Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Rooms in My Life: A Backward Glance



I wanted to be a writer like George Konrad or Cesare Pavese, a writer in the European manner, who was both an artist and an intellectual; a writer, who was also an outsider, as both Konrad and Pavese seemed to be, writers who had become internal émigrés, or who had otherwise lived on the margins of society, yet whose insights, emanating from the core of their alienation, entered their fiction.
All during my undergraduate years and afterward in Italy, as I walked the streets of Florence at night, trying to picture what the city must have looked and felt like to Dostoevsky, who lived there while writing The Idiot, or to native writers like Giovanni Papini or Vasco Pratolini, I imagined myself becoming such a writer, someone who lived and wrote in a furnished room, as Carlo Levi described the camere affitati he’d inhabited in the aftermath of the Second War, first in Florence and later in Rome, in his novel The Watch, and as I knew those rooms myself; someone who wrote far into the night, surrounded by books, or who roamed the darkened streets of a still wakeful city, engaging the night people—prostitutes, baristas who intuited at a glance what you were seeking, students smoking and talking politics in half-lit cafes--returning to sleep until noon before taking coffee and a roll for breakfast at a nearby bar and then returning to work.
Between 1959 and 1962, I lived this way, like Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge or an impoverished student in a Strindberg novel, in furnished rooms on shadowed streets and alleys, rooms that looked out over other rooms nestled under red-tiled roofs; rooms I left only to eat and teach or to attend lectures in philology and Medieval literature at the university, in Piazza San Marco.  I can picture them all now: the first room I had on Via Cavour, in Pensione Cordova, when I arrived in Florence, small and neat with a desk by its single window; and then the bright, sunny room in Piazza San Marco in the house of the DiMaggio family, a room that looked across a courtyard to the Duomo, a courtyard into which flocks of swallows plunged before nightfall, as the voices of children echoed off the stuccoed walls and wash hung out to dry from innumerable balconies.  After that I moved to Via dei Servi, renting a room frescoed with gorgons and swans, whose double French windows I could lean out of to see the fountains of Piazza Santissima Annunziata splashing on a summer afternoon.  And finally, I lived in Via dei Fossi, off Piazza Goldoni and the Arno, in a painter’s studio still smelling of turpentine and linseed oil. 
I’d had a room of my own, too, in Settignano, in the Villino Martelli, on Via del Rossellino, which my friends from Brunswick, Maine, novelist Peter Denzer and his painter wife, Ann Sayre Wiseman, had taken in September of 1960 and invited me to share with them and their two children, Kiko and Piet.  I loved that room on the third floor, at the very pinnacle of a narrow stone staircase, where I slept in a 16th century carved wooden bed on a straw-filled mattress and wrote at a little oak table by the lone window that looked out over the Arno valley and the city of Florence below.  This was the room in which I worked on my first novel, “From What Bone,” a room with a blood-red tile floor and yellow ceramic wood stove that heated it in chilly early mornings or on frigid Tuscan winter nights, when I often woke to the mournful shriek of the Brenner Express, as it departed Florence for Munich.  I cherished the solitude that was mine, once I had bid Peter and Ann good night and ascended those stone steps to the summit of our small stucco covered house that was flush with the hilly street, which led up from the village, where I took the No. 10 bus daily to work or to attend lectures at the university.  But though I enjoyed living in the Tuscan hills, walking daily on old dirt roads that bordered olive groves and grape arbors, taking coffee in the local Casa del Popolo, where Peter and I would argue about politics with the village communists, I never felt truly myself until I had moved back down into the city to be closer to work, and from where I could resume my wanderings through nighttime streets, returning always to a quiet room, where I’d have the radio softly tuned to an all night jazz program that came from the U. S. Military Radio Station in Germany.  Accompanied by the music that seemed unerringly to fit or enhance my mood, music that reminded me of the country I expected never to inhabit again, I would write or read until dawn.
Although that need for a room of my own had begun in high school, when we moved to Rocky Neck and for the first time I had such a room, in the corner of which I would sit to read or write, I’d actually sought such refuge when we lived on Perkins Road and I began writing in the basement of our duplex on my aunt’s typewriter.  But a white washed basement that smelled of mildew was scarcely the sanctuary I’d envisioned; and I didn’t fully attain my dream until senior year in college, when I finally had a room entirely to myself at 83 Federal Street, in Brunswick, in a big white 19th century house occupied by the chairman of the biology department, who rented out a couple of rooms to students.  My furnished single room was located over an ell attached to the main structure.  It had a private bathroom and an entrance of its own from a set of steps in the driveway off Federal Street, next door to the mansion where the president of the college lived.
            Because my room was in a separate wing I was undisturbed by the radios or record players of the few students, who lived in the main section of the house along with Professor Gustafson and his family.  Once I'd lighted the floor lamp behind the easy chair at the foot of my bed, the room was suffused with a comforting yellow glow.  Then, after returning at midnight from my late work shift at the library, I'd put on my flannel bathrobe and wrap a blanket around me.  Warmed that way, I could study or read for as long as I wished, which was often until the first light.  Usually I slept until noon because I no longer had morning classes.  In any event, I took breakfast and lunch together.
            To the right of my old upholstered chair was a dark, polished bookcase with glass doors.  It was there I kept the books I owned, the poetry of Pound, Eliot and Williams and some paperback or cloth-bound editions of the novels I was currently reading, including Women in Love and Aaron’s Rod, by D. H. Lawrence, seven volumes of the Modern Library edition of Proust, and Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night.  The floor against the adjacent wall was lined with books I borrowed from the library.  To the left of the single unlocked door to my room was my desk.  Over it I'd tacked a large street map of Florence cut out of a Baedeker guide I discovered at a church book sale.  Between my desk and single bed there was a window, and another at the foot of the bed and to the right of the closet.  Over my bed I had a Vlaminck print of fishing vessels tied to a wharf in Normandy because its dark browns and cerulean blues reminded me of the waterfront in Gloucester.  On the opposite wall was a Rouaultesque gouache, by George Dergalis, a Greek artist from Cambridge, whom I’d met on Rocky Neck.  It was of an ancient flute player with Byzantine beard and hair locks.  A faded Oriental rug covered most of the floor.  Between an antique dresser and the bookcase, a hi-fi console sat on a table with cast iron legs.  My collection of ten- and twelve-inch long-playing jazz and classical albums was lined up under it.  Attached to the dresser was a mirror that reflected my desk and the map of Florence.  In the glow of my reading lamp the map appeared to be made of old parchment.
            This was the room I had lived in since September of 1958.  A single floor duct heated it irregularly.  Sometimes through the register I could hear Professor Gustafson and his wife, who taught high school English in Bath, talking quietly over dinner.  My typewriter and typewriter table were nestled to the left of my desk under the big window.  The sound of trailer trucks late at night on the Bath Road told me I wasn't isolated from the commerce of highways; and the roar of jet planes taking off from or landing at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, a mile from the campus, reminded me that I was never very far from the instruments of war and those who operated them.
            It was in this room, exclusive of the roommates I’d shared living arrangements with for the previous three years, roommates whom I liked but whose constant presence I felt stifled by, that I began to undertake the kinds of reading and writing that I would pursue for the rest of my life.  It was also in this room that I embarked upon the first systematic self-examination I had hitherto pursued, as I immersed myself in the writings of Freud and Jung, an inquiry that began by attempting to address the sense of alienation I have already described.
            I’ve mentioned George Konrad and Cesare Pavese.  As an undergraduate, I knew nothing about the work or the existence of either.  Konrad’s haunting first novel, The Case Worker, was published in 1969, though it didn’t appear in English until 1974; and I didn’t read my first Pavese novel, the pitilessly neorealist Il Compagno, until I arrived in Florence, although I bought it in Rome as soon as I’d arrived in Italy, having been told by my printmaker friend Emiliano Sorini, whom I’d met on Rocky Neck the summer before I left for Italy, “If you love Moravia, you will die for Pavese.”
            So it was Lawrence whose essays, novels, poems and stories I first read in that room at 83 Federal Street; Lawrence and Hemingway, whom I had begun reading in high school, not Hemingway the big game hunter and sports fisherman, but Hemingway the expatriate, the young writer of the Paris years.  And I read and re-read Sartre, having discovered his writings during my freshman year--the Chemin de la Liberte` novels, Nausea, the New Directions edition of which I was to carry with me to Europe, and Being and Nothingness.  Of Simone de Beauvoir I had only read The Mandarins.  But that novel introduced me to the highly-charged atmosphere in which Sartre, Camus and the other French left-wing intellectuals I admired lived, the Paris of cafes and political soirees, and a Europe that was attempting to reconstitute itself politically and intellectually after a devastating war, a war that left many of its finest minds bereft of hope for mankind’s future.  I read Beckett, too, and Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, and Robbe-Grillet, all of whose works I had first been introduced to in the pages of the Evergreen Review, which I devoured as soon as each new issue arrived in the mail.  It was in the Evergreen Review that I also discovered the short stories of Michael Rumaker, “Exit 3” and “The Pipe.”  Rumaker had been a student of Charles Olson’s at Black Mountain College.  Though it would be years before we met and became friends—after Olson’s death, in fact—Michael’s stories, later collected in Gringos and Other Stories, had a profound impact on my own fiction.
            Lawrence, the working class intellectual, who was alienated both from his own class and from the culture he grew up in, along with the literary society that should have provided a sustaining environment, attracted me deeply, not only as a writer but as a person, restlessly moving from Nottinghamshire to Germany, from Italy to Ceylon, Australia and the American Southwest, ultimately dying in the South of France.  The Lawrence who also interested me was the Lawrence who wrote, “At times one is forced essentially to be a hermit,” adding: “Yet here I am, nowhere, as it were, and infinitely an outsider.”
