In this interwoven sequence of poems, Clarke follows the God Hermes from his conception by “shy-eyed Maia” through his birth; his slaying of the tortoise and his theft of Apollo’s cattle; his ascension to Olympus; his invention of language; his encounters with various, Gods, nymphs, and mortals; his link to alchemy; and finally his role as psychopomp. Through it all, the God is presented as mischievous, wise, wily, and profound — and deeply relevant to the modern world.
This is my first introduction to noted British poet, Lindsay Clarke. Consider me a convert. While I disagree with Clarke’s statement that the Gods are “archetypal” and “potential energies” (xiii), I cannot deny the power and imagination of his work. I was drawn in from the very first poem, “Koinos Hermes,” through to the last, “Envoi.” The language with which he writes about the God reflects Hermes’ own nature: it is precise yet slippery, elegant and rough, constantly shifting between the timeless and the immediate.
Consider the following lines from “He Giveth Tongue”:
Surely it takes a god this versatile
to dream up language? He must have watched
dumb mortals grunt and point before he matched
their daily needs with eloquence and style
Still he broadcasts
means of fabulation: he’s the SIM card in your phone,
your satnav’s voice, your texts and Twitter, webcam,
broadband fount of knowledge and the source of spam …
and he’ll still be laughing when all’s said and done. (18)
Or the closing stanza of “His Gifts to Pandora”:
But Hermes offered hope, and chose to give
her cunning, a deceitful tongue, and wiles;
and if those gifts seem mischievous, how else
in such a man-shaped world could she survive? (29)
Some of Clarke’s poems reference or retell classic myths (such as “He Escorts Priam to Achilles’ Tent” and “He Honours the Hospitable”), while others were clearly born of modern events; in “He’s Rated Triple A,” for example, Clarke writes “every child that drowns in the attempt / to flee a war elicits his profound contempt / for human meanness, and our silent shame.”(32) Still others offer new insights into his nature; in “His Moon Dance,” Clarke notes “For there is none // among the gods more subtly prone / to dance the passage between light / and dark, and trace the phases of the night / until day dawns again.”
I am very glad to have A Dance With Hermes to add to my growing collection of modern Pagan (and Pagan-friendly) poetry. In looking through Awen Publication‘s titles, I see even more to add to my wish list.
Highly recommended to fans of Fireflies at Absolute Zero by Erynn Rowan Laurie, Oracles by Catherynne M. Valente, Shadow Gods and Black Fire by Andrew Gyll, Strange Spirits by H. Jeremiah Lewis, and The Witch’s Dictionary by Sarah Kennedy.
[Reviewed by Rebecca Buchanan.]