Odyseus and Hermes by Thom Gunn
It is amazing to find this poem I had never seen before in Thom Gunn’s collection “The Man with Night Sweats”. The second line, “-beard scarcely visible on his chin-” is from his introductory quote from Homer on the opening page of his collection “Moly” written in 1971 (The Odyssey, Book 10 line 275 passim) so it harks back to his earlier life and writing in a nostalgic way but not sentimental because he figures that the gift of youth can in a sense be reclaimed if he can “find again that knack /of opening my settled features…” It is astonishingly full of humour and offers a way of resolving the problem of old age.
Odysseus on Hermes
I was seduced by innocence
— beard scarcely visible on his chin —
by the god within.
The incompletion of youth
like the new limb of the cactus growing
— soft-green — not fully formed
the spines still soft and living,
potent in potential,
in process and so
still open to the god.
When complete and settled
then closed to the god.
So sensing it in him
I was seduced by the god,
becoming in my thick maturity
still being formed —
in the vulnerability, edges flowing,
myself open to the god.
I took his drug
and all came out right in the story.
Still thinking back
I seek to renew that power
so easily got
seek to find again that knack
of opening my settled features,
creased on themselves,
to the astonishing kiss and gift
of the wily god to the wily man.
If you have never been seduced by the “god within” this poem might be a little difficult to grasp but to put what he is saying another way you have to think about his use of the idea of seduction: “I was seduced”, he says, in the openning line and the poem concludes with “the astonishing kiss…”. This is not just Thom being sexy, he often likes to be that; no here he is paradoxically, with some humour, seriously talking about falling in love. I think that to “fall” in love (especially with overtones of infatuation) is to be seduced by the god within. And that causes one to become, “suddenly unsettled / un-solid / still being formed.
Youth often has that unsettling effect on old age but Thom’s poem is only a starting point for me here, I am not really offering a critique: I want to talk about “that knack of opening” and how as we grow in maturity, knowledge and experience or even grow old we lose something. We lose the ability to imagine; we get stuck in our ” thick maturity” our “settled features, / creased on themselves”. Our high technology can box us in so that it becomes difficult to think without a screen or phone before us. If we work in the Arts, or just love to explore them, then this restricts us as it also restricts any kind of exploration, be it scientific or a search for healing. It is important to note, particularly with reference to old age, but also with the young and their use of cybernetics, that fantasy and living in the memory, what Coleridge called “fancy”, is no substitute for real imagination.
A number of recent events have brought this topic very much to mind: a commentary in a Dominican magazine, I read recently on a car journey, was dealing with Moses and his encounter with the Burning Bush. It is the account in the Bible (Exodus Chapter 3) when God calls out to Moses from the fire that is “unconsumed” and tells him to remove his sandals as the ground he is standing on is “holy ground”. There followed a modern interpretation of how this requirement to remove his sandals was symbolic of the need to resign oneself to God’s will and be humble! I can’t help feeling the Church digs this interpretation out of almost anything but it totally misses the rich spirtitual symbolism of what “holy ground” means. It means just what it says…you are standing in sacred space in the presence of the infinite. It describes the enormity, the ineffable experience that Moses is having. It is dramatic it makes your spine tingle…..but only if you can imagine it. If you are dulled and your sensitivity is all “creased in” then you have no chance.
Some time ago I saw an English National Theatre production of Shakespeare’s King Lear with Simon Russell Beale as Lear, directed by Sam Mendes: the same limited imagination applied to this disappointing presentation. Failing to see the crisis and spiritual transformation that Lear goes through in a world of horror and inhumanity, the production explained it by giving Lear Altsheimer’s disease: that was thought to resolve the mysterious masterpiece that was Shakespeare’s Art.
Only a few weeks ago I went to see a production of a rarely performed W. B. Yeats play, The Dreaming of the Bones, directed by Melinda Szuts at The O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance, NUI Galway. Again like the Thom Gunn poem, I don’t want to critique the production, there were some good performances and great music but its major failing was the distance in imaginative sensibilities between our present time and the psychic spirit world of Yeats. I never really felt that angst and torment of the two ghostly 12th. century characters nor the anger of the man from the 1916 battle at the Post Office. They didn’t find that “knack of opening”… …to the astonishing kiss and gift of the wily god” that is love and imagination.