            My deep study of Lawrence in that room on 83 Federal Street prepared me for the senior thesis I was expected to submit as partial fulfillment of the graduation requirements for an English major.  I chose to write mine on The Plumed Serpent, not one of Lawrence’s most successful or highly acclaimed novels, but one which interested me because of its mythic substructure.  For as a student of Dante I was also interested in myth and symbol and the creation of anagogic structures of belief.
            There were many teachers at Bowdoin whose courses in literature, philosophy, Latin, Greek and Italian, sustained me, along with their friendships, making it ultimately worthwhile to have chosen this small liberal arts college on the Maine seacoast over a major university like Harvard, where, I feared, I would have been overwhelmed socially and academically.  But the principal education I received at Bowdoin was not in the classroom, nor was it at the hands of my fellow students, whom I gradually separated myself from.  My true education emanated from the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, where for four years I read widely on my own, irrespective of course syllabi or graduation requirements, especially during my final two years in college, when I worked nights at the circulation desk, studying in the library and familiarizing myself with its immense holdings.  Each night after work I would return home with a new book, which I would read often until dawn.  There was never a book I sought or needed that wasn’t already in the stacks or in the rare book collection that contained copies of most of the major avant-garde or underground books of 20th century art and literature, bequeathed to the college by an alumnus and rare book collector, Robert L. Swasey, scion of Warner & Swasey, a leading machine tool manufacturer in Cleveland.
            If, in a book about Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War, I came across the name of novelist and historian, Arturo Barea, I could rush to the library and find his autobiographical trilogy, The Forging of a Rebel, whose dense, lyrical prose brought to life the young writer’s coming of age against the background of a nascent civil war.  It was a heavy volume, bound in yellow cloth, gathering all three books of his memoir, The Forge, The Track and The Clash, as translated by Barea’s wife Ilsa.  I remember sitting over it for hours on a long winter night, utterly absorbed in Barea’s descriptions of his childhood and youth as a student.  Reading Barea led me to Gustav Regler’s autobiography, The Owl of Minerva, and from Regler I read backwards to discover seminal Weimar and Austrian writers like Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, plunging deeply into British translations of their great novels, The Sleepwalkers and The Man Without Qualities.  Along the way I discovered Salvador Dali’s strange novel, Hidden Faces, which I gobbled up, along with Elio Vittorini’s In Sicily, Kenneth Patchen’s privately printed The Journal of Albion Moonlight, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, all part of the Swasey collection; and then, from the main stacks, Herbert Gold’s The Man Who was not With It and John Clellon Holme’s ur-Beat novel, Go!, published five years before Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.  Some prescient librarian or astute faculty member had had the sense to purchase or recommend both Gold and Holmes, now sadly neglected.
            The books piled up around my easy chair—Edward Nehl’s three-volume composite biography of Lawrence, Broch’s infinitely complex and experimental The Death of Virgil—and I read and read, circling around schools, eras, places, cultures, until I had created for myself a better picture of the birth of European Modernism than I would ever have received had I taken a course in the subject, which wasn’t offered anyway.  The fiction I was writing at the time, stories about growing up in Gloucester, didn’t directly incorporate this reading, but I am certain the reading inspired it, particularly Musil’s electrifying coming-of-age novel, The Confusions of Young Torless.  Mostly I wrote about what I was reading in a journal that I began to keep, inspired by André Gide’s journals, and in daily letters to my girlfriend Cynthia Brown, who was studying literature at Boston University.  Sadly, those long, soulful letters Cynthia and I exchanged during that period no longer exist.
            The Swazey collection was of particular importance for me because it contained most of the published works of Henry Miller, not only Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, in the original Obelisk Press editions, as published in Paris in 1934 and 1938 by Jack Kahane, but the privately printed The World of Sex, The Books in My Life, and, The Colossus of Maroussi, one of Miller’s greatest books and of utmost significance to me as a young writer of Greek-American extraction, planning his first trip to Europe.  Exile and expatriation had emerged as significant themes for me from when I’d first started to read about the Lost Generation in Malcolm Cowley’s Exiles Return and John Aldridge’s After the Lost Generation.  Thereafter, Miller’s own saga of abandoning New York, followed by years of penury and artistic struggle in Paris, culminating in the publication of the Tropics, his life-affirming stay in Greece just before the war, and his return to travel in America, as chronicled in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, were an enormous inspiration to me, both as a writer and prospective traveler.  I will never forget the long nights during which I read Miller’s forbidden books, books I’d spirited out of the collection late at night, only to return under cover the next day, giving myself a single night alone to read them lest their absence be noted.
            Why do I tell you all this?  Why do I share with you the titles of the books I read in those intense months, in that single room on Federal Street in Brunswick, Maine, while my classmates were dating girls, drinking beer, and planning the careers that would eventually bring them more money than I would ever earn in a lifetime of reading and writing?  Why recount the story of a lonely student, an outsider and a misfit, who was happiest reading late at night in the yellow glow of an old lamp, as he sat wrapped in a sweaty bathrobe in an unheated room?  Who cares today about an undergraduate and his reading habits, about a studious young man who didn’t study much but read instead so that, in effect, he became The Self-Taught Man of Sartre’s Nausea?
            Has my life changed today, sixty years later?   Am I any different from that bearded boy in the old bathrobe, reading in a fraying chair under the glow of a rickety floor lamp, on the corner of the Bath Road, as trailer trucks roared by in the night and jet fighter planes took off at dawn, while I was falling asleep, my head full of images from the books I’d read myself to sleep over?
            What I’m trying to relate, I suppose, is not just the story of the books I read and the room I read them in, a room that became imbued with my own perspiration to the extent that I could still smell myself in it as I packed up to leave after graduation in June of 1959.  It’s the story of my self-education, I’m driven to share, an education that would not have been possible without the library that contained those books and the room in which to read them, apart from the noisy dormitories and liquor spewed fraternities (not that I didn’t drink, and drink a lot). I don’t fault the dormitories, though I moved out of them, or the fraternity I regretted joining and whose membership I ultimately rejected—they were part and parcel of the atmosphere of college in the 1950s; but they were not my Bowdoin.  After three stumbling years, I had found my own refuge to read and write in, and that refuge, if even for one year alone, constituted the most important part of my education.  It was a pattern I would follow for the rest of my life, which, you might say, has been a life spent in small rooms of old houses, reading and writing.  For this is the story of my life, or at least a significant part of it, and not to share it in some detail would be to misrepresent the record of that life, insignificant as it may seem.
            I attended class during those years I’m speaking of and I did pretty well in most of my courses, reading Dante and Sophocles in the original, immersing myself in Romantic poetry and ancient history, making dean’s list and graduating with honors in English.  I had a girlfriend, as I’ve said; I went to parties, though I spent most of my time playing piano at them and in other venues around Brunswick.   But my room at 83 Federal Street meant more to me than anything else.
            I’ve studied with great teachers.  I first learned how to read and write critically with Hortense Harris at Gloucester High School.  At Bowdoin I studied expository and imaginative writing with novelist Stephen Minot, and literature and criticism with novelist and Hawthorne scholar, Lawrence Sargent Hall, while under Walter Solmitz I began my lifelong study of philosophy.   I continued to read Dante and I studied Romance Philology in Florence with Domenico De Robertis.  I attended lectures on Renaissance culture by Eugenio Garin and I audited classes on contemporary European literature by Mario Luzi, both major scholars at the university, and Luzi himself a distinguished contemporary Italian poet.  
            In graduate school, at Tufts, along with reading Shakespeare with Kenneth Myrick, I studied Milton’s poetry and prose with Michael Fixler, whose Milton and the Kingdoms of God is one of the seminal studies of the poet as Christian theologian.  At Tufts I also began, under the tutelage of Americanist Wisner Payne Kinne, the deep immersion in the books and essays of Henry David Thoreau that would lead both to my thesis on Thoreau and the phenomenology of place and to a lifelong absorption in the writings of the Concord seer whose words and whose politics guide me to this day.  All of these teachers made a profound impression on me, opening me to the richness of their own minds as well as to disciplines I might never have been able to master on my own.  But at bottom, and certainly due to their guidance, I have essentially become my own teacher.
             I’ve lived and written in other rooms.  Upon my return from Italy I rented a studio at the Beacon Marine Basin on East Main Street, high over Gloucester harbor, where I completed a second novel, and where my wife and I lived before moving to a carriage house on Farrington Avenue, bordering Eastern Point.  It was there, in a quiet back room that later became my first son Jonathan’s bedroom that I wrote my master’s thesis on Thoreau and the short stories that would become my first publications.  From there we moved to an 1850s farmhouse on Vine Street, in Riverdale, where I had a study overlooking Gloucester’s oldest intact colonial dwelling, a meadow rich in wildlife, and Ipswich Bay.  Here I wrote another novel, “Reunion,” a memoir, Landscape with Boy, and my first two published books; and it was here that I remained living and writing alone for many years after the end of my marriage. 
            When my landlord died and the property went on the market, I moved from Vine Street to a house in Bickford Way on Rocky Neck, overlooking Wonson’s Cove.  In a tiny first floor room, flooded with light for most of the day and with a view out onto the cove, I finished At the Cut, my memoir of growing up in Gloucester during the 1940s, and No Fortunes, a novel about my final year at Bowdoin, while also completing most of Broken Trip, a novel-in-stories about Gloucester in the 1980s and 90s, published in 2005 by writers Grace Paley and Robert Nichols of Glad Day Books.
            I’m writing this in my study on Page Street above the ocean, far up on Mt. Pleasant Avenue from Rocky Neck, surrounded by the books I began collecting when I lived on 83 Federal Street; but I come back to this room and that time, where it all began, and where I often feel it was better than in any other room or in any other time or place in my life.
           

