Ezra Pound, in a
cage in Pisa. Talking to himself. Still writing - was it on toilet paper like
Genet? Stashing it in his trousers. Madness is not a descent but a wandering
sideways, a landscape without gradations or boundaries, like the sea in fact.
So, he anchored himself with writing, or tried.
My first image of a poet, the chiselled old head, the narrow eyes, the white hair like a wave of the sea. And the voice, of course, the voice. A chant, half American, half – to my ear – Scottish, some sort of Celtic undercurrent. I used it to drown out my sister’s music: “Nothing Compares to You,” on loop. That cassette of Pound reading his own poetry which I’d taken out on from Bradford Library. “Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail.”
His voice, as if holed up in a cave and broadcasting to another continent, not knowing if someone would listen. Like nothing I’d heard before. Imitating it, I felt like I’d travelled back in time. And learning the whole second half of Canto 81. Feeling the notes of resilience, defiant assertion, doubt, homecoming. Feeling this movement of notes without quite understanding all the words. But knowing that I had now implanted this same movement inside me. That I had enlarged my repertoire of emotion. To read poetry, I thought, is to be the engineer of one’s soul.
I recited that Canto at my interview. On the train very early, “morning moon against sunrise”, feeling free at last. Thinking that this was poetry: obscure, recondite, propped up by footnotes.
And then, years later, returning from New York, that disastrous week in Manhattan, returning not just empty handed but bereft, except for the rust covered complete Cantos, the New Directions edition, like a paper brick, from the bookshop in Christopher’s place. And placing it proudly on my bookshelf back home as if I had recovered from the wreckage a rare familiar cargo.
And the Cantos themselves a great wreckage but with crystals of perfect light. “I, a leaf in the current”. The wreckage existing for the sake of the light. And for years it stayed on the shelf like a tombstone. But the first Canto I carried in the mind’s inner sleeve. And when Gog and I boarded the catamaran in Thera, I recited it as the boat rose on the buoyant sea, and we soon lost sight of the great volcanic cliffs.
I took the book down from the shelf when H was two years old. I’d read it to him to send him off the sleep. “And then went down to the ship”. Except it was a homecoming of course, not an embarkation, the little one all the way asleep. And although I read them only to get him to sleep, in the end he learned the first four lines by heart and would recite them in his small voice. He knows them even now, now he’s five. Then finally, last year, just before lockdown, on the way back from Lucca we stopped in Pisa to see the tower. And I told H about Pound. We were sat in a small café near the university. And I quoted to him and Gog the bit I’d quoted at my interview: “What thou lovest well remains/ What thou lovest well cannot be reft from thee.”