Friday, June 12, 2009

Funny, you don't look . . .

For some time after Ezra Pound was taken into American custody in May 1945, his activities as a poet writing to the world from Italy continued. On October 28, for instance, his wife Dorothy wrote him to mention a visit she had received from the publisher Aurelio Marasà, who "hoped to publish works by EP and to circulate manifestos on his behalf" (Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity 1945-1946, ed. Omar Pound and Robert Spoo [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999] 162n. Cited hereafter as Pound and Spoo). Two days later Dorothy explained in more detail:
[Marasà] has a publishing 'house' in Genova - Has done a de Luxe Cocteau "Plain chants" in french & Les E[nfants] terribles amongst others. He says he'll publish anything you want. He has a fairly heavy jaw bone: very nervous & quick, light brown eyes - dark straight hair, a trifle jap. this last. He reads English easily but can't speak it. I suppose there are newrich or oldusury in the show: haven't yet discovered. (Pound and Spoo 165)
In this passage, the family neologisms "newrich" and "oldusury" are metonymic code meaning "Jew." The literal translation "newrich" originates in a standard caricature of the Jew as nouveau-riche, like Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby or Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth, but its reference here is racial, not financial. Marasà's ancestors may once have had money, but Dorothy here is talking about his inherited physiognomy. Likewise, "usury," for Ezra Pound, is a term of art, but not an economic one. Transforming money to a biological theme, it unites images of currency divorced from human activity with images of Jews as parasites. But among the four roots of Dorothy Pound's two new words, perhaps the most interesting is the only one that uncomplicatedly means what it says: "old."

For a start, it is the one term with a quantifiable history, a history as countable as money in the bank. Having investigated, Dorothy now knows that the term of this history is precisely 1145 years, from the years 800 to 1945. On November 4, she writes to Ezra with that good news:
Marasà (Arabs in 800 in Sicily) & [Eugen] Haas came this a.m. The latter very large & sober & businesslike. They are setting up publishing together: at least Haas is joining M. They are full of friendship & kindness - (Pound and Spoo 171)
Here, Dorothy's genealogical parenthesis refers not only to Aurelio Marasà but to her dispositive finding about him: "full of friendship & kindness." Continuing the thread of thought that began in her October 30 note about oldusury, Dorothy's words of November 4 come to reassure Ezra that even though Marasà may look Jewish, he isn't. The thousand years that have passed without Jewish taint between 800 and 1945 are a fiat currency, a money based on trust. They tell Dorothy that Marasà's is an uncounterfeited physiognomy. His face is his history, and that history is virtuous per se, virtuous by the absolute standard and golden beauty of blood. Marasà's interest in Pound's art is therefore sound: a credit accumulated over centuries in a bank eternally liquid.
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage

(Canto 81: Disciplinary Training Center, 1945)
And there we may leave Dorothy. On November 13, after a visit to Ezra in his prison in Pisa, she happily described her trip home to Rapallo:
I found a trattoria . . . where I fell in about and had a perfectly delicious spaghetti al burro - & mark you, a great lump of butter, & cheese, an excellent green salad, & a very pleasant dry white wine, for 80 lire - not so bad - here it would cost double. Next a.m. I missed the autobus to Genova, not having inquired the previous night: but boarded the train, a merce [freight train], with cattle trucks for goyim. (Pound and Spoo 187. The Italian word merce is mistranslated in the original.)
The Poundian tropes have survived the ending of the war, says this cheerful complaint. We non-Jews are still at the mercy of usury, it says; still treated as sacrificial animals by the Jews; but at least the spaghetti is still good, and so is the poetry.

This wasn't the kind of poetry that was being read on the other side of the Atlantic in those years, of course. In his "Ode to Our Young Pro-Consuls of the Air," Allen Tate took sardonic note of the existence of disinterested, apolitical literature, held its practitioners in balance with the patrioteering men of letters Van Wyck Brooks and Archibald MacLeish, threw in the defeated commanders at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel and General Short, to make weight on the side of virtue, and learned from the experiment the satirical lesson he was supposed to learn: that literature is good for happy endings even if they happen to be fiction.
In this bad time no part
The poet took, nor chance:
.....He studied Swift and Donne,
.....Ignored the Hun,
While with faint heart
Proust caused the fall of France.

Sad day at Oahu
When the Jap beetle hit!
.....Our Proustian retort
.....Was Kimmel and Short,
Old women in blue,
And then the beetle bit.

It was defeat, or near it! Yet all that feeble time
.....Brave Brooks and lithe MacLeish
.....Had sworn to thresh
Our flagging spirit
With literature made Prime!

(Poets of World War II, ed. Harvey Shapiro. New York: Library of America, 2003. 23)
In a fairly short time after that, Brooks and MacLeish and their language duly vanished from history. But I write this note shortly after an 88-year-old man given to quoting Pound's ideas about usury and blood has walked into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with a 100-year-old rifle and murdered a black security guard. It appears that the Pounds' language is still a living part of our history. If it is that, we haven't yet gained enough historical distance to understand it.

Which leaves Dorothy Pound's letter as inscrutable to us as the Jews were to her and her husband. At the moment, there is no one to teach us how to read it, even though all it is is a happy story of a ride behind language's Little Engine that Could.