Sunday, April 15, 2018




Main Street



Middle Street, Gloucester. Paul Cornoyer (1864-1923)

During the many years I used to meet her, she seemed unchanged, a little old lady full of energy: gray-haired, walking jauntily on Main Street, coming over to me in the post office to say she liked a column I’d recently published, or gently disagreeing with my argument.  She never offered her name, and I never asked because she seemed so much a part of my daily life.  A brown pillbox on her head, along with brown Oxford walkers; what our mothers referred to as “sensible shoes.”  Opaque nylon stockings, a short, light, cloth coat in spring, quilted parka in winter, both brown.  Lovely Yankee voice, pure Gloucester—“’’Twas” for “it was."

One day I saw her, as I had during all the years past, and the next day I didn’t.  Had she died?  Was she suddenly in a nursing home or hospital?  At her age she couldn’t simply have moved away; not her, with the sense she projected of continually having been rooted here.

Was she a retired teacher?  She looked like one, had the rimless bifocals Miss Harris and most of our teachers once wore, hair in a bun.  Had she been a secretary in a law office?  There were many, women who hadn’t married, but who, like my mother, had gone to work out of school with typing, shorthand and bookkeeping skills they’d amply acquired in the former Commercial Course at Gloucester High School.  They staffed the banks, or they clerked in the gas and electric company, as my Aunt Harriette had done all her life.  They became operators in the Bell Telephone Company office building on Elm Street that later became National Marine Fisheries, where my mother also worked and is now the Cape Ann Museum’s library.

For weeks I agonized over her disappearance.  I could have asked my friends in the post office who knew everybody in town.  But it didn’t occur to me to ask.  It didn’t occur to me to do anything but remark her absence.  It didn’t even occur to me to check the obituaries in the Gloucester Daily Times, even though I didn’t know who she really was.

It got to be that way as I lived my life on Main Street during the thirty years I spent working at the city’s anti-poverty agency.  Two trips daily to the post office, one to pick up my own mail at 10:30 each morning, and a second in the afternoon to post the agency’s, but more to get out of the office during coffee break, when I could afford a few minutes for a walk around town:  Dale Avenue from the post office, City Hall and the library to Middle Street, then down to the Joan of Arc statue in front of the American Legion Building.  Around the corner to Main Street, through the West End, and all the way back to the office on Elm Street. Soon I began to think of myself as an old Gloucester dog, making his habitual rounds; that is, before the city instituted a leash law.

