Short Cuts

Jeremy Harding

Although the view over the bay is good, Rapallo has surely lost the charms it held for the celebrities of the past, including Ezra Pound and his friends. Drifting around it a few years ago, Roy Foster (LRB, 30 November 2000) thought Rapallo an ‘inescapably bourgeois’ place. He could find nothing to commemorate ‘the embarrassing Pound’ on the building in Via Marsala where EP and Dorothy took a top-floor apartment in 1925, but that’s because the handsome plaque is mounted on the other side, over a passageway from the street to the seafront. It reproduces a fragment of Canto 116 containing the line, ‘To confess wrong without losing rightness’ (a tall order in Pound’s case), which leaves you trying to recall the dazzling bit a little earlier (‘But the beauty is not the madness/Though my errors and wrecks lie about me’), which reads like Yeats under high compression.

There’s nothing, not even a plaque, to mark the site of the US Army Disciplinary Training Center where Pound was held from May to November 1945 for treasonable broadcasts on Radio Rome. The DTC was in Metato, a small town in a swathe of unremarkable farmland north of Pisa. Nowadays, from a couple of spots in the middle of nowhere you can look back across the plain to the Baptistry and the Leaning Tower, shimmering out of the Campo dei Miracoli. These views are the only evidence you’re likely to find that the camp was somewhere round about here. They’re scanned in several of the Pisan Cantos – famously in the opening of 79, ‘Moon, cloud, tower, a patch of the battistero/all of a whiteness’. The rest is intensive agriculture: glasshouses, nurseries, maize fields, rank after rank of sunflowers, as I found out recently.

Pound is better known for being detained than he is for his work on The Waste Land, and perhaps if he’d been held in a facility in Britain there’d be more commemorative clobber. He wasn’t, and no one has thought to erect a stele in Metato. That’s just as well; the interesting traces of the DTC live on in the relevant Cantos, 11 in all, 74 to 84. They embroil the landscape he saw from his cage, and then from the medical compound, in a Confucian idyll: a peak in the Apennines, in view above the plain, evokes the sacred mountain of Taishan in Shandong province. Clearly, with geography of this kind, a thorough search of the text won’t produce the map co-ordinates of the DTC. Not long ago Massimo Bacigalupo, a Pound scholar in Genoa, had a look around Metato and reported that he found nothing much. But he commended a piece by Patricia Hutchins, written for the Southern Review in the 1960s. She liked to put writers in their place – Ezra Pound’s Kensington and James Joyce’s Dublin – and in Metato quickly found a priest who gave her a vivid sense of the camp in Pound’s day: electrified fences, ‘gibbet-like posts’, barbed wire, pup tents and towers with armed guards. ‘Nothing remained of the DTC,’ she wrote, ‘but one little hut, cement-cracked and blind-windowed.’

Much remains of the controversies surrounding the Pisan Cantos. They’re mostly for Pound scholars, but a reasonably careful reader can stay within earshot. The big debate concerns the opening of 74, a ten-line requiem for Mussolini, written on a scrap of paper, apparently toilet paper, soon after Pound was detained in May, and inserted only when the typescript was going through a later draft at the DTC in November, at which point – quite possibly – he was no longer worried about the military censor. There are those who think the insertion, which acquired an 11th line, was an afterthought, a hardening on Pound’s part, and that it casts the sequence of cantos as a lament for Italian Fascism. If you pick up 74 where it started in an early typescript version, at what’s now line 12 – ‘The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful’ – you can see how the argument goes. Others maintain that Pound was never in doubt about these lines; he had copied them out from the original scrap of paper in two places and always meant to begin with them, but deliberately held them back, again because of censorship worries. Bacigalupo is firmly of the second view. He doesn’t believe Pound wavered: from start to finish the poet is unrepentant. Which makes it hard to read the passage from Canto 81, ‘Pull down thy vanity’, as a political recantation.

Marching this poetry up and down inside the confines of the DTC is a bit risky, but it brings home the importance of Villon in the Pisan Cantos. A good bit of the verse composed in Metato, including the lyric ‘Pull down thy vanity’, draws on the Villon repertoire: crime, detention, punishment by death, carrion (‘a swollen magpie in a fitful sun’). All that’s missing is remorse.

Like Villon, Pound eluded the hangman, but the DTC was full of serious offenders from the ranks, mostly African American, and there were hangings from time to time. The execution of a detainee called Louis Till is recorded in Canto 74: ‘and Till was hung yesterday/for murder and rape with trimmings.’

There’s a tragic coda to this incident, but you won’t find it anywhere in the Cantos. Ten years later, Louis’s son Emmett was tortured and murdered in Mississippi, after whistling at the white owner of a grocery store: she was 21, he was 14. With the acquittal of the killers, the case became a cause célèbre among Civil Rights activists. A little before the trial, the pro-segregation senator James Oliver Eastland publicised the execution at the DTC to suggest there was bad blood in the Till family. ‘If a man don’t occasionally sit in a senate’ – this is from Canto 80 – ‘how can he pierce the darrk mind of a/senator?’ The allusion here is actually to Yeats and his stint in the senate of the Irish Free State, but it’s odd how time has added another.