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Pound in Venice, 1965


ISSUE:  Autumn 1974


He was old when we met him first, the grizzled veteran of a thousand wars, literary and other, and standing then on the brink of his eightieth birthday. They said that he would celebrate the occasion quietly in Paris, taking the train from Mestre in a day or two. This was thought to be fitting for several reasons, not least that Paris was the place where he had established himself forty years earlier as both catalyst and contributor to modern literature—a bearded Caliban, in his own words, fiercely intent upon casting out the Ariel of pretentious rhetoric.

The idea of meeting him had come up casually enough the night before. We were dining on scampi and grilled tournedos in Harry’s Bar, enriched by small glasses of champagne in a seemingly endless procession. Young Cipriani, the manager’s son, hovered attentively. He was an old friend of our host, Gianfranco Ivancich—handsome, brown-haired, brown-eyed, forty-five, kindly, generous, brilliant, and articulate, a Venetian by ancient lineage. Some said his family could have belonged to the Italian nobility, though they had long ago declined the honor.

“Do you know Pound, Ezra Pound?” Gianfranco said.

“No. Is he here?”

“In Venice, yes. Across the Canal.” Gianfranco pointed over his shoulder. “Have you met him?”

“No. Only an exchange of letters, not very satisfactory.”

“Recently?”

“Six or seven years ago.” 

“You did not quarrel?” 

“Not exactly.”

“I am giving him lunch tomorrow. He will soon be eighty. He is leaving for Paris the day after. Will you come?”

“Yes,” we said, and it was arranged.

Next morning Gianfranco appeared promptly at our hotel, still merry and bright and full of talk. We crossed a corner of the Piazza San Marco and boarded the traghetto. The day was bright and cool, with a brisk breeze. “Ideal October,” said Gianfranco, gazing back at the Palace of the Doges. Waves were slapping the docks of the line of hotels. The far side was sunnier and warmer. Our feet echoed on the pavements and made small thunder-sounds over the arches of the lesser bridges. Deep in the warren of dwellings and shops we crossed a final canal. Gianfranco pointed out the house of Cipriani. “It is where he stores the wines for Harry’s Bar,” he said, “and here is Mr. Pound’s.”

It was a narrow house fronting the sidewalk. The handsome white-haired lady who answered our knock was Olga Rudge, an Ohioan by birth, a former concert violinist, the mother of Pound’s daughter Mary. She embraced Gianfranco, shook our hands. The ground-floor room was square and rather barely furnished, with an open fireplace and a narrow stairway leading to the room above, the twin of this one. An American girl was there also, very pleasant and quick, with a short neat haircut. Last year she had done a portrait head of Pound, cast now in bronze. Neither the head nor the poet was yet visible.

He came deliberately down the stairs, a tall old man with square shoulders and thinning hair abundantly long and swept back from his forehead. Both beard and hair were gray, not white. His eyes were blue and he had a way of opening them wide and fixing his visitors with an intense stare, all the more disconcerting because the stare was not accompanied by speech. He was meticulously clean—hair, skin, the knobbly hands, the nails—and as gracious as one can be without words. The suit he wore was of gray flannel, with a blue shirt and a dark blue Italian tie. He shook his head vigorously when Miss Rudge insisted that he wear a topcoat but in the end, as we walked out, he made a compromise, draping the camel’s hair coat like a cloak around his shoulders, and carrying a cane of yellow wood. “He must always have his stick,” said Olga Rudge, smiling.

We had heard of his decrepitude, but it did not show. His carriage was erect, his gait deliberate and easy, there was neither hesitation nor shuffling as he picked up his black shoes rhythmically and set them firmly down. When I walked ahead to snap his picture as he crossed a couple of bridges, he turned profile at the moment the shutter clicked. He was very slender, probably weighing no more than a hundred and twenty-five, and in profile rather hawk-like. His head was thrown back, he was enjoying the sun and the light breeze. A few Venetians greeted him as he passed and he bowed back politely, with never a break in his stride. He might have been a lord.

This meeting, I thought, was like coming into a strange theater towards the end of the final act. We knew in a general way the drift the play had taken: the birth-scene far off in Hailey, Idaho, in 1885; the bachelor and master of arts in 1905-1906; the expatriate on the grand tour in 1907. We had read the early books, “A Lume Spento,” and then those others that came in quick succession after he had settled in England, “Personae,” “Exultations,” “Canzoni,” “Ripostes.” The learned and multilingual young man established a reputation so rapidly that Robert Frost, meeting him in London in 1913, could write home to a friend, “I don’t mind his calling me raw. He is reckoned raw himself and at the same time perhaps the most prominent of the younger poets here.” W. B. Yeats praised his “vigorous creative mind,” adding that he was “certainly a creative personality of some sort,” even though it was still too early to predict his future line of development. “His experiments are perhaps errors,” wrote Yeats, “but I would always sooner give the laurel to vigorous errors than to any orthodoxy not inspired.” And then later at Stone Cottage, Coleman’s Hatch, in Sussex, while the war raged across the Channel: “Ezra Pound and his wife are staying with me, we have four rooms of a cottage on the edge of a heath and our back is to the woods.”

It was Yeats who had told Pound that Frost’s “North of Boston” was the best thing that had come out of America for some time. Frost, rather bemusedly, called Pound “the stormy petrel” who had sent a “fierce article” to Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine in Chicago, “denouncing a country that neglects fellows like me.” Yet Frost, though glad enough of the public acclaim, could not help feeling that Pound was concerned with personal power. “All I asked,” he wrote, in a free-verse poem addressed to Pound but wisely never sent, “was that you should hold to one thing: that you considered me a poet. That was why I clung to you as one clings to a group of insincere friends for fear they shall turn their thoughts against him the moment he is out of hearing. The truth is I was afraid of you.”

Others feared him, too, but turned to him for aid. Helping to launch and publicize the Imagist movement, guiding such little magazines as The Egoist, Blast, and The Little Review, he had hurled himself with restless energy into a program for the rehabilitation of modern poetry, backed by what Harriet Monroe called his “love of stirring up and leading forth other minds.” T. S. Eliot soon acknowledged his priceless editorial assistance with “The Waste Land” by dedicating the poem to him and lauding him in Dante’s phrase as “il miglior fabbro,” as, in a manner of speaking, he had turned out to be. Ernest Hemingway, on first meeting him in Paris in 1922, had written, like Frost before him, an attack on Pound that was never sent, though presently, as he told a friend, he discovered that Pound was really “a great guy and a wonderful editor,” and volunteered to teach Ezra to box in return for lessons in how to write.

Some years later, when Hemingway gashed his forehead in a domestic accident, Pound sent him from Rapallo a typical message: “Haow the hellsufferin tomcats did you git drunk enough to fall upwards thru the blithering skylight!!!!” And Hemingway, four years after that, stated forthrightly that “any poet born in this century or in the last ten years of the preceding century who can honestly say that he has not been influenced by or learned greatly from the work of Ezra Pound deserves to be pitied rather than rebuked.”

So we came that noonday in Venice by tortuous route to the door of the small ristorante where Gianfranco was known and received with obvious affection, and where Pound was treated with the deference due his age and reputation. He sat down at one end of the table and Gianfranco, flanked by Olga Rudge and the girl sculptress, at the other. Pound listened intently to all that was said, nodded and smiled in response to observations, widened his eyes once or twice in that special gesture of his, and said absolutely nothing. Gianfranco had warned us of this “vow of silence,” and thought that it was an act of contrition for having said too much over Rome Radio in the time of Mussolini. At home, of course, he talked with those closest to him, to his beautiful daughter Mary at Schloss Brunnenburg, to his adoring grandchildren. The taciturnity was reserved for public gatherings, and this counted as one. As befitted his years, he ate sparely, declining soup and only lightly sampling the malfatta, a delicious kind of ravioli cut on the bias. After two mouthfuls he pushed his plate away, astonishing my wife by saying to her the only two words he had yet uttered: “too heavy.” At the next course he delicately made way with two small scallopini washed down with half a glass of dry white wine.

I mentioned the letter he had sent me from Rapallo in the spring of 1959, less than a year after his release from twelve years’ imprisonment in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. It was a typically aggressive and humorous-serious document poorly typed with blue ribbon on stationery of the Albergo Grande Italia & Lido, and dated April seventh.

Carlos Baker, Princeton, where Woodrow slopped. 
Yr/ bk/ on Hem, serious re/ literature and Paris, but you
are ham ignorant of history. Whether any servant of Prince­-
ton dares combat the age-old falsification and READ any
history, let alone adjusting his ideas to the 17 facts that the
sons of hell and brain-washed adorers of F. D. R. spend
billions to hide I do not know. There are faint signs that
soon truth will trickle into the margins, but not into the main
stream of u.s. university sewage. I see Chris Gauss [Dean of
the College at Princeton who had died in November, 1951]
has passed on, but suppose Dex. White still rates above
Andrew in Niebuhrian rhomboids.
                                                           frankly yrs. Ez Pound.

At this date I could not recall enough of the letter to quote back at its author, but I did speak of Christian Gauss, at which Pound nodded and smiled, and I wondered aloud at what he had meant by the phrase “Niebuhrian rhomboids.” But Pound only grinned, folding his thin clean hands on the table before him.

