Book Review: A Dance with Hermes, Lindsay Clarke

13 10 2017

Book Review:  A Dance with Hermes, Lindsay Clarke    (Stroud: Awen, 2016.)


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.


Fiona Tinker

A Dance with Hermes, Lindsay Clarke, (Stroud: Awen, 2016.)





One response

17 10 2017

Reblogged this on Awen Publications.

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