Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity, 1945-46

Brian Blanchfield Reviews 'Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity, 1945-46,' edited by Omar Pound and Robert Spoo.

By Brian Blanchfield
Published February 26, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

"I was working on the Mencius," Ezra Pound's first statement to his attorneys begins, "when the Partigiani came to the front door with a tommy-gun."

Actually, Pound's work was about the only thing that wasn't interrupted by his May 1945 arrest on Allied Military Forces charges of treason and by the at-times-brutal incarceration that followed -- in an open-air cage in Pisa and, later, at a jail and two psychiatric hospitals in the District of Columbia. The 14 months of Pound's correspondence with his wife, Dorothy, that co-editors Robert Spoo and Omar Pound (the poet's only child with Dorothy) have collected and exhaustively annotated in this volume chart other interruptions: in the couple's simple intimacy, in Pound's mental health and, eventually, in his evangelism for Mussolini-style socialism. But his literary work remains primary in his letters and in many of the sworn statements and other documents that are also included here. He instructs Dorothy, for instance, to copy out and type his Chinese translations and his new, more narrative poetry -- the Pisan Cantos, the strongest and most lyric segment of his lifelong work -- and send the typescripts to his publishers, with whom she keeps in close touch.

The most successful dynasties of ancient China allowed only accomplished poets to become ruling officials. In his energetic sinophilia, the notoriously pedantic Pound imagined the utopian possibility of such a system in the modern era. He disdained literary friends ("Possum" Eliot, for one) who turned away from politics. "Work on the Mencius," when finished, would complete the translation of the four Confucian classics that he hoped to publish as "One Day's Reading," a mandatory manual for citizens and, especially, leaders.

His main purpose here isn't self-aggrandizement, but his delusions of grandeur come through loud and clear. We learn from the editors' annotations that he suggested to the UPI bureau chief in Rome that the United States trade Guam for some sound films of Japanese Noh plays. Awaiting his trial for treason, he frequently requests that President Truman make better use of him -- as either a liaison to Stalin or a diplomat in Japan. Spoo, in his lengthy and graceful introduction, takes a hard look at Pound's antisemitism and his fascist sympathies, explaining the motives behind the Italian radio harangues about American political acquiescence to bankers and usurers.

Of course, "Letters in Captivity" lays out Dorothy Pound's situation, too. After having endured an impossible year with her husband and his younger, artistic mistress, Olga Rudge, surrounded by the Germans in their home on the Italian coast, Dorothy spends the months of his imprisonment as custodian of her priggish, failing mother-in-law and the old woman's bomb-damaged villa. Her devotion to Pound is more evident here than any love is, but she is never pathetic. We see, for instance, how effectively she excuses herself from playing messenger for him and Olga. (Pound does require the two women, however, to collaborate on sending his manuscripts to his publishers.)

Because the diversity of theories, events and people these letters allude to is so astounding, the annotations -- which lie opposite the epistolary text, on the left side of every spread -- are truly magnetic. They offer an education as wide-ranging as Pound's interests; and as Dorothy Pound sometimes did for her husband, they make sense of documents that often -- in his distressed words -- "can't hold two sides of an idea together."

Brian Blanchfield

Brian Blanchfield is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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