On those daily strolls I came to know dozens of people by sight, men, women, natives I’d recognized since childhood, having seen them every day in Woolworth’s, Sterling Drug, the Waiting Station, all of them gone now, the people along with the places themselves: Sears & Roebuck, W. T. Grant, Gorins, W. G. Brown.  Dr. Benno Broder’s dental office on Pleasant Street, with a human skull in a glass-doored bookcase; the old Western Union’s tiny dark storefront from which you could telegraph a message anywhere around the world.  Willie Alexander’s father’s Baptist Church across the street from City Hall and the Museum, torn down for parking.  Elks Lodge, now condos; Knights of Columbus, likewise; Red Men’s Hall vanished; Masons moved to Eastern Avenue.  Bradford Building burned down, the fire in which E. E. Cummings’ Harvard classmate, painter Winslow Wilson, lost the manuscript of his autobiography.  Hotel Gloucester, on Main across from Elm, where, in a small rented top floor room, I worked on my second novel—gone in urban renewal, along with the old police station and the Fishermen’s Institute, a bethel for retired mariners, who gathered to swap stories in front of the bank on the corner of Main and Duncan, or in the sun across the street at Sterling Drug.

One by one they’d disappear, like the little old lady in brown—the fishermen, the retired letter carriers, the women who sold us toys in Woolworth; those who drew the chilled root beer out of the casks at Kresge’s or measured out the penny candy.

Jake’s on Granite Street, where we bought bubble gum on the way to Hovey School, now an apartment house; Cher Ami’s ice cream parlor on Washington converted into a barbershop.  Bart’s Variety on Pine and Washington streets, where we went for Italian ice, a driving school today.  Captain Bill’s on Main and Washington, once Frank Barkas’ restaurant and pool room, now the Blackburn building with Giuseppe’s on the ground floor, until it, too, closed, to be replaced by a tonier Tonno.

I could see the old clapboard or redbrick buildings as they were abandoned or torn down, residents displaced. I watched them emptied of what they sold, windows gone blank.  Though devoid of human habitation, the places themselves had a lingering presence; even their smells persisted—yeast from the Sunnyside Bakery, burnt almonds at Mike’s Pastry, sawdust in front of the National Butchers.  But the people, like my little old lady in brown, had an equal vitality, which, as they too disappeared, slowly ebbed out of the city itself, along with the local dialect and the natives’ slouching walk, draining the city of its uniqueness and spirit, except for the young people I run into today on Middle Street.  They’ll be heading home from high school, pierced and tattooed, their hair in dreadlocks, often speaking Spanish, a language I never heard until I went to Europe, or Brazilian Portuguese.  Or they’re African-American.  It wasn’t until I moved to Rocky Neck in 1951, and started sneaking over to the Hawthorne Inn Casino to hear jazz, that I actually saw a black person.

What would these teenagers in 50 Cent T-shirts and slashed jeans think of the skinny kid in the maroon and silver sateen Mighty-Mac baseball jacket, coming toward them from Central Grammar as he headed home down the Cut?  He’s hatless and his hair, slicked down even in the autumn wind, has been cut at Bill Maciel’s barbershop on Duncan Street, next to the Fishermen’s Institute.  Theirs goes wild and they wear hooded sweatshirts against the cold.  They talk on cell phones, get their music from iPods, living in a digitized world that was imagined only in the science fiction novels I read at their age.

I find it remarkable that sixty-eight years later I’m taking the same route I took home from school, the route that led past the old “Y”, the Solomon-Davis house, and C. F. Tompkins’ furniture store, all since disappeared; past the Lorraine Apartments that managed to survive condo mania only to be destroyed in a fire that took the synagogue next door with it; past Pike’s Funeral Home, where my father’s and my brother’s memorial services were held and my mother’s ashes reposed before her grandchildren and I scattered them at sea; past Trinity Congregational Church, rebuilt after the fire in 1979 that destroyed the original structure, where my brother and I attended Sunday school during the war because the gas ration prohibited travel to the Greek Orthodox Church in Ipswich.  When I was twelve or thirteen, had anyone predicted that I’d be walking on Middle Street, balding and gray-bearded, or told me I’d still be in Gloucester in 2018, I would have been incredulous.

But it’s not myself as I appeared then I miss, it’s the old people I grew up knowing with their sense of correctness in what they wore and how the men still tipped their hats to women on the street, asking each time, “And how’s your mutha?”   Live in a place long enough and its entire history replays itself in your head.  You come to know where everyone’s house is, even in childhood, where their parents came from, their grandparents.  You saw their little sisters in strollers on the Boulevard or at St. Peter’s Fiesta.  You went to Hovey School or Forbes with their brothers and cousins.  You could tell from anyone’s face who he was, who his father was.  Each beautiful blond Finnish girl in school had a beautiful blond Finnish mother who’d gone to school with your mother or your aunts.  The minute you met the mother you knew who her daughter was, or her sister.  Visiting Gloucester High School today, I see the great-granddaughters of my classmates and know exactly who they are, even though I can no longer remember their mothers’ names.

Live in a place long enough and it enters your dreams.  There was another woman I saw one day on Middle Street, getting out of her car in such a way that I felt I was reliving a dream.  She’s tiny, like my mother, and she’s Lebanese, probably related to Freddie Kyrouz, who used to run the shoeshine parlor on Main Street before he became city clerk.  I know this woman from city hall, from the bank, from the post office, yet, like the lady in brown, I don’t remember her name.  We always say hello and smile.  And the other day when I caught the lovely clear expectant look in her eyes, her smallness like my mother’s and my aunts’, I was overwhelmed by impending loss because I realized she will become one of those people I may no longer see, one of the many who are ebbing away just as the city itself is being erased by strip mall commercial complexes, proliferating donut franchises, cheap modular houses jammed into pocket-sized lots, imposed upon us by those, as Charles Olson wrote, “who take away and do not have as good to offer.”

A bitterly contested retail complex with a mega supermarket was recently completed near the Route 128 entrance to the city.  Called Gloucester Crossing and billing itself as “the premiere shopping destination on Cape Ann,” the center is competing with downtown businesses that have been struggling for years to stay afloat.  Soon it will be accompanied by a 200-unit “market rate” housing complex with added retail space and a new YMCA.   And on the Fort, one of the last remaining ethnic enclaves in the maritime heart of the city, a billionaire developer has built a 94-room “boutique” hotel and function center in a neighborhood where a delicate balance has long existed between residents and a thriving marine industry.

I walked sadly away after I met the Lebanese woman getting out of her car across the street from St. John’s Church, in front of the house that used to be Dr. Doyle’s office, where my brother and I were taken when we got sick or had poison ivy infections.  In her persistence in my daily life, her smile of recognition, she embodies for me what my life here has meant, a connection to a single place and a sense of duration I never expected to experience when I was younger.

