Omar Pound and Robert Spoo, editors, Ezra and Dorothy Pound, Letters in Captivity, 1945-1946. xii + 398 pp. Oxford. $35.00 0-19-510793-4

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff


Dorothy Shakespear was twenty three when she met Ezra Pound and made this entry in her 1909 journal. Five years later, the daughter of Olivia Shakespear (novelist, literary hostess, cousin of the poet Lionel Johnson and intimate friend of W. B. Yeats), married her “beautiful” poet, who was soon openly unfaithful to her. She moved with him, first to Paris, then in 1923 to Italy, where, within the year, Olga Rudge, who was to become Ezra’s life-long mistress, gave birth to their daughter Mary. Dorothy responded in pique by taking a long trip to Egypt and came back pregnant. Her son Omar, born in 1926, was brought up in England by his grandmother. For the next twenty years, Ezra divided his time between 12/5 Via Marsala (his and Dorothy’s apartment in Rapallo) and Casa 60, Olga’s hilltop house high above Rapallo in Sant’Ambrogio, or in Venice where Olga kept an apartment.

The same years witnessed the well-known sequence of events that culminated in May 1945 in Ezra’s indictment for treason against the U.S. Since 1940, he had been delivering his notorious pro-Fascist, anti-American broadcasts over Rome Radio. By May 1944, with the Germans fortifying the coastal defenses at Rapallo and American troops heading north from Naples, the Pounds were forced to evacuate their apartment and moved in with Olga at Sant’Ambrogio. When, on 3 May 1945, two Italian partigani came to arrest Ezra, Olga was out running errands and Dorothy had gone to another hill of Rapallo for her weekly visit to Ezra’s mother Isabel, then eighty-six. Olga, the first to return, rushed to find Ezra and accompanied him to the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) headquarters in Genoa. When Dorothy came home that evening, the house was empty. Olga returned on May 7, later remarking that her four days with Ezra at the CIC were “among the happiest of [her] life”-presumably because she had the poet all to herself. Dorothy responded in kind: moving in with Isabel, she wrote in her journal, “this life is a mild purgatorio compared to the HELL of No. 60.”

Letters in Captivity covers the fourteen-month period between Ezra’s capture and Dorothy’s arrival in Washington in July 1946. She was to remain there for more than twelve years so as to be close to her husband, confined for “insanity” at St. Elizabeth’s. Her loyalty never wavered for an instant, but when, after Ezra’s release in 1958, they returned to Italy, and the poet entered a period of illness, depression, and almost total silence, it was Olga who took over. Ezra moved with her to Venice while Dorothy stayed on alone in Rapallo. In his biography of Pound, Humphrey Carpenter describes the loneliness of Dorothy’s final years (she died in 1973 a year after Ezra), a state of affairs that makes Letters in Captivity all the more poignant. Indeed, of the many volumes of Pound correspondence now available, this is surely the most moving, indeed often heart-wrenching.

Omar Pound and Robert Spoo have done a meticulous job editing these previously unpublished letters. Spoo’s excellent introduction sets the stage for the letters themselves, printed on the right-hand page with annotations on the left. These annotations are remarkable: every person and place alluded to is carefully identified so that much light is shed on the Pisan Cantos, which Pound was writing, along with his Confucian translations, at the Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) at Pisa, where he spent five months before being taken to the U.S. to stand trial. The beautifully produced volume also includes the relevant FBI and military documents (intelligence memos, psychiatric reports, Ezra’s depositions), along with excellent photographs, maps of the area, and so on. Most of the public record of the Pound case is well known but it takes on new interest in the context of the intimate letters between a Dorothy and an Ezra, who address each another fondly with the pet name “Mao” (evidently a joke based on a cat’s miaow).

The Pound who emerges from this correspondence is a man of irreconcilable contradictions. His political and economic comments are more than reprehensible-they are often megalomaniac to the point of insanity. No sooner had he been arrested and brought to the CIC at Genoa, than Pound dictated the following cable:

The notion that, as Ernest Fenollosa’s executor, he could provide the Japanese regime with the wherewithal to end the war can only be considered delusional. Similarly delusional are Ezra’s comments about Stalin (“Kumrad Koba”), who, as the possessor of “the best mind in Russia,” could surely, so Ezra opines, understand that he would be a great ruler if he only adopted Confucian precepts. And Ezra advises Dorothy to write to “Uncle George” (George Tinkham, Republican Congressman from Massachussetts from 1915 to1943) , to the effect “that someone who ‘knows what it is about’ ought to be able to talk to Stalin in his OWN language namely Georgian, that I would have done if given the chance.” And so on.

The fact that the St. Elizabeth psychiatrists could never agree on the exact nature or extent of their patient’s psychosis, doesn’t make these statements or Pound’s behavior any less bizarre. Among the documents the U.S. intelligence office in Genoa sent on to J. Edgar Hoover is a draft script for a final radio broadcast that urges that after the war, “germany must not lose benefit of economic advance, advance of economic justice under the land improvement . . . in short the new deals of the past two decades.” And although these extravagant statements become rarer after his transfer to the U.S., there is no indication that Ezra ever came to understand what World War II was and what it had done to “Yurrup.”