The voluble conversation at the other end of the table now drew us in. We knew only vaguely of Pound’s happy liaison of many years with Olga Rudge, and of their child, Mary de Rachewiltz, now a beautiful woman of forty who lived with her half-Russian, half-Italian husband in a castle in the Tyrol. It was not in fact until six years later, with the publication of Mary’s charming autobiography, that we learned the whole romantic story. The book was called “Discretions” as a kind of echo of her father’s “Indiscretions,” published in 1923 only a couple of years before Mary was born at Bressanone. At the time of her birth another woman in the maternity ward had lost her baby and it was arranged that she should nurse the skinny little girl to blooming health, which she achieved in the farming community of Gais in the Tyrol as fosterchild to Johanna Marcher. The Marchers she called Mamme and Tatte. Pound and Olga Rudge were known to her as Mammile and Tattile, although later she began to call Pound by the name of Babbo, and went often to Venice so that her real parents could smooth away the rough edges of her peasant upbringing; here she learned Italian and English as supplementary to the Tyrolese patois that she spoke the rest of the year, swam at the Lido under Babbo’s admiring supervision, and was hopefully given a violin by her gifted mother. Educated at a convent school in Florence with the musical name of Regio Istituto delle Nobili Signore Montalva alia Quiete, she first went to Rapallo just before the war, and fell in love with Casa 60, Sant’ Ambrogio, a tall house of orange stucco with painted Ionic columns and a green front door overgrown with honeysuckle. She was back in Gais when the news filtered through that Italy had surrendered, and she worked steadily through the rest of the war in hospitals in the north of Italy while Babbo kept quietly at his translations.

Then in 1945 a pair of partisans, ex-fascist convicts eager for reward money, knocked with the butt of a gun on the door at Sant’ Ambrogio. Babbo was working on Confucius. “Seguici, traditore,” they said, and took him away. Olga Rudge and Mary saw him later at the Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa. He had aged noticeably; the army fatigues he was wearing did not fit his slender frame; he was writing the first batch of Pisan Cantos on a borrowed typewriter. When Mary saw him in 1953 he had already languished for eight years in the Washington madhouse under indictment for treason. She must not bring her children there, he told her. “St. Elizabeths is no fit place for the children to see their grandfather in. And there are rumors: granpaw might get sprung.” Then one evening she heard the Italian newscast: il poeta Americano had been released, the indictment dismissed. After twelve years in limbo he could return to Italy on board the Cristoforo Colombo,a voyage of discovery in reverse. In Sirmione in 1957 Mary had said to Archibald MacLeish, who had labored so long to set Pound free, “He has a right to do whatever he likes, anything that makes him happy….” After his release MacLeish sent a generous check to be used to keep Pound warm and there was another from Hemingway that he framed as a memento of an old friendship.

If his remorse still held, it did not show as he sat happily in this small left-bank ristorante. Except for the silences in the intervals of the conversation. Afterwards we ambled back to the narrow little house beside the small canal where a green bottle, some bits of straw, and a hemisphere of orange peel floated somnolently. Pound climbed the steps slowly to the skylighted room at the top of the house. He was not puffing and his color was good, though in that severe light his face looked drawn and the skin almost transparent. He drank a demitasse and took a sip or two of brandy. When a tape recording of a recent canto was put on and played, he listened attentively to his own voice, reading the lines with a kind of gruff eloquence and pronouncing the frequent foreign phrases with the easy skill of an old European hand. When we left he stayed in his chair, watching the patterns of afternoon sunlight on the floor.

Two afternoons later in Paris, Pound and Miss Rudge were met by Dominique de Roux, who was then on the point of publishing the first French translation of the “Cantos.” “He is in a state of profound remorse,” M. de Roux told reporters. The vow of silence was still in effect, though he relented occasionally. “I regret my past errors,” he told de Roux, “but I hope to have done a little something for some artists.”

On Friday the 29th, the day before his birthday, he sat on a sofa beside Miss Natalie Barney in the drawing room of her house where she had entertained the Parisian intellectuals of the 1920’s and wordlessly received old friends and new admirers. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, a checked brown sports jacket, brown pants, and crepe-soled shoes. The long wings of his shirt collar were spread as of old over his lapels, and his hands rested on the grip of his yellow cane. Asked who were his favorite modern poets, he named Cummings and Auden, and permitted himself a two-word judgment of the work of Allen Ginsberg. “He’s vigorous,” said Pound. It was the word Yeats had used for Pound’s own talent long ago in England.

By this date we were far away among the Austrian Alps, staying at the Hotel Taube in the market village of Schruns in the Vorarlberg. While Babbo sat beside Miss Barney on the Parisian sofa, we were walking out to the neighboring village of St. Gallenkirch. Some of the men of the town were laying sewer-pipe along the bank of the stream, and others were raking leaves. Bedding was being aired at the windows of the houses, and some of the women were sweeping their porches with rough brooms made of twigs. The lunch at the Taube was typical—four small trout apiece, cooked whole, with a home-made champignon soup, parsleyed potatoes, and a salad of lettuce, red peppers, white beans, string beans, and cole slaw. For dessert there were rolled pancakes with a custard filling.

After one bite, my wife pushed her dessert-plate towards me across the table.

“Don’t you like them?”

“Yes, but after all the rest, they’re too heavy.”

“You’re echoing Ezra Pound.”

“Yes,” she said. “Poor old man.”

 

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