I don’t have to ask anyone in my generation who Pat Maranhas is, or if they remember that he played tenor sax in the Modernaires, or that his grandfather was a fisherman named Captain Green.  We take people like Pat, with whom we went to kindergarten or worked with at Gorton’s or see at the bank or walking his dog in Magnolia, for granted, just as we understand why a house covered by aluminum siding should never have been put up where our junior high school shop teacher Tom Brophy’s graceful 19th century white frame house once stood on the corner of Pleasant and Shepherd streets, or why it was unthinkable to tear apart the lovely wooded, granite-bouldered, hill above Brightside Avenue and wedge a bunch of houses into it that look like they were made from kits you’d buy at Wal-Mart.

And unless they happened to be born here, who will ever know what it felt like to walk home from high school every day along the waterfront, smelling the gurry and the rendered mink food, the codfish cakes at Gorton’s cannery, and the tar and oakum caulking from the railways; listening to the screech of gulls and the idling engines of the boats at dock.  Or returning home from Hovey School through the sumac bushes clustered high on Rider’s Rocks, the entire harbor spreading out beneath you, all the way to Boston.  Or even Middle Street, on the way home from Central Grammar, day after day, knowing the Solomon Davis house like one’s own, the two sisters who lived as recluses in it, apparitions from the 19th century, or that the YMCA bought it for a mere $25,000 and tore it down, the city’s stateliest example of Greek Revival architecture, for a concrete basketball court that was never built.  Or the Parsons-Morse house on Western Avenue, another of the North Shore’s endangered First Period houses, which Olson fought to save but couldn’t, torn down by the state to widen the highway that never got widened.

They wouldn’t know that if you walk to the post office through the parking lot behind City Hall, even on the hottest day in July, there is always a cool breeze; and if you choose the same route in the dead of winter, an icy wind hits you in the face and makes you shiver even in your warmest fleece jacket.
What about sitting in the Miami Pastry Shop, later Mike’s, among the fishermen speaking Sicilian, sipping the first espresso that was sold in town and eating a ricotta pie that one could not find the equal of in the bakeries of Boston’s North End?

And what of the smells and tastes that Proust insists are primary?  There were the strips of salt cod we pulled off the big fish drying on the clotheslines outside my grandmother’s house and ate like potato chips, and the taste of anise cookies our Italian friends’ mothers baked at Christmas.  There was the smell of the grass on the river bank after it had been mowed and the sickly sweet perfume of clethra, or the flowering locusts in June, which the fishermen could smell offshore, on their way in from a trip: When the locusts are in bloom the fish come home.  And always in Gloucester, the smell of fish—fish cooking and fish rotting—and the salt air off the ocean often combined with the rank smell of kelp.

In remembering these things I don’t intend to be nostalgic.  I mistrust nostalgia because it’s usually not about things that no longer exist—lost people, customs, ways of being—but about yearning for those things we thought we possessed but only imagined we had; and everyone will have a Gloucester of his own, no matter when they came or left.  I’m only recording what I remember of daily rhythms, of the names of people who still come to me in my dreams, of the ways these people who inhabited each neighborhood, even their dogs and cats, become so deeply embedded in our consciousnesses we can’t even articulate them, we just feel them in our blood.

There are expectations, or there were, of how each day would be, who you’d meet, who would tell you a story about whom, who would have lived next door or down the street at a time when hardly anyone ever moved, when moving was a momentous event; who would have gotten sick or died and was laid out in the family parlor, like Barry Clark’s grandmother, or little Joey Nicastro, who died in second grade from “ammonia,” and was one day in the neighborhood, reading Superman comics with us on my back porch, and the next in Addison Gilbert Hospital and then, when we saw the ribbon of black cloth pinned to his front door, lying with a suit on in a small coffin in his living room with the women in black all around him saying the Rosary and the men, home from fishing, consoling his father in the kitchen.

Don’t believe for one minute that having grown up and lived in a small town we had seen nothing of life.  We came upon rotting carcasses of deer that lay dead in the woods; saw our friends’ sisters naked in their bedroom windows; watched half-dressed couples making love under the bleachers at Newell Stadium; heard neighbors screaming at each other in the dead of night; saw a sailor who had been beaten nearly to death along the Boulevard, where his blood remained for days drying in the cracks of pavement; knew the drunken sea captain, who always came into my grandfather’s shoe repair shop on Stoddart Lane, speaking perfect Greek even though he was Portuguese, because he loved the tarama Papouli prepared from fish row in the back room, packing it in small wooden casks to sell to the Hellenic markets in Boston.  Yes, and we heard from our mothers talking together about the fisherman who strangled his wife, cut her body into pieces and ate her liver after frying it in a skillet; about the daughter who beat her mother to death with a hammer; the son who drowned his father in the bathtub; and the other son who killed his mother, cut her head off and tried to shred it in the Dispose-all.

We heard and saw these things, and more: the sutured wounds in Irving Morris’s head after he’d been attacked and robbed one night on Middle Street, while returning home with the day’s earnings from his First National grocery store; the blood all over the snow on Main Street after the city worker had his leg torn off by the snow removal machine; the body of a five-year-old Sicilian girl, who was run over by a trailer truck on Commercial Street (I wrote that story as a young reporter for the Gloucester Times), her tiny foot with its little red sneaker sticking out from under a tarpaulin the workers at a nearby fish plant had gently covered her with.

And I think we also came to understand certain moments of human vulnerability—the eager look I caught on a boy’s face as he approached the toy store on Pleasant Street with his father one Saturday morning, his excitement propelling him just ahead of his father, who was straining to catch up with him; or the other boy on his bike in Riverdale, shyly taking orders for Christmas cards door-to-door one August afternoon, who reminded me of my son Ben, who once sold them himself, and it made me think of my three children away at summer camp in Maine, missing them so much that I rushed home from my walk to sit alone in the darkened house on Vine Street counting the days until I would see them again.

Small events and moments—a teacher’s sharp rebuke, a neighbor’s reprimand if you stepped on her marigolds while on the run in war games—that stayed for years, returning again and again in the vacuum left by loss or abandonment.  Comments we made that hurt people’s feelings, stupid remarks in school, pain inflicted: the Irish kid who called me “Pinocchio Nose” and pushed me off the sidewalk in front of the “Y.”  And when I went home crying and asked my mother why he’d done it, she said I shouldn’t have been at the “Y” anyway with all those ruffians.  I was so terrified it would happen again, not so much the shove as his remarks about my nose, which I was sensitive about, that I never went back to the “Y” until high school, when I played piano there at Saturday night dances with the Modernaires.  And even when I saw that kid for years afterwards, still a bully—he was the son of a patrolman in Gloucester—long after he’d obviously forgotten what he’d said and done to me, maybe even forgotten me as I got older, my body would stiffen and I would find ways of avoiding him.  I can still see his pinched face, can tell what the beanie he was wearing looked like the day he pushed me off the sidewalk; can even remember the sound of his voice, the humiliation has stayed with me that much.  Why didn’t my mother comfort me, explaining to me why certain kids bullied or threatened us, instead of telling me not to go back to the “Y?”

der why I ever came back, or why I still love the place of my birth; and maybe it is about masochism, or the fear of new or unknown cities, which my children appear never to have experienced—Jonathan, at seventeen, on the road with his hardcore punk rock band—that kept me in Gloucester; or the inability to let go of family, of the place itself.  We often speak of an “island mentality,” which natives seem to share, the sense of innate comfort we take in remaining in one place, a house, a street, a certain neighborhood (I’ve only lived at the Cut, in East Gloucester and Riverdale during all my years in the city), and the inability ultimately to leave Gloucester.  Older people once boasted of never having “crossed the bridge,” when we only had one bridge out of town.  I knew some of those people.  They had never seen Boston and they apparently hadn’t needed to, their lives were that sufficient; though my mother took us often to the city on the train for shopping or to visit the museums.  We drove to the Witch City Candy Company in Salem to pick up the chocolate bars my father sold in his corner store, walking its then dark streets and visiting the Peabody Museum, full of artifacts from the city’s East India trade.  And we even ventured farther out to Newburyport, to Plum Island and the beaches of the New Hampshire coast.  So, slowly, I began to leave Gloucester, though, as the years go by now, I want less and less to do so.

