Cocks a Snook at Nietzsche (and Philip Larkin)’, ‘A PR Man Speaks Up’ (very funny) and ‘He Giveth Tongue’ – the first line of which conjectures, ‘Surely it takes a god this versatile to dream up language?’ Ah yes, it’s a long while since I’ve enjoyed a collection of poems as much as these.
What a pleasure it is to read and smile and re-read these words, not overly-crafted, but flowing and funny and so unflinchingly pertinent. In the poem ‘He Considers GUTs and Such’, how can we not reflect on our own humanity, when Lindsay writes: ‘He likes it when we hanker after truth | in things, yet smiles to see how serious | we are in postulating theories | of everything (e.g. the thoughts of Alan Guth | or quantum fluctuations in the vacuum…’ Seen from the eyrie of the gods, how human us mere mortals are!
Every page uncovers alchemical gold: in ‘Nigredo’: ‘As Apollo once told Rilke: ‘Time to change!’ | So Hermes slips into the vas hermeticum | and starts to decompose. He’ll now become | whatever time and alchemy arrange.’ It takes my breath away. And in ‘His Emerald Tablet’: ‘Time doesn’t mean a lot to gods. It’s just | a theatre of entertainments where | the mortals strut their stuff and swear | that they believe in gods, or don’t, and cast | about for stories that make sense | of their short lives…’
This book reminds me that poetry was my first love, when my childhood bedside table was never without Louis Untermeyer’s Golden Treasury of Poetry and when my dreams were filled with the Jabberwocky and the Highwayman. Perhaps poetry is the ultimate Hermetic tradition; the salve for our imagination? A Dance With Hermes certainly confirms as much.
I’ll leave you with a final line from the poem, ‘He Monitors Its Use’, which just made me laugh out loud: ‘Hermeticus – just the kind of oblong word | for which the god, whose name it nabbed, invented | dictionaries.’ Sublime.
Lorna Howarth is Editorial Director of The Write Factor, and publisher of John Moat’s books, including Blanche, Mai’s Wedding and A Fabrication of Gold. www.thewritefactor.co.uk
It is somewhat difficult to know where to begin with this slim volume of poetry: just as a bead of quicksilver will scatter in a thousand different directions, glittering and enticing you to follow their paths, so too will the ideas and images in this deceptively simple collection call you to follow the myriad directions of their dance. Indeed, the patterns of disturbed mercury brings forth an image of thoughts, ideas and communications flashing through the mesh of neural pathways in the brain, synapses sparking as each new thought is transmitted and grasped. In turn, that image leads to pictures of the electronic interconnection of the world-wide web and a reminder of the Hermetic premise all is one.
Clarke’s collection of forty-nine poems transmits meanings on at least three levels. They begin as a biography of Hermes in three emanations: the older God of crossroads and fertility, proudly erect and worshipped by the Minoans and Mycenaeans as a god who ‘made things good;’ by the Greeks as a son of Zeus; and as Hermes Trismegistus, the God of sacred writings revered by alchemists. This is the Hermes of both scholarship and of the neophyte.
Clarke is an adept.
He makes it clear that Hermes is also a God of Now; time is irrelevant to one so steeped in trickery, magic and language. Clarke brings Hermes into our world and context, showing his manifestation in characters such as lawyers, PR gurus, advertising folk and computer hackers. Clarke pulls no punches as he explores the dual nature of the God – past and present. The trickster aspect of Hermes is not glossed over or disguised, nor is the event leading to the birth of his son, Autolycus, presented as anything other than the rape it is. Such an event is somewhat shocking to modern sensibilities, but it is also a sharp reminder that the ways of the Gods in ancient times are no different from some male behaviour now. It is an old story told across both pantheons and newspapers.
Once the essential first nature of the God is grasped, the poems explore esoteric matters. In ‘He Giveth Tongue’ – a somewhat amusing pun, given Hermes’ sexual conquests – Clarke explores the gift of language, as bestowed by the God on humanity: ‘all babel was let loose.’ This gift was a double-edged sword, language both clarifies and confuses and Hermes will: ‘still be laughing when all’s said and done.’ The obfuscation of meaning through language is merely a God- joke, one we’ve all been on the receiving end of at one time or another and the joke extends the confusions to those caused by electronic miscommunications.
Hermes’ trickiness with words is wonderfully explored in: ‘He Monitors Its Use’ where the God-persona expresses exasperation at the wordiness of literary criticism: ‘Hermeneutics – just the kind of oblong word for which the god (…) invented dictionaries.’ This caused me much amusement and was taken as a warning to lay off my natural inclination to analyse Clarke’s poetry in terms of poetical techniques. The poem explores some paradoxes of language and ends with the warning that those who use language to: ‘sanitise atrocities’ won’t be overlooked as: ‘they counterfeit divine proclivities.’ That is a warning not to be ignored – play god with words and actions at your peril.
The third level of exploration leads the reader to Hermes Trismegistus, the Emerald Tablets of ancient wisdom, the mysteries of the Kabbala and alchemy.
His Opus explores the four stages of alchemical change and transformation, whose outcome: ‘has made his mind responsive to his soul.’ Arguably, the desired outcome of alchemical experimentation is esoteric and its aim is the achievement of Yehidah - the true gold of the philosophers’ stone – the highest state of enlightenment, of oneness with the divine, a human soul could reach in some Kabbalistic paths; a state achievable by very few humans, if any. However, this is a state Hermes achieves and: ‘His opus ends; the dance goes on.’
The final poem, Envoi, is a masterpiece by one who seems to be a skilful priest of Hermes and equally adroit at manipulating language for his own means. In this poem, Clarke states: ‘the only remedy for life is love’ and questions how difficult love is. It is a beautiful prayer of faith and in it he acknowledges the ineffable divine that is Hermes through the pattern of syllables he uses. The Sephirot of the Kabbalists states there are ten attributes of God, through which the infinite is revealed. The Tree of Life has ten stages of transformation and the seeker of moves through each as he travels his path. Clarke alludes to this through the use of ten syllables in each line – but changes to eleven where he acknowledges the mysteries of the infinite are not necessarily of this world: ‘These half-rhymes are the best reply I have / and though full rhymes may lie beyond the grave.’
This is truly a stunning collection of poems that will satisfy both a casual reader and a reader willing to follow the many quicksilver trails laid before them. Yeats posed the question: ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ Clarke’s poetry goes a long way to answering that.
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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:
“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 travelers 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 spontaneous dance of our creative potential.
In addition to a foreword by Jules Cashford (translator of The Homeric Hymns for Penguin), there is a helpful introduction by Clarke, in which he lays out a condensed yet clear overview of the evolution of Hermes from primitive times to his appearance in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes around the 7th century BC, through to the western Hermetic tradition, an influence vital to the Renaissance and its alchemical underpinning.
Clarke also recounts how, inspired by his friend John Moat’s “life lived in service to the Imagination” which Moat equated with the figure of Hermes, Clarke wrote a poem for his friend called ‘Koinos Hermes”
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
This poem, which now begins the collection, catalyzed 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 set the style for the poems that followed in a swift and easy way “almost by dictation”.
Clarke explains that 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:
“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:
“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?”
While the gods are alive, so are we, and while Hermes dances, no one can take over our imagination. Many thanks to Anthony Nanson of Awen for making this life-affirming collection available from one of our great lyric masters of language.
Diana Durham is the author of the nonfiction The Return of King Arthur from Tarcher/Penguin, three poetry collections including Between Two Worlds from Chrysalis Poetry and a novel The Curve of the Land from Skylight Press. www.dianadurham.net