Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

A Draft of Unnumberable Cantos

pound“My dear old Ezra,” wrote Wyndham Lewis in 1946 to Ezra Pound, then incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for his wartime support for the Italian regime. “How are you, and what are you doing with yourself? … I am told that you believe yourself to be Napoleon – or is it Mussolini? What a pity you did not choose Buddha while you were about it …”

To T S Eliot, he commented: “Probably … it will be part of the duties of the attendant psychiatrists to read all his Cantos and to encourage him to discuss them.”

In contrast, much online comment on this phase of Pound’s life seems to be solemn hagiography hosted by Odinists, conspiracy theorists or New Righters (read: old fascists), and one hesitates to add to it; but then, his case is so instructive. So here’s a piece of verse concerned with our urge to reconstruct or re-enact the past, a project that must always fall short. It starts in a museum of military costume and ends at the Cannock Chase German war cemetery. Ezra makes a guest appearance along the way.

(Innumerable: too many to count. Unnumberable: resistant to numbering, defying the imposition of historical order.)

A Draft of Unnumberable Cantos

The past lies worn as a workhouse copper token,
surface smooth in generality
but detail slow to hint. We squint
and read it wrong. That captain’s museum hat
was fore and aft, not broadsides;
those lapels are buttoned all awry.
The temper of the times, you see, was finely tuned;
the moment’s mores made a subtle song.

At fifty paces we can clock a re-enactor,
something indefinable being out of true;
the face is similar through centuries
but only superficially,
for each face bears a shade, a twist, a cast,
a tic that tells its time.
An image of a previous thing
must shamefully betray the moment of its making.
In its texture, pose and colouring
its shamming history is softly written.

Meanwhile, anachronisms at our end
annoy the dead. The errant angle
of a buckle or the usage of a kerseymere
(or was it ‘cassimere’?) provokes resentment.
Ghosts are not amused by our uncaring parodies.
We lend them by our fancy dress
such forms of immortality
they find so less than flattering
that, mouthing and invisible
within their darkened abstract cells,
they gob their anger at our future features.

Darn mah hide! says Uncle Ezra,
chawing wad as he adopts a
proper transatlantic posture.
Yew all goffossayken Brits’ll sell
yer hi-toned and historrik former time
(a pause, he spits) fer ten yewzuriuss pence
an turn it into goddam panto.
Do fergive mah pree-zumchewuss rime,
but seems ter me a better bet by far
wd be ter giv it to yer Muse
to reinviggerate within a Canto.

But red is the rope where old Benito hangs
while his ingrate survivors pulp his head,
and narrow’s the cage where the broken poet clings
and scrabbles for a unity among his scraps of text,
and rambling hospital’s the home for him
hit full in the face by history,
who wrestled with the past and stumbled,
missed the date and paid the cost,
capsizing on his river of mysterious dead.

The tiny birds perch out of view.
We hear their sorry bleat, and peer but can’t identify.
Below, on rhododendroned lawns, the German boys
are slatted into lines of alien grey stone;
the dead are all and always very far from home.

cage

© moi, 2013

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