In the end, it comes down to this.  In a shrinking world, when every place has either been destroyed or homogenized, when the culture, the national intelligence, has been reduced to the lowest common denominator; when the young hope only to consume the world’s goods, not yearn to know the world itself in all its particulars, or to embrace its arts and its languages, the books that beckon to be read, paintings to be seen, monuments to visit, cities to wander in at night, as I once did in Florence; in a shrinking world, we must have something, some place, to hold onto, and an ethos, related to that place, its history, and our own in it.  We must have such a thing or die from the lack of it.

So that little old lady in brown I knew without even learning her name is even more precious to me now.  For a long time I could count on her presence in Gloucester, in my own life, just as I could count on the presence of my father, my mother and my brother, who are dead now; or Charles Olson, who showed me how to know the place we inhabit through an immersion in its history; Vincent Ferrini, who first taught me about poetry; or John Rowe, the eighty-year-old carpenter on Perkins Road, who, as a child, I watched as he slowly rebuilt our front porch, hour by hour, day by day, plank by plank; patiently, carefully, purposefully, and not without delight, addressing the task, as I myself have finally learned how to write.

Now, I fear, we have come to an end of rhythms, of traditions and folkways, at least as I’ve known them; an end, too, of expectations, though the ocean remains and the seasons return, however more unpredictably.  Toward the end of his life, Olson said that a writer has two choices: you either oppose the destruction of the things you love or you describe the tragedy of their loss.  I’ve tried to do both, often with mixed results, but in the end, it is the loss that has remained with me, touching every aspect of my thought and being.  The only Gloucester that exists for me now is the city of my mind.

(This is the first chapter of Peter Anastas’ recently completed memoir From Gloucester Out)

Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

                                  Schloss Brunnenburg


Ezra Pound in the Bughouse, by Peter Anastas

THE BUGHOUSE:
The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound

By Daniel Swift
302 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27

For Gerrit Lansing (1928-2018)

“American poetry in the twentieth century is a cycle of encounters with Ezra Pound.”—Daniel Swift

“Shall we learn from his line and not answer his life?”—Charles Olson

The turrets of Schloss Brunnenburg rose through a swirl of mist that enveloped the valley lying between the 13th century castle and the Italian Alpine town of Merano.   Standing above the valley, you could make out the vineyards and apple orchards that surrounded the castle.  When we arrived in early October of 1960 to visit Ezra Pound, who had been living in the castle owned by his daughter Mary and her husband Boris de Rachewiltz since his release in 1958 from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., the vendemmia, or grape harvest, was in progress.   Wagons loaded with clusters of dusky-green grapes that would become the region’s prized Pinot Grigio were drawn by pairs of white oxen.  Slowly they advanced toward us through the mist, as we stood overlooking the valley, marveling at the wonder of the castle, the yellow farm houses that surrounded it, and the oxen as they moved at a stately pace.

Leaving Florence at dawn, my friend Peter Denzer and I had arrived in Merano after a five hour drive through Bologna, Verona, Trento and Bolzano.  It was early fall and the leaves were still on the trees, the grapes and olives ripe for harvest.   The countryside was bathed in golden light.  There was a Roman amphitheater in Verona, and the great paintings of Mantegna.  Yet we deferred those visits because our destination was Merano.  We had an appointment with Pound the next day and we did not want to be late for it.

Peter, who was writing a novel based on Pound’s years in Italy and hoped to interview the aging poet, had received a letter of introduction from Pound’s publisher James Laughlin.   Laughlin warned Peter that Pound had not been well, so that any visit might be abbreviated.

Nevertheless, the Pound we met when we presented ourselves the following day at the castle after an arduous descent on foot down into the valley and up to the imposing structure that Pound’s daughter and her husband were still in the process of restoring, seemed alert, if intermittently silent.  We were greeted by Noel Stock, an Australian writer and journalist, who was engaged in cataloging Pound‘s vast store of papers, while also writing a biography of the poet that would be published in 1970 by Pantheon.

Stock, who we later realized was also Pound’s gatekeeper, led us to an unostentatiously furnished room where we awaited the poet’s arrival.  It was not a long wait, enough for us to observe the contents of the bookshelves and the art on the walls, transporting the visitor back to the London and Paris of Pound’s early years of expatriation.

Expatriation was the subject of the novel for which Peter had received an advance from St. Martin’s Press, ample enough to enable him to bring his family to Italy while he researched and wrote the book.   They settled on Florence because I was completing graduate work there at the University and the city’s centrality in Italy seemed a perfect base for any travels Peter might need to embark on for his work.

Peter and I had met in 1957 in Brunswick, Maine, while I was an undergraduate at Bowdoin.  He and his painter wife Anne Sayre Wiseman had moved to Maine with their two sons, Piet and Kiko, to escape the urban chaos of New York, part of a growing migration of artists and writers who sought the relaxed pace of country life. Meeting in the town’s only bookstore, Peter, Anne and I hit it off immediately. Consequently, I ended up spending more time in their 19th century farmhouse than in the student dining halls and lounges of the college I was beginning to tire of.  As soon as they arrived in Italy, we found a small villa to rent in the Florentine hill town of Settignano and moved in en famille.

Peter, a former foreign correspondent for UPI and the author of three novels, did not want to write about Pound; rather, he hoped to understand how Pound’s years in Italy, specifically in isolation during the war, might help him to recreate the atmosphere of expatriate life.  Our visit to Pound was not only to see the long-time expatriate face to face, but also hopefully to talk with him about his experiences of exile.

That this might be problematic was apparent as soon as we met the frail poet, who we later learned had spent time in an Italian hospital being treated for depression shortly after his arrival back in Italy, in July of 1958.  Pound moved slowly, walking with a cane.  His hair and grizzled beard were white, his voice low, phrases often difficult to understand.  Stock helped from time to time as Peter, presenting Laughlin’s letter, gently asked Pound how it felt to be back in Italy after his incarceration in the US.  “All America is an insane asylum,” Pound had told the first reporters to interview him after his release from St. Elizabeth’s.

Pound gossiped about his publisher, whom Peter also knew; and he turned to me with a nod.  When Peter explained that I was studying Medieval Literature in Florence, his eyes lit up: “Ah, Philologia  Romanza,” he said, using the Italian terminology for the discipline.

“I wouldn’t be in Italy if I hadn’t read The Spirit of Romance,” I said.

Then I remained silent because I knew that Peter had much to ask Pound.

