394. (Ezra Pound)

Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos inspires questions, and is itself the answer to some of the questions; if we feel the questions matter, the poem matters, and succeeds, because it shows that they are worth asking, and can be answered in the practice of poetry, and made pressing in that practice, too. It’s by bringing home that such questions are worth asking, and deserve some attempt at an answer, and justify poetry as a valid means of such an attempt, that Pound’s poem endures:

Does Nature tend towards the Good? Is its appetite towards something in just equilibrium, a pivot, a resting middle? And Second Nature, the nature of human habit and civilization? Is it moved by a desire that runs athwart the natural way of things, and to require a wisdom and constituted order that approximates, in second nature, nature’s tendency towards a beauty and balance? What of politics? Is American democracy a second nature that admits into itself the ephemeral, transforming fractals of nature? Or does political life under capitalism corrupt those desires of and for civilization’s equilibrium, justice, and order? Does it undo and distort what it fashions, or merely dissolve, as happens to be the case? What distinguishes progress (Second Nature, dependent on education, on goals, on purpose) from process? How and when can working, scrounging, and laboring for necessity yield a sudden glimpse, in human life, of something valuable that does not transcend the world but is more profoundly of it? How can futility be revelatory? How can the way of nature, its movement towards what is good, its unconscious appetency for a balance and clarity, be perceived from the vantage point of second nature, civilization, habit, and language? How can it be brought into second nature so as to instruct and move our desires? How can the movements, the desires, appetites, and actions, of Second Nature be set forth, cut away and arranged, alongside a presentation of Nature, to show where Second Nature tends towards what is Good, in its own terms, and where it deviates course, goes awry? How can this be done without appeal to a realm or order beyond the earthly, and instead set within the endless change of the world of things and men?  How can the work of presenting itself participate in the process of the world, not holding itself apart from, or above, Second Nature, respecting its minute particulars so that they generalize from themselves without becoming something else? How can the work not only attempt to set forth, and apprehend, the movement of Nature, its process, its ways, but also embody it as a principle of its own form and unfolding, so as to affirm the nature foundational to second nature? How can memory, nature and second nature both, be allowed to run its course in the creation of a work without being so shapeless as to defy a course at all? How much can things be trusted to take on a shape, to move towards a good, and how much will must be exerted on the materials? How can a work be open to what is given, at a moment, in a place—in the shape of clouds, the patterns of birds, voices on the wind, resemblances of past and present—without reducing the scope of its words to that moment, that place? When does the contingent testify to the possibility of something more on earth, here and now? Does myth, or history that has become myth, reside in things still? Can the call to build the altar in the glade, the recognized need for the altar, become an altar dedicated to what is already there, just not seen and heard? Does the possibility of seeing offer grounds for hope?

Take the close of Canto 81, a passage that does not offer one of the most brilliant accounts of the natural world, but that nonetheless brings the poem’s movement to its rest, on the word “rest”:


cd/ be as a Madonna quattrocento

This I learned in the Tirol

                  and as perfect

where they paint the houses outside with figures

and the deep inner courts run back triple


‘Das heis’ Walterplatz’

 heard in Bozen (Bolzano)


and in my mother’s time it was respectable,

 it was social, apparently,

to sit in the Senate gallery

or even in that of the House

        to hear the fire-works of the senators

(and possibly representatives)

as was still done in Westminster in my time

and a very poor show from the once I saw it)


but if Senator Edwards cd/ speak

and have his tropes stay in the memory 40 years, 60 years?

 in short / the descent has not been of advantage either

                   to the Senate or to ‘society’

or to the people

The States have passed through a

                  dam’d supercilious era

Down, Derry-down /

          Oh let an old man rest.


The passage moves from the houses of the Tirol, with their deep inner courtyards, painted with figures, themselves perfect in a sense of complete and beautiful, and then to the house of the Senate and Representatives, with a glance at Westminster, the perseverance of the figures on the wall of Tirol counterpointed against the tropes in the speech of Senator Edwards; the house in Tirol where he “learned” of the perfection of Madonna Quattrocentos, and the past of the Senate which he learned from what his own mother (a different Madonna) remembered; both the learning and the hearing, the second-hand veracity caught in “apparently,” instance of what has come to Pound, just as the tropes of Senator Edwards have come down in memory and time; though that descent in time is other than, and testament of, a descent that is a fall, of what the Senate has become “to the people,” a phrase that might be suspect in light of Pound’s politics, but that retains its bedrock, democratic sense, justified by its justification to the far right of the page; they and the States have “passed through” an era, a “dam’d supercilious era,” where “dam’d” echoes, even orthographically, “dammed” and the time of the States becomes also the time of water moving (relevant in a poem where water is a recurrent image for process)—but the movement down is also worth jeering at, kicking against: “passed through” and “descent” yield to the down of “Down, derry-down,” a lyric from a song popular in the late 18th century (http://commonplace.online/article/musical-sleuthing-early-america/), which Pound, if he had known, might have associated with the America of John Adams, though here the final line, rather than jeering, says, in effect, “piss off.” The old man is Pound, but also any old man; the first person of the Pisan Cantos sometimes a Lear figure, in the cage (the allusion is explicit at least once), and Lear’s attunement to absurdity, sublimity, folly, and the natural and unnatural are all relevant here too. Rest in what? In contemplation; in the hope that contemplation can bring, even from the cage, where the world offers enough promises of what good it contains—and where memory is available of what good it contained, and could make available again.


