Tuesday, August 16, 2016

`With His People, All Waiting for the Past'

The marvelous title of Les Murray’s new collection, Waiting for the Past (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), is taken from the opening stanzas of “Growth,” one of many rooted in memories of Murray’s childhood in New South Wales:

“One who’d been my friendly Gran
was now mostly barred from me,
accomplishing her hard death
on that strange farm miles away.

“My mother was nursing her
so we couldn’t be at home.
Dad had to stay out there, milking,
appearing sometimes, with his people,
all waiting for the past.”

Murray’s meaning is double. His father, decades earlier (Murray was born in 1938), waits for the grandmother’s death to make her a part of the “past,” a memory. The dead are with us, but alien. They have entered another realm. Secondly, the poet plumbs his memories and waits for the past to appear, like a photographic image in a tray of developer. We learn the textures of our memory, the gaps and vivid scenes, the effortlessly remembered and involuntarily forgotten. Memory is an endlessly edited palimpsest, and yet we fancy it permanent. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov remembers his family’s estate in Russia: “I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window . . . . Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”

The reality is sad in a different way, as Eric Ormsby reminds us in “Childhood House" (Coastlines, 1992):

“I see that this isn’t so, that
Memory decays like the rest, is unstable in its essence,
Flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes
All recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters
Unfairly, is not the intact garden we remember, but
Instead, speeds away from us backwards terrifically
Until when we pause to touch that sun-remembered
Wall, the stones are friable, crack and sift down,
And we could cry at the fierceness of that velocity
If our astonished eyes had time.”

1 comment:

Brian said...

Wonderful contrast. Nabokov's is the rarity, a Platonic Ideal, and Ormsby's, however beautifully put, the banal reality. For most of us, "waiting for the past" has but one meaning.