Intuiting this, Stock motioned to me to follow him out of the room, which I did, but not before touching the mottled skin of Pound’s trembling hand and telling him how much his poetry had meant to me; in effect, reaching back to that boy of 18, who, reading the Cantos for the first time, did not understand much about the poetry, except that he knew, or had intuited, that what he was reading in his cold Maine dormitory room was magical.  (The experience was not unlike my first reading of a Maximus Poem, in Vincent Ferrini’s Four Winds, in 1952).

After Stock retuned to the room where Peter and Pound sat talking quietly, I stood in a corridor of unadorned walls and small windows feeling the silence of the vast stone edifice around me, not a footfall or human voice, until Peter joined me.  Pound was tired, he said, but he had been granted another visit the following day.

I remained in the comfortable Gasthaus, where we were staying while Peter returned to the castle the next morning.   Dinner the night before had been memorable, with delicately prepared veal cutlets, pasta in a rich cream sauce, a nice change from the tomato sauces of Florence, and Pinot Grigio to accompany our meal, a wine I’d never tasted before.  I also experienced the warmth of an Alpine comforter in bed, especially welcome because we discovered that nights in the mountains were cold.   The natives of the Alto Adige region of Alpine Italy spoke both Italian and German.  Peter, who had spent several years in Germany after the war as editor of an English language newspaper, was happy to be speaking German again.

Peter returned to report that his talk with Pound, though briefer than he had hoped for due to the poet’s lingering fatigue, had been fruitful.  He had also met Pound’s daughter, who had warmly welcomed him to the castle, offering tea.  At first there had been a moment of potential conflict, Peter said.  The poet had asked Peter what kind of name “Denzer” was.  Knowing of Pound’s anti-Semitism, Peter, who was Jewish, said, “It’s German from Tanzer,” avoiding further discussion with a question about Pound’s choice of Italy as a place to live during the 1920s, specifically Rapallo.   It was cheaper than Paris, Pound said, and warmer in the winter.

Pound had worn the same loose clothing we met him in the day before, a pair of soft gray trousers and a wrinkled faded blue shirt that fell below his belt.  On his feet were sandals.  Peter, who had read the transcripts of some of Pound’s controversial wartime broadcasts from Rome, had decided not to discuss politics with the poet, though the protagonist of Peter’s novel, an American poet named Zeno, would have similar conflicts and an idealized sympathy for Fascism, which Peter, who had been one of the first reporters to enter Dachau, would explore in his novel, whose working title was “The Alien.”

“There wasn’t enough time,” Peter reported after he returned to the Gasthaus for a walk through the town’s cobblestone streets.  “I managed to get him talking about how those who stayed on in Italy after the declaration of war managed to survive —‘It was brutal,’ he said, ‘food shortages, but we had friends.’” (We did not know that Pound had been paid by the Ministry of Popular Culture of the Fascist regime for his broadcasts, the money helping to support his family in Rapallo, including his aging parents, who had left America to be near their adored son.)

The discussion I had dreamed of having with Pound about his early work on Dante, about the genesis of the Cantos, which I had started reading in 1955 and which had been the impetus for my continued study of Latin and Greek, followed by Italian; indeed, for my decision to live in Florence in order to read Dante on his home ground, did not occur.   But I did see Pound.  I stepped into the magnificent 13th century castle.  I sat in the same room with the great poet.  I heard his voice, though the Pound I met was not the handsome dark-haired poet whose photograph appeared in dramatic profile in the 1948 edition of the Cantos I bought and read like a Bible when I should have been reading poets like Wordsworth, who were assigned to us in class.  Pound also inscribed my copy of Personae, which Peter had carried with him on his second visit to the castle.

It was not what we imagined, either for me or for Peter, as we discussed the visit on our way from Merano to Venice before returning to Florence.

“I don’t regret it,” Peter mused, stroking his graying beard.  “It was like visiting a monument.  Jim Laughlin warned me it might be disappointing.  He said that Pound wasn’t talking much, that he seemed often in a state of dissociation after his release from St. Elizabeth’s.  What’s important is that I got to meet him.  I got to see the ravages of St. Elisabeth’s.”

It was those ravages we knew nothing about then, that long ordeal of incarceration in an insane asylum, that British scholar and critic Daniel Swift writes about in his gripping new study of Pound in “the Bughouse.”

Much has been written about the twelve and a half years Pound spent at St. Elizabeth’s, from his admission on December 21, 1945 until his discharge on May 7, 1958, following a Washington District Court hearing on April 18, during which the federal indictment against him for treason was dismissed.  From Charles Norman’s 1960 biography, Ezra Pound, the first to appear after Pound’s release, to the most recent third and final volume of A. David Moody’s definitive Ezra Pound: Poet (2007-2015), Pound’s years in “the bughouse,” as he himself called it, have been documented in increasing detail.  But not until Swift’s study have we had a view that encompasses an analysis of the complexities of the indictment against Pound, an account of his daily life in the asylum, including the numerous visits he received from family and friends, and especially from poets, the work he was able to achieve during his incarceration, and, most crucially, the psychiatric treatment (or non-treatment, as Swift discovers) that the poet, who was judged incompetent to stand trial, received.  In addition—and this may be one of the book’s most important facets—a history of the government asylum, its architecture, including floor plans of the wards, opened in 1855 as the first federally established psychiatric facility and effectively shut down in 2003, with its buildings either demolished or rededicated to other governmental uses.

A good deal of what Swift offers was newly made possible by the release of public records concerning the workings of the hospital, its staff during Pound’s years of incarceration, Patient Case Files obtained under the FOA, and accounts of those still living, who either worked at St. Elizabeth’s, visited patients, or were themselves incarcerated.

For the purposes of this review, I will confine my attention to the poets who visited Pound, most prominently Charles Olson, and to Pound’s diagnosis and treatment, neither of which have been documented as well or as extensively as Swift has been able to do.

Olson, living in 1946 in a small apartment on the outskirts of the city with his first wife Constance, was Pound’s first literary visitor, initiating his visits on January 4th of that year.  Olson knew Pound far better than Pound may have known him, though Pound pleased Olson by asking if he had not previously seen his visitor’s name in print.   It was a transitional time for the tall poet, freed from political employment, first at the Office of War Information and then by the Democratic Party, a year away from the publication of his ground-breaking prose study of Melville, Call Me Ishmael, and seeking a form for an ambitious long poem he hoped to write about the history of Western man, then America, and finally his adoptive home town of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Swift convincingly contends that it was the visits with Pound and Olson’s opportunity both to discuss Pound’s ongoing work on the Cantos with him and to read the corrected galleys for The Pisan Cantos that formed the basis of Olson’s magnum opus, The Maximus Poems, which Swift characterizes as “a remarkable cycle: huge, avid, hungry for change, and most of all marked by vast ambition.”  Taking the galleys home with him with the promise to forward them to James Laughlin, not before copying out relevant passages, Olson writes, “I should like to keep this for my own.”

Beginning with his first visit, Olson saw Pound regularly for two months, bringing with him an occasional bottle of wine, journals and books Pound had requested, and other items the poet needed for his Spartan life, initially in Howard Hall, where Pound continually heard the screams of the insane, and later to the more peaceful quarters of Cedar and Chestnut wards, where he spent the greater part of his stay and was able to enjoy time outside in the hospital’s well maintained gardens and even to play tennis.