            Among the greatest affirmations of what being at rest can open Pound to seeing, the good that the world might contain again, and even still, comes at the end of Canto 80:


[Only shadows enter my tent

as men pass between me and the sunset,]

beyond the eastern barbed wire

       a sow with nine boneen

matronly as any duchess at Claridge’s


and for that Christmas at Maurie Hewlett’s

Going out from Southampton

they passed the car by the dozen

      who would not have shown weight on a scale

riding, riding

for Noel the green holly

        Noel, Noel, the green holly

       A dark night for the holly


That would have been Salisbury plain, and I have not thought of

       the Lady Anne for this twelve years

 Nor of Le Portel

How tiny the panelled room where they stabbed him

              In her lap, almost, La Stuarda

        Si tuit li dolh ehl planh el marrimen

for the leopards and broom plants


‘Tudor indeed is gone and every rose,

Blood-red, blanch-white that in the sunset glows

Cries: ‘Blood, Blood, Blood!’ against the gothic stone

Of England, as the Howard or Boleyn knows.

Nor seeks the carmine petal to infer:

Nor is the white bud Time’s inquisitor

Probing to know if its new-gnarled root

Twists from York’s head or belly of Lancaster;


Or if a rational soul should stir, perchance,

Within the stem or summer shoot to advance

Contrition’s utmost throw, seeking in thee

But oblivion, not thy forgiveness, FRANCE.


as the young lizard extends his leopard spots

        along the grass-blade seeking the green midge half an ant-size


and the Serpentine will look just the same

and the gulls be as neat on the pond

and the sunken garden unchanged

and God knows what else is left of our London

    my London, your London

and if her green elegance

remains on this side of my rain ditch

puss lizard will lunch on some other T-bone


sunset grand couturier.


His sense of loss has been heard before, in the Tudor song, so that he can sing it, and let it be what it is, while knowing something in it has also passed, or descended, to him, and becomes active again, where and when he is: the blood that has been spilled, the divisions among those who share a common root, a European or English history, and who have lost a common past. The poem seeks mercy, rather than forgiveness; Pound cannot do that yet. But the mercy he seeks is a mercy that would let things redeem themselves on their terms, in their time, and there is throughout these poems a sense that Pound knows he must do so, even if redemption can only come through a passivity that lets the world’s activity order itself around him, within him, as it does in the final lines: and the world does come together in a harmony that is beyond Pound, that passes through him, as the leopards of La Stuarda (Mary Stuart) and the recollection of the Tudor paste, leads to a thought of oblivion, of stasis, which is present in the lizard, poised and still, contemplating a tiny midge, contemplated in turn by Pound, who notices its own leopard spots, which binds it to the lines of the poem that opened into the Tudor song; being a lizard, it is related to a snake, and so returns Pound also to the Serpentine  (lake in Hyde park) of London, and the London he lost, “my London, your London,” having both the generality and impersonality of a melancholy ballad and an intimacy that blazes through the poem with poignant exposure: he is divided from it by a ditch, now, the “rain ditch” of the prison camp, but also the ditch of time, petty, inevitable, small, like the midge, like Pound himself in his cage; it is “my rain ditch” and this “my” has none of the balladic richness, and is instead diminished, and comedic, his society companion now the Lizard. “If” hangs heavy; if any of that lost London remains where he is, his lizard guest (or host) will done not on a midge but a T-bone, the rough American accent coming through, as well as the rough American humor, and the hearty appreciation for appetite, prevalent everywhere (unsurprisingly given the fare Pound must have eaten) in the Pisan Cantos but also the appreciation for what the earth gives, as T-Bone here recalls, in its earthy, Midwest, humble mode a sacrifice of Oxen suitable for the Gods; and maybe it is the light of sunset that reddens the food of the lizard, as the sunset in the Tudor song cried with “blood.” That song returns, at any rate, with the sunset, that in its glow does many things at once: recalling the song, the past, the periplum of time and life, the presence of light that elsewhere in the poems, when discerned and described, becomes in itself a possibility of worldly good, but that here is a couturier, a costumer of high society, drawing out the elegant green of the lizard, making of the lizard and the small scene something civilized, and making also the thought of civilization a thought of nature realized and refined into a Second Nature that is itself of the process; it remains, barely, on this side of the ditch.


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