Norm Sibum is taking two months off from Ephemeris and will return on Friday, June 6. Meanwhile, Encore Literary Magazine offers 4 guest Ephemeris columns, the first from Michael Glover, London-based poet, art critic and editor of the international poetry forum The Bow-Wow Shop.
from: Searching for Ezra: A Venetian Notebook
A cockeyed beginning of sorts
You see, I don’t really know what it is that I’m doing… I am explaining this to my old friend, the poet and translator Philip Morre, in his apartment overlooking the Ormesini Canal in Venice. It is the spring of 2013. Otherwise all is well here in Cannaregio. How could it not be? There is salad, cheese, boiled eggs and wine on the sun-splashed table, all courtesy of Billa, the local supermercato, which is open for business on a Sunday morning. The window is open to the canal. There could be no more agreeable pursuit than to stand on that balcony and look out onto a sunny day such as this one, with the pinnacles of the Madonna del’ Orto peeking over the rooftops, that magnificent church from which a priceless altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini was stolen, and the lagoon beyond….
He has read the first fifteen thousand words of my manuscript about Ezra Pound and Venice, and he has made various comments. He tells me that I need to discover something new about Pound, that there seems to be no discernible trajectory to the fragment of manuscript that he has read. I explain, very imperfectly, because I feel embarrassed, muddled and slightly befuddled by Prosecco, that I want Pound’s Venetian story to be interwoven with my own in some way because my discovery of him as a writer has also been a life-long exercise in self-discovery. He does not fully comprehend what I am saying because I am not making myself particularly clear. He suggests that I do a synopsis of the whole, with a couple of sample chapters. We talk about Ezra’s putative late son Omar, who died in 2010, and lived all his life in the shadow of his father. Putative? Philip has just pulled Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Pound out of the shelf and read to me the passage in which the biographer muses about Omar’s paternity. The following day he tells me that he thinks Omar’s father may have been Basil Bunting. Their eyebrows were remarkably similar, he reminds me.
What about doing a biography of the children? Philip suggests as we start on the cheese. I feel utterly exasperated when he says that. With him. With myself. I loathe the very idea of working on a biography of anyone. I have always felt like that. Who in their right mind would wish to devote a decade or more to investigating in minute detail the life of someone else? Surely you would be consumed by hatred of your subject long before you had slogged your way to the finishing line? Isn’t that exactly what happened to Lawrence Thompson, the man who dogged the footsteps of Robert Frost for more than two decades?
I ought not to feel annoyed with Philip though. It is my fault entirely. He is only trying to help. Only I am to blame for this state of affairs. My mind is still in a complete muddle about my Pound book - as it always has been. All that I know for sure is that some current is still pulling me in the direction of writing such a book, even though it has never been clear to me - and is not clear now - what book it is that I’m supposed to be writing.
Let me make a confession. Every few years, I have found myself in the grip of what I can only describe as a psychological spasm of sorts. Some urge seizes hold of me that feels quite familiar when it strikes. It is an urge to write a book about the American poet Ezra Pound. His face, with its grizzled beard, probably at the age of sixty or thereabouts, swims into the mind’s eye, as if beckoning me to pay it some attention. When that happens, I am usually thinking about a photograph of Pound in early old age that I used to have propped up in front of me on the desk of my house in Clapham, and that once disappeared, emerging years later from behind a central heating radiator looking almost as bruised and battered as that image of the poet himself.
Perhaps it is all the more powerfully haunting for not being present to me in actuality any more. His eyes are screwed up. He looks tense, lost, the very embodiment of anguish. It is a poet’s face all right, enthrallingly inscrutable. I recognize the type. And when it comes, it does so with all the force of a tiny earthquake experienced inwardly, and by no one but myself. Recognising it for what it is, I find myself willingly embracing it. When the mood strikes, prompted just a few weeks ago by something slightly different - the sight of an old book on a shelf at the London Library, and, in the reading room of that same institution on the same day, a reference to a newly published edition of some letters to and from Pound referred to in a literary journal of which I had until that moment been unaware - it seems almost inevitable that it should have returned. It was just a matter of biding one’s time.
Why do I want to write a book about Ezra Pound anyway? Why should I want to add my voice to the chorus of attention that he continues to receive from poets and critics, in spite of the fact that he has been dead for more than forty years? For a start, I sense that the two of us have things in common. I want to get to the bottom of all his impassioned and convoluted thinking about poetry matters for myself. Like Pound, I too write and care about poetry, and I too am exercised by the fact that it is not esteemed or noticed as much as it deserves to be. We both come from unpromising backgrounds.
Like Pound, I came from a situation – a small, terraced house in north-east Sheffield – which had, by and large, passed poetry by. Poetry was as little talked about or spoken out loud in the streets of Fir Vale, Sheffield 5 as it had been on that street of non-stop saloon bars in Hailey, Idaho, where he was born. Like Pound, I had had to go elsewhere in my pursuit of it. Less adventurously, it has to be said. I went to university, in England, the country of my birth. Pound did something similar at first, but he soon made even greater leaps of faith and distance. He came to Europe, and he spent the greater part of his life there. The country he loved to spend time in most of all was Italy, and one particular place in Italy: Venice.
Other aspects of this man fascinate me too. There was something wild, erratic, untameable about Ezra from first to last. He was a provincial who wanted to slough off the dreary mediocrities of provincialism. And yet he never smoothed away the rougher edges of the pioneer. He wanted sophistication, but he flung his punches like a sullen kid in a rough house. His letters were wild from first to last, his spelling eccentric to the point of ridiculousness. Some of his earliest letters to his parents, written when he was little more than a child, are already eccentric, with evidence of a strange wilfulness that seems almost indistinguishable from ignorance or even stupidity. He was no infant prodigy. All this has always intrigued me about him, the fact of his being such an oddball. If he had been more conventionally clever, less wayward altogether, he would not have been half so interesting.