Olson’s visits became less frequent when the poet and former New Dealer felt he could no longer countenance what he considered to be Pound’s unregenerate fascist politics and his anti-Semitism, which Olson thought of as “his sickest and most evil moments.”  And yet, Olson continued to describe Pound as a “man of exquisite sensibility…the ear of an era.  He has such charm!”  Olson equally notes that in his own hearing Pound blurted out in court: “I never did believe in Fascism, God damn it!”

In discussing his own ambivalence, Olson early on put his finger on the “Pound problem,” as described by Katherine Seeley in her essential Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeth’s, published in 1975, three years after Pound’s death and five years after Olson’s:

“Two poems, one sympathetic and the other savage, on the subject of Pound’s post-war troubles…clearly reflect Olson’s ambivalence concerning Pound, which never quite left him: on the one hand, an abhorrence of the ‘fascist and traitor,’ and on the other, an enormous admiration for a great poet…”  This is also the ambivalence that many of us who came to admire Pound the poet before we were aware of the extent of his troubling politics have long felt.

Other significant poets who visited Pound included Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Donald Hall and Frederick Seidel.   The chapters on their visits, the poems often reflective of them, and the comments publicly made by the poet-visitors form a multi-faceted view of Pound himself at St. Elizabeth’s and, more importantly, what Swift presciently describes as “a knot of reverence and self-invention, of worship met with use.”

“A whole generation of American poets underwent this ritual,” Swift continues. “They became themselves by visiting Pound and then writing about it.  This was their graduation.”  And yet it was Olson’s visits that were the most crucial for both the older and the younger poet.  “Olson saved my life,” Pound told Hugh Kenner, while Olson came away with the inspiration and the methodology for one of the singular poems of our literature.  Among the several gifts of this capacious book are Swift’s description of the roots of Olson’s epic and his meticulous analysis of the elements that went into the composition of the Cantos, which shared with the The Maximus Poems a drive to document and recover history, an acute sense of place, and a profound understanding of the loss of both that connects the two poems.

As for Pound’s purported “mental illness,” in his painstaking examination of records, Swift appears to have punctured many myths, primary among them that the poet was insane at the time of his indictment and incarceration.

Olson begins the account by stating directly in his notes after an early visit to Pound in the hospital: “You and I know Pound is not crazy… You and I know he is as gifted and trained and skillful a poet as any man who has written the English language in these years of our century.”

The first doctor to have examined Pound was an Army psychiatrist in Pisa, where Pound was placed in detention after his capture—“the gorilla cage,” as Pound called it.  “There is no evidence of psychosis, neurosis, or psychopathy,” the psychiatrist reported on June 15, 1945. “He is of superior intelligence, is friendly, affable and cooperative.”  Yet soon after his imprisonment in an open cage under the broiling sun of summer, Pound suffered a nervous breakdown.

Upon his return to America Pound was examined by a team of army medical experts and civilian psychiatrists, under the direction of Dr. Winfred Overholser, Superintendent of St. Elizabeth’s.
“On 21 December 1945,” Swift writes, their joint report was presented to the court.  “He is now suffering from a paranoid state, which renders him medically unfit to advise properly with counsel or to participate intelligently and reasonably in his own defense,” the examiners concluded. “He is, in other words, insane and mentally unfit for trial.”   Pound was taken directly from the courtroom to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Swift adds.  “He was kept there for the following twelve and a half years.”
Julian Cornell, Pound’s lead attorney, retained by James Laughlin, told the New York Times on November 27, 1945, “Mr. Pound is not sufficiently in possession of judgment and perhaps mentality to plead;” thus the defense that Pound was not competent to stand trial.  Yet Dr. Marion King, director of prison medical services, found that “Pound was not a psychotic or insane person,” and Dr. Addison Duval, an additional consulting psychiatrist, wrote at the end of December 1945 that he “could not elicit any symptoms of psychosis at all.  There were no delusions, no thought disorder and no disturbance or disorientation. He definitely did not seem to be insane.”

The insanity plea, with which Pound concurred, saved his life, though sentencing him to incarceration and ultimately depriving him of his bodily freedom and his right to manage his own affairs.
Examining the records of Pound’s stay in the hospital, especially Pound’s Patient Case File, which had previously been sequestered, Swift found no record whatsoever of any treatment that Pound underwent for his presumed mental illness—no electroshock treatments, no drug therapy, not even a tranquillizer; and no psychotherapy during the entire length of Pound’s stay.  Early on, Pound had been administered a Rorschach test, which he failed due to “lack of imagination,” according to the tester.

Among previous biographers, E. Fuller Torrey, a former psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s, contends that while Pound’s insanity plea saved him from potential execution as a traitor, his incarceration allowed him to continue living and writing pretty much as he had while free.  Torrey further argues that it was with the complicity of Dr. Overholser, who greatly admired Pound’s poetry, and Pound’s “literary allies in New York” that Pound was able to “fake the symptoms of madness to escape the treason charge and relished his years” at St. Elizabeth’s.

Swift enters no final judgment as to Pound’s sanity.  What he offers instead is a conclusion that adds to the importance and originality of his study.  “Pound in the insane asylum,” he writes, “is the central question about art, politics and poetry of the twentieth century.  These are questions about what madness is, and what makes genius; about the connection between experimental art and extreme, often illiberal political sentiments; about the consequences of the Second World War, and specifically about America’s post-war ascendance; and about the modern world’s relation with its immediate past. Pound at St. Elizabeth’s is the riddle at the heart of the twentieth century.”

This is a major book about one of our greatest poets.  It is an equally rich and suggestive inquiry into the role of poetry in our personal, social and political lives, more threatened now than possibly ever before in the nation’s history.

Leaving Merano, Peter and I set out on the three hour drive to Venice, stopping in Padova  to see the frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel.  One had a sense from these stunning 1305 depictions of the Creation, the Nativity, the Passion of Christ, the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and the Last Judgment of being immersed in the visualization of an epic like Pound’s Cantos, in one of the very regions of Italy that had inspired the great poem.

We parked Peter’s Morris Minor at the railroad station in Venice and took the vaporetto to the Zattere, a water-side promenade near which was a monastery where I had stayed during the previous summer.   The rooms were comfortable and reasonably priced.  For dinner we were given an excellent three-course meal with a quarter-liter of local red wine each for only 500 lire, less than an American dollar at the time.
During the night we heard rain on the roof tiles of the monastery.  When we woke up to a breakfast of excellent coffee and freshly baked brioche, one of the monks announced that the canal-side calli, or alleys, were beginning to flood and we ought to catch the boat as soon as we could.  Rolling our pants up and carrying our shoes and backpacks, we waded from the monastery to the Zattere, where the vaporetti were beginning to fill up with passengers headed for the mainland.

It was fitting that we ended our journey to Pound in Venice.  Pound had spent his final years there with the violinist Olga Rudge, his long-time companion and the mother of his daughter Mary, dying in Venice’s Civil Hospital on November 1, 1972.  His body was taken by gondola for burial to the island cemetery of Isola di San Michele, his life ending in the city where he had first found his poetic vocation:

Will I ever see the Giudecca again?
      or the lights against it, Ca Foscari, Ca Giustinian
or the Ca, as they say, of Desdemona
or the two towers where are the cypress no more
            or the boats moored off Le Zattere
or the North quai of the Sensaria. . .
                                                (Canto LXXXIII)


(Previously posted on Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, March 18, 2018)