At the same time, in his personal relationships, especially with the women in his life, beginning with his mother, Ezra is unfailingly kind, thoughtful, and surprisingly reasonable. When, in September, Dorothy makes her first visit to the DTC, travelling from Rapallo and back (mostly on foot and an occasional motorbus) Ezra, using the third person as he often does affectionally, writes:

And again at the end of what is a very newsy letter about his new Confucian material, Omar, and various friends, he concludes, “O mao, love, and he hopes she didn’t git soaked and fruz” (105). The mails being what they were at war’s end, Ezra doesn’t get Dorothy’s October 6 account of her harrowing two-day journey home until the 15th: “Glad to know you weren’t fruz in snow on Bracco. But there are lacunae in yr/ account. Did you walk from Viareggio to Massa, and from Sestri to Rap? Tunnels full of smoke? etc. She expatiate and explicitfy.” And on November 4, “I don’t know whether yr/ birthday Lynx canto went direct or via base censor. Am sending another batch of ms / via Base Censor this evening. You have given me thirty years of peace clear as blue feldspar and I am grateful.” This image, as the notes point out, finds its way into Canto 83: “in the drenched tent there is quiet / sered eyes are at rest / the rain beat as with colour of feldspar / blue as the flying fish off Zoagli.” “O Mao,” Ezra writes a few days later, “he was pleased to see her, and now feelin a bit elegiac. Love to Mother.”

Pound was also “feelin a bit elegiac” about old friends. When, for example, he receives news of the death of the minor British poet J. P. Angold, Ezra tells Dorothy, “Heart-break re / Angold, but couldn’t have, and didn’t, expect much else. He was the best oak and the few poems the best granite of that generation up to 1938. Ronnie [Duncan] should collect /em . . . and the Possum [Eliot[ shd / do a couple of pages of preface, cd / take off from my two lines [see Canto 84] if he needs moral support.” “The possum,” he adds, “ought ALSO to print a vol/ of Basil [Bunting]. I reread ‘em, as you know, this spring, and they hold. They are the best of that decade, or that 20 years.”

For a man imprisoned and soon to be flown to the U.S. to be tried for treason, Ezra curiously keeps his cool, preoccupied as he is with his writing and study of Confucius. And he is also quite shrewd. When Dorothy writes Ezra that Julien Cornell, the lawyer James Laughlin hopes will take on the case, is said by Jas. to be “a man of the highest refinement,” Ezra answers cuttingly, “The egregious Omar has hit the nail plumb bang re counsel in asking “What KIND of a man will he be”? . . . Jas [Laughlin] pathetically insists on the refinement of his candidate.” Refinement, Ezra senses, would not cut it. And there are similarly shrewd judgements of people throughout the letters. The advantage of conversation with friends [rather than with psychiatrists], he tells Dorothy, “[is] that one has to create their willingness to listen.” Ezra himself evidently possessed this talent: almost everyone he meets from DTC inmates to army officers to nurses and doctors seems to be charmed by this “criminal” or “insane” poet.

But if the Pisa cage didn’t break down Ezra’s spirit, the Washington interrogations nearly did. In the winter of 1945-46, Ezra’s letters become more and more abbreviated. “Dearest,” he writes on January 3:

The next line “that is what” is crossed out and Ezra cannot seem to find the words to say more than “Dearest Dearest have patience” and send Dorothy a clipping from the Washington Times-Herald with the headline “Woman ‘Saved” from ‘Possum’”-an item in the couple’s arsenal of Possum (Eliot) jokes.

It is the near-silence of the almost blank pages from St. E’s that is so moving. One can see how both Dorothy and Olga (to whom he was writing at the same time) adored him despite all that had happened. As for Dorothy’s own letters (which form the larger part of this collection), their pathos arises from their near-slavish devotion to the work of a man who writes, in almost every letter, that she should contact Olga and Mary with this or that request or bit of information. Dorothy looks up and identifies ideograms for him in Morrison’s Dictionary of the Chinese Language, she reads every author her husband recommends, she is a patient go-between for all of Ezra’s friends and acquaintances, she grooms Omar to carry on (as in fact he has done!) the study of Mediterranean civilization.

Yet the letters also reveal Dorothy as less than admirable. She is, consistently if understandably, catty about Olga, complaining about the “appalling scene[s]” the latter makes, and even less kind about poor Mary, to whom she refers as “a large healthy object” with a “wide face.” “I do hope,” she writes, “the child can think , & not only imitate others.” She constantly complains to Ezra about the “old lady” (his mother), although he deflects his wife’s querulous stories by never responding, instead sending his mother notes, little presents, and repeated expressions of love. “I was not intended,” Dorothy complains, “for an old woman’s companion-cook!” And when Isabel breaks her hip, requiring hospitalization, Dorothy is relieved that now there can be no question of the “old lady’s” accompanying her to America.

Although, as Ezra reminds Dorothy when she worries about getting her passport, “you have no political opinions,” her unstated politics, if not as overtly Fascist as Olga’s, are an extension of her husband’s. There is no indication that she so much as notices the Holocaust and related Fascist war atrocities, or that she has any notion of what her husband has done. And she certainly shares Ezra’s anti-Semitism. “I don’t like,” she says, referring to Canto 76, “the sound of -god -sinagogue [sic]-most uncomfortable.” As for the Rome broadcasts, she refers to them proudly as “edifying.” Given that, unlike Ezra, Dorothy was perfectly sane, such remarks are hardly endearing.

Still, Dorothy’s dogged devotion, both to the arts in general and to her husband in particular, make her a tragic figure in this drama, a woman more sinned against than sinning. IShe even wrote some Cantos of her own, for example:

No yaller dog.

Black huts
Dark tents behind,
Levelled and arid flatness-
Camp Em Tousa
Disciplinary Training Centre.
A great draught pushed from the heavy mountains
Sweeping over the walks. . .
And after a reference to the “sudden glow of intimacy / Ourselves joined again / After five months of half-life,” the poem concludes:

Apollo
O Apollo
accept the olibanum
look after your own.
Those who still question the genius of the Pisan Cantos, should read any passage from the sequence against this amateur version of the paradigm. Perhaps Apollo was, in the end, “looking after his own.”


Rev. Oct. 1999