Friday, October 17, 2014

`An Embrace Too Fixed and Metaphysical'

Les Murray teaches us a word I should already have known: Holodomor, Ukrainian, literally “extermination by hunger,” referring to Stalin’s systematic genocide by famine in 1932-33. At least 4 million Ukrainians died, probably many more.  The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t admitted the word to the language but a search of the dictionary’s digital version turns up as the first of its “nearest matches” a resonating echo: holocaust and Holocaust. It is emblematic of the twentieth century that we need to coin or remint words to describe our genocides. (In Murray’s Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse, published in 1998, the title character witnesses the Turkish genocide of Armenians.) Murray contributes words to the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English, and Holomodor was accepted. He tells an interviewer: 

“`I give a list of words occasionally,’ he said. ‘Holodomor was one I wanted to get in there. It’s a Ukrainian word. It means the 7 million Ukrainians who were starved to death by Stalin. It’s a word that ought to be as well-known as holocaust. Sometimes they name these dreadful genocides and sometimes they don’t. It seemed a matter of justice that it got in.’” 

Inherent in a poet’s job description is the resuscitation of language, reviving old words, coining and importing new ones, recycling old ones in new ways. Murray, a gourmand of language, savors words like the hammiest of Shakespeareans. In a 1981 review-essay of the Macquarie Dictionary, “Centering the Language,” Murray says the volume shows “how much larger and richer our dialect is than many had thought, in part by gently but firmly shifting our linguistic perception, so that our entire language is henceforth centred for us, not thousands of miles away, but here where we live.” Murray titled a 1985 selection of his poems The Vernacular Republic. In the interview quoted above he goes on to say: “The bloke who wrote the Oxford English Dictionary was a cousin of ours called Sir James Murray; a Murray language freak comes up every century or so.” [See Caught in the Web of Words: James A.H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, published by the lexicographer’s granddaughter, K.M. Elisabeth Murray, in 1977.] Elsewhere, Murray refers to his love of words as “a family inheritance to some extent.” “In Murray’s Dictionary” is collected in Dog Fox Field (Carcanet, 1991): 

“The word aplace
lasted from Gower to the Puritans
but never got much use,
yet far from being obscure, it once
was more of a true antonym
to away than say back or home,
here, present or fixed in space:
`The king’s away but I’m aplace
And shan’t abandon him.’” 

“Aplace was maybe an embrace
too fixed and metaphysical
for the Anglophone genius,
somewhere lost, fled from or paradisiacal
where we’d know, or knew, our place.
Germans have no such fear:
da means both there and here,
but perhaps we sailed away
in our prize ship the Renaissance, 

“ravaging the locative case,
even voiding revolution that way,
shipping it out of every county
to erupt on Boston and the Bounty,
venturing impatiently apace
till locality was nowhere
and only God was there,
invisible, in the lay sense,
the Darwinian modern-day sense 

“that grows from a youthful enmity,
and it would take extremity
to make us reappear.” 

For an Australian linguistic nationalist, aplace must be an irresistible word. Murray’s poems are nothing if not local and particular – rooted, like words; aplace. No poet has less feel for abstraction or “poetics,” the fatal curse of much contemporary poetry. In the OED, we learn aplace is lifted straight from the French en place. The word, naturally, is “Obs.” and defined as “into this place, in place.” As Murray promises, we find citations from John Gower (1393) and from George Gillespie’s A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (1637): “Things abused to Idolatry...are farre better away then aplace.” It must have tickled Murray, a serious Roman Catholic who dedicates each of his books “to the glory of God,” to find a seventeenth-century Puritan from the land of his forebears, Scotland, lambasting Papists. 

Murray was born on this date, Oct. 17, in 1938. The Australian artist David Naseby painted Murray’s portrait in 1995, and wrote of the poet: “As a subject I found Les very intriguing. Along with his huge intelligence he had an air of strange simplicity. I have shown this apparent contradiction by painting his habit of sucking on a finger, and showing his coffee cup tilting on the floor --`like my life’, Murray said to me when he first saw the portrait.”

No comments: