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Richard Sieburth

 

SERO TE AMAVI :

ON THE LATE OLGA RUDGE/EZRA POUND VENICE NOTEBOOKS

(1962-1972)

                       

I’d like to share with you a preview of the edition of Pound’s late writings that I am currently preparing for New Directions under the provisional title: Ezra Pound & Olga Rudge: The Venice Notebooks 1962-1972 —a deliberate echo of E.P.’s early San Trovaso Notebook, edited, back in the day, by Mary de Rachewiltz.  

With this forthcoming edition, I want to better comprehend Pound’s Spätwerk, or Alterswerk. We have of course the magnificent Drafts & Fragments of Cantos 110-117, first published by ND in 1969 and dedicated on its title page “To Olga Rudge.”   But as the recent publication by Glenn Horowitz of the facsimile notebooks of these Cantos reconfirms, the Drafts & Fragments were for the most part composed between late 1958 and 1960, that is, well before Pound’s nostos to the Ithaca of Sant’ Ambrogio in the spring of 1962, where Olga, his “true Penelope” awaited him. From 1962 through 1972, that is for a full decade, Olga, although legally still regarded by Dorothy’s Committee for Ezra Pound as merely her husband’s “housekeeper and nurse,” will be not only “the sea in which Ezra floated” (in the words of Richard Stern) but, more crucially, will be celebrated by the poet in his private writings as the Beatrice who had saved him from his “dance of death” and made possible a vita nuova of sorts. During this final decade, moving between Venice and Sant’ Ambrogio, E.P. will for the most part maintain a position of strategic silence in public; while in private Olga tries to coach him back to health, back to speech, and back to writing. If, during this period he is not exactly writing Cantos anymore (although there is the hope, as announced on the final page of the Cantos, dated Aug 14, 1966, that he might write some further ones “in the interim”), he is at least jotting down on stray pieces of paper something approaching the fragments of a diary--the scattered gists and piths of “the last rower on the river of the dead” (as Cocteau called him), the traces of a penitential consciousness still trying to confess wrong without losing rightness, still engaged in a rueful and revisionary review of his life’s work.  

My edition of Pound’s post-Drafts & Fragments writings will draw primarily from the four large bound notebooks contained in Box 101 (#2603) of the Olga Rudge papers at the Beinecke Library, entitled “Transcription E.P. Annotated copies of notebooks kept by Pound 1962-69”.   These are very precise diplomatic transcriptions in Olga’s hand of Pound’s late loose-leaf notebooks, which were made up for the most of feuille volantes or stray pages. Professionally trained as a copyist of musical scores (see the Jannequin of Canto 75) and committed to an absolute fidelity to E.P.’s words, Olga is careful to reproduce the exact lineations of the originals, while providing information as to their probable dates of composition, as well as other comments elucidating their references—information often provided to her directly by E.P. as they read through this material together in Venice as late as 1972, during the last year of his life. So what we get here is a fair copy of Pound’s late texts with a running (if erratic) editorial apparatus by Olga—Penelope weaving the shroud of her Odysseus. It is important to observe that virtually all this material is handwritten, for Pound’s descent into silence also involved his abandonment of the typewriter, that is, his giving up of any notion that his writing (with very few exceptions, such as his obituary tribute to Eliot in 1966, or his forewords to the Madersteig reprint of his Cavalcanti Poems (1966) or to Cookson’s Selected Prose (1972)) might henceforth move into print—the much-delayed publication of the Drafts and Fragments, apparently initially opposed by E.P., being the major exception. We are in the domain of private longhand communion here: Ezra dashing off the occasional note or fragment, with Olga in Venice later religiously gathering up these scattered limbs of Osiris after his death and transcribing them into her four large keepsake or commonplace books.  

The other background source for this edition will be the so-called I Ching notebooks (Boxes 93-99) of the Olga Rudge Papers, containing her daily records (including morning transcriptions of E.P.’s dreams and accounts of their throwings of the I Ching) of the years 1966-1972—material which has already been put to effective use by Anne Conover in her 2001 Yale biography, Olga Rudge & Ezra Pound: “What Thou Lovest Well. . .”    Pound observes at one point in one of the Venice Notebooks: “Keep a diary/ you will never/ regret// error in my case/ not to have/ kept diary// noted only intake,” and, later on: “the I Ching note book/ gives/ what/ happened// day by day/ a record of Olga’s courage/ Festa di Sant’Ambrogio/ the I Ching / day by day/ & the Blake // Olga gay, gallant/ worth ten of/ me.”

The final source for this edition will be the collection of cassette tape recordings made by Olga during this final decade—which I have editorially (and somewhat ironically) dubbed “The Aspern Tapes.” These were first discovered by Robert Hughes in the spring of 1984 when in a course of a visit to Olga’s home in Venice, he was shown, lying in a desk drawer, what he described as “a mess of about two dozen Radio Shack-type cheap cassettes, many of them with their tape guts extensively spilled out.” Hughes carefully respooled the tapes and in 1985 Olga (after having attended the 1985 Pound Centennial in Idaho) traveled to San Francisco to oversee Hughes’ transfer of these tapes to reel-to-reel format and to TDK high bias cassettes—copies of which Sizzo de Rachewiltz allowed me to make some years ago and portions of which may be found on the Penn Sound “Pound Page” that I curated several years ago for Charles Bernstein, accompanied by my essay: “The Sound of Pound: The Work of Voice in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Many of these tapes show Olga trying to jump-start Pound back into speech, largely by having him read texts into the tape recorder and then playing them back to him, in order to create a kind of feedback loop. The texts he reads are various: his own works of course, for example the new 1968 edition of the lost “Redondillas,” numerous Cantos, bits of the Drafts and Fragments, and reams of Confucian Odes, clearly practice sessions for the LP records Olga would later supervise: the 1967 Spoleto Recordings, and the 1970 Confucian Odes. The other authors Pound reads into the tape recorder include: T.S. Eliot (from the 1971 facsimile of The Waste Land manuscript, including passages E.P. himself had edited out in 1922); Beckett (from Cascando and Echo’s Bones); Marianne Moore; E.E. Cummings; Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, etc. Some of the tapes contain domestic scenes that can only be described as Beckettian: For example, this five-minute scene, during which Olga seems to have inadvertently left the tape running.

            Radio on in background, playing Beethoven late string quartets.

            Olga: Put on your pajamas. You’re not going to bed without your pajamas.

                        What about that undershirt you’re wearing?

            Ezra: [inaudible mumble]

            Olga: What are you going to do about it?

            Ezra: [inaudible mumble]

            [Silence]

            [Ambient household sounds]

            Olga: Have you any other remarks, Ezra?

            Ezra: [inaudible mumble]

            Olga: What did you say, caro? What did you say, caro? Would you repeat it?

            [long pause]

            Ezra: There must exist life somewhere.

            Olga: This is your last word?

            [pause]

            Ezra: [barely audible] No . . .

The most important of these Aspern Tapes is tape 13, recorded by Olga, according to Robert Hughes, on March 16, 1975, thus two and half years after E.P.’s death. We need to imagine her alone, age 79, in her little Venice house on the Calle Querini reading into her Grundig—a scene out of Krapp’s Last Tape. And what she reads, mostly from loose leaves, is an anthology of Pound’s late love lyrics to her—some 14 or 15 of them, over the course of 40 minutes. A few of these have already been published as “Lines for Olga” in Massimo Bacigalupo’s 2002 edition of Pound’s Canti postumi, but his edition contains only a small fraction of E.P’s late homages to Olga. These occasional poems, often presented as gifts to Olga on special feast days of the year--Thanksgiving Day, the Festa di San Pantaleo (i.e. July 26), the Festa di San Ambrogio (Dec. 7th), Valentine Days, Sundays--begin to cast some light on what exactly Pound was writing during this final decade 1962-72, in the wake of the Drafts and Fragments. In these particular texts, he reverts back into the private love poet of Hilda’s Book (1905-07), expressing his romantic thralldom to his Donna, his Beatrice, now his rescuer and redeemer, placing himself in a state of complete self-abnegation and self-abasement in front of his Lady, expressing his gratitude for a gift so immense on her part that he is barely in any condition to return it—save by the extraordinary gesture of occasionally breaking his silence and demonstrating to her that he has not altogether lost his poetic voice. After the bankruptcy of the Cantos, then, we here move into a purely private economy of potlatch: Olga has given him more than he can ever return, more than he can ever deserve. Still, he must try to respond by giving her everything he still possesses: he signs over to her the most precious books in his Venice library
(subsequently purchased by the bookseller Glenn Horowitz), and, on the final page of the Cantos, he signs over his life’s-work to her, given that, as in a fragment you’ll hear in a moment: “the real poem is her/poem/ She wrote her Eurydice.”

           

My edition of the Venice Notebooks will begin with some 10 pages taken from Olga’s performance of these late love poems on the tape recorder in 1975. As the various reviews of her performances as a concert violinist typically indicate, the renditions are sharp, clear, classical, well-measured, unsentimental, in short, authoritative, and somewhat distant—the distance increased by an English accent which is that of an American who has lived her entire adolescent and adult life abroad.

Here are three of the poems she reads on tape, with her introductory comments:

“This is from a loose page marked in the margin “Lines for Olga, Domenica,” written at Sant’ Ambrogio”

 

& the grasshopper was not

            yet dead on his stalk

& her flame prolonged him,

            as it had with the dragon fly

invicta.

            & that she would not relinquish

                                                   hope

& that hers was a will to go on

                                           living

despite all betrayals.

                        sero       sero

that she cd. not believe

                        in such perfidy.

& Rossaro sd/ the honest man

            can not believe

                   that mascalzone etc.

he the onesto

            does not see the other man’s evil

           till it surprises him

 

A penciled page, written 26 November 1964. In America, Thanksgiving Day.”

 

The gondolas dying in

                        their sewers

& the grasshopper dead

                        on his stalk

& she, Olga, with serene

                        courage

     bearing it all

            finding beauty

       where the last

            vestige of it

                        still was,

      finding it in the least items

             & in the great

             in San Marco

           & the piazza

                       by night.

hers the heroism to build upon sand

A note in pencil with no date.”

 

and as to why this

                       timing?

Olga ever willing

         to resurrect the good,

             such as it was

                 that was in me

               ---

& the signs clustering

         ever increasing

cumulation of evil

            against us,

minute clusters of symbols

               ---

the real poem is her

                     poem

She wrote her Eurydice

   =

saw beauty & showed it

against my distraction

   =

to sunset and the cherry-tree

               ---

if there was beauty she saw it

   =

     & lifted the weight

& I have profaned

 

I certainly would not want to claim that these are among Pound’s greatest writings; compared to the intense agon and the ekstasis of the Drafts & Fragments, they feel a bit like de Koonings’ late Alzheimer paintings. Nonetheless, as you have just heard, it is the ministering presence of Olga who continues to remind him “dove sta memoria” and who, more specifically, keeps him in touch with the ethical and aesthetic realm of that “Green World” to which this conference has been devoted--whether it be by turning his attention “to sunset and the cherry-tree” coming down the salità to Rapallo, or alerting him to “the petal unsullied” or the “apricot that had not fallen”—a clear reprise of Canto 13’s “The blossoms of the apricot/blow from west to east/ and I have tried to keep them from falling.”   Again echoing lines from the Cantos (this time Cantos 6 and 47), the late Pound perceives the “green world” around Sant’Ambrogio through the illuminating and redeeming presence of Olga, as in this late note: “they tie the vine/ to the frame/ to hold up the grape/ cluster /Stone alive in my hand/ & I hear the roots/ talking together/ as the apple holds the/ gestalt of the blossom . . . feldspar/ loses its colour/ as the sun/ beats upon it.”   Here is another fragment, this one worthy of Williams: “by the door/ @ Casa 60/ the traces of paradise/ apricot/ plum/ pesca/ orange ungrafted.” (p. 26) Or again: “eucalyptus/ & cypress/ the tendril/ encircling/ as you go toward/ Beltrami’s/ singing ten bars/ of Jannequin/ seed-bound/dinamos/ no grass was out of place” (again, an echo of the Cantos, this time Canto 51).  

But it is the nature of Poundian paradise to be only spezzato, to exist only in fragments, to be perpetually threatened. Here, in a text dated by Olga August or September, 1967 (this is the same summer Allen Ginsberg visits them at Sant’ Ambrogio), he protests the paving over of the Green World: “All inside of earth being put/ outside. Oil and metal in which/ nothing grows. Tar where grass/ should be. The inside of earth put/ outside. Macadam, the infertile/ roads encroaching on fields.” And for those of you interested in Pound’s broader ecological vision, here is a statement dated June 17, apparently also from the mid-60s: “hydrogen/ oxygen/ nitrogen/ carbon,” it begins, and then these astonishingly prophetic lines: “the war is from carbon/ attacking first hydrogen/ then oxygen/ their mouths are stopped with/ dust.”   I.e. “The war is from carbon”—and not simply from Usura.

Running through these late fragments are allusions to the tiny denizens of the green world, as in Canto 88’s “To respect the vegetal powers/ Or ‘life however small’ (Hindoustani).”   I’d like to return to the first poem quoted above in Olga’s reading: “& the grasshopper was not/ dead on his stalk/ & her flame prolonged him, as it had with the dragon fly.”   Reaching back to Gourmont’s Natural Philosophy of Love and behind that, Fabre’s Souvenirs entomologiques, this insect world also recalls the “grillo” (cricket) of the Pisans, and the katydids mating in air, color di luce, or for that matter, the “farfalla gasping” or the monarch butterflies meeting “in their island,/ where no food is after flight from the pole” of Canto 120. Here, as elsewhere in these late fragments, Pound thanks Olga for having saved his grasshopper life (“a blown husk that is finished”) just as she has saved the lives of a dragonfly, a firefly, and that of a “black moth with yellow spots & orange body” at their house at Sant’ Ambrogio. Olga as Kuanon here, goddess of Mercy—whose “pity for every living thing” has similarly kept the aged grasshopper poet intermittently chirping on his stalk.

“Two mice and a moth my guides,” runs Canto 120.   In a note dated “April 4 1968, San Ambrogio,” contained in her I Ching Notebook, Olga recalls E.P.’s explanation of this enigmatic line from the final Canto:

2 mice: One from Venice, saved by umbrella. Other went through grate in Rapallo stove, afterward found dead.

moth: Trying to keep moth alive turning it to the light as you did to that dragon-fly (Beltrami’s house) [i.e. at San Ambrogio].”

“So high toward the sun and then falling.”