“Memory supplants history in the humbled mind,” you wrote. To which we might add that epic fallen to fragments becomes lyric, and those lyric scraps of myth and history may become well nigh indistinguishable from personal memory.
So that the Pisan Cantos, held at a certain angle, in a certain light, read as if all of Europe were sifting through the fragments washed up in and of its ruin, trying to comprehend its downfall.
And to separate what it might still love from the dross of its vanity, gazing eastward for equivalences that might be insights, Kuanyin ≒ Aphrodite, rain as Tao ≒ Heraclitean flow, apricot blossoms on the wind as gallows at the camp’s edge terribly clarify the mind.
At a certain angle, in a certain light. The poems are a tsunami in their mass energy valences. Any effort to summarize encapsulate or contain them seems further folly. So I will just tell you the way I am floating along with them this morning.
It starts with defiance and venom. Mussolini as a “dead bullock” eaten at by maggots. Lenders as “loan lice.” The mind is at work on the scale of history, the “enormous tragedy of the dream” now lost of the ideal city “whose terraces are the colour of stars.”
Pound heaps scorn and contempt upon those he calls guilty, FDR, Churchill, banks, rich Jews. This noise goes on for some time. But even at the outset, turning words are at work in the mind:
The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful,
rain also is of the process.
Those same eyes appear some hundred pages later — “there came new subtlety of eyes into my tent” —Kuanyin? Aphrodite? — to release the hymn of self-abnegation, in which love and right action are got free at last of resentment and vanity.
One side of it is letting the world enter, really enter, the tent. To admit that “rain also is of the process” is not idle or abstract in a roofless cage. The other side is, get humble, erase yourself, let the world enter, that is the way through:
ОЎ ΤΙΣ, ОЎ ΤΙΣ? Odysseus
the name of my family.
Things flow. So let them. The Pisan Cantos are (this morning) (for this reader) about the thorny ecstatic work of getting out of the way. To be Odysseus is to be skilled in many things, polumetis, a man of twists and turns, and one such turn is to be no man at all.
The poem flows. So let it. ОЎ ΤΙΣ, “no man,” recalls here and everywhere “’Tis. ’Tis. Ytis!” in Canto IV, the cry of Philomela become nightingale. Which connects in turn to the orchestrated birdsong of Canto LXXV. Which connects to the birds composing themselves on wires in Pound’s tent-straitened view. Who sing in Canto LXXXII this song
which I hear as the drawn-out first syllable, and then descending scale, of “Terreus! Terreus!” — Philomela given the power to name he who raped her and cut out her tongue to foster silence.
This would be a way to write about the Cantos: choose one node, trace all that it echoes or actuates, how they foster speech when speech is due, rich silences otherwise.
For so many noticings don’t fit the arc I’ve staked out for myself.
A key that shows up in the first moments: periplum, circumnavigation, as in “the great periplum brings in the stars to our shore.” Not sure what to make of this. Feels like a concession that the world is whole, and epic strivings unnecessary, but that may be my effort, once more, to turn Pound into a dharma holder.
The poem is one left parenthesis and another. So I can hardly say it makes a clean transit from benightedness to insight. That would be too happy an ending — that would be an ending. To the last Pound is hailing Il Duce, his lieutenants, various collaborators whom history has since found, and I’ve no reason to question the verdict, cowards and villains.
There is though a gradual shift in the relative weights given to vitriol (accusation, explanation, calumny) and humility (surrender, sympathy, wakeful attention) — to being right and being alive. A few of the energies at work in that shift:
Hey Snag wots in the bibl’?
wot are the books ov the bible?
Name ’em, don’t bullshit ME.
a man on whom the sun has gone down
As Odysseus, become No Man, is connected to Elpenor, a man remembered only for the company he kept, so Pound, as No Man, is connected to the prisoners and guards of the DTC, anonymous but for the place he gives them in his poem. (His giving goes hand in hand with sympathy.) (His humbling is an enlarging.)
As Pound settles into the ascetic attention forced on him by his confinement, mist and clouds, stray camp animals, vagrant insects become charged with meaning:
that the ants seem to wobble
as the morning sun catches their shadows
Sometimes that meaning takes on the dimension of myth, not in the way of epic sweep and portent, but of lyric intensity, the moment eternal: the butterfly, Aphrodite or Psyche, at the smoke hole. Identity with the insects makes humility absolute —
As a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor.
— out of humility comes a new allegiance —
nothing matters but the quality
of the affection —
in the end — that has carved the trace in the mind
dove sta memoria
— a descent into memory with consolation from Confucius —
“How is it far, if you think of it?”
— peppered with eruptions of the old rage —
interest on all it creates out of nothing
the buggering bank has; pure iniquity
and to change the value of money, of the unit of
we are not out of that chapter
(as if the deep disappointment of the world could be laid at the feet of the banking industry — we are not out of that habit) and in time a reaffirmation—
Amo ego sum, and in just that proportion
To be as one loves.
Such luminous details fall like seeds into a welter of sensation, memory, argument, and myth. And after a near endless swirling gestation they break up through the soil and the world greens with a new sort of understanding:
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross,
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Humbled, the sun gone down on him, made no man, Pound overwinters, all that long summer, to green in autumn with hard insight:
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity
I am of Pound’s company in this if in no other thing: “Learn of,” not “Learn from,” because of how long “from” would take to say. The music matters. Music is the matter.
The hate that went out turns inward as ruthless self-excoriation —
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down they vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity
— that also is of the process, the Tao of prison, the way of awful reflection. Allowed to flow, it flows, then is gone. What one has loved — that one has loved — remains:
To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.
Well I have tried to work here with a light hand but still feel I have striven to reduce the irreducible. So let me say as I wrap up that these poems are teaching me a different sort of attention. They are not vessels, nor is there any vessel to hold them, they’re mind in motion, world in motion, soul in process, one meets them as a rainstorm or a storm surge. I mean the only way to read them is surrender. One could spend a lifetime in them and not find the depth of them, and that — fascistic rantings notwithstanding — is a great beautiful good.