Friday, March 14, 2014

`Dazzling Rays of Compassion'

I knew a poet in upstate New York who taught writing at a Catholic college. We shared more dislikes (Wordsworth, James Baldwin) than likes (he: Gina Berriault; me: Saul Bellow), though he agreed to my suggestion that he give Kipling’s stories another try. He also claimed to detest Nabokov’s work (he called it “cruel,” despite the unspeakably sad final meeting of Humbert and Mrs. Richard T. Schiller). To his credit, he made an exception of Speak, Memory, agreeing it was the finest memoir in the language. I’ve only just learned that the poet, four years my junior, died some months ago. We hadn’t exchanged words in ten years, but not out of bitterness or indifference. He loved words, and for him I’ve chosen three memorable ones from Speak, Memory, a lexical bouquet: 

Umbellifer: “The Swallowtail of June 1906 was still in the larval stage on a roadside umbellifer.” 

Plants of the order Umbellifer√¶, possessing umbellate flowers. Carrots, parsley, dill and fennel are umbellifers, each with an inflorescence of short flower stalks called pedicels, radiating from a central point like the spokes of an umbrella. Nicely, the OED’s first citation for the adjective form is from the naturalist John Ray’s Select Remains (1705): “I observed, creeping upon the Ground, a small umbelliferous Plant.” The foreword to Lolita is attributed to the fictional John Ray Jr., Ph. D. 

Purl: “When that pearly language of hers purled and scintillated.” 

The OED gives my favorite etymology:  “Origin uncertain.” As a noun, in knitting it means a “stitch which is the inverse of the knit stitch.” In a joke that’s probably incomprehensible today, Steve Allen used to say: “Knit one, Purl Bailey.” As a verb, it carries over its meaning from knitting and lacework, but here is the sense Nabokov probably intended: “To utter with a soft, murmuring sound.” The sound is the sense. Purl: a lovely word. 

Lambency: “I had nothing—except one token light in the potentially refulgent [another choice word] chandelier of Mademoiselle’s bedroom, whose door, by our family doctor’s decree (I salute you Dr. Sokolov!), remained slightly ajar. Its vertical line of lambency (which a child’s tears could transform into dazzling rays of compassion) was something I could cling to, since in absolute darkness my head would swim and my mind melt in a travesty of the death struggle.” 

In phonetic terms, a word beginning with a lovely alveolar lateral approximant, meaning “being lambent or shining with a clear soft light like a flame.” In Modern Painters, Ruskin gives us: “The soft lambency of the streamlet.” The OED offers a rare derivative usage: “brilliance and delicate play of wit or fancy,” and cites a writer, Robert Louis Stevenson (from Prince Otto: A Romance, 1885), much admired by Nabokov: “A man of great erudition and some lambencies of wit.” 

Stevenson’s phrase fits my old acquaintance pretty well, especially when lambencies of wit usurped his Midwestern earnestness.

No comments: