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Growing Up With Ezra Pound

Discretions by Mary de Rachewiltz. Atlantic-Little & Brown. $8.95. 307 pp.

By William S. Becket

Ezra Pound's daughter Mary is one of his greatest admirers. As a young child she was his darling; when she was older she became his student; now, at 46, she shows in her autobiography that she is almost as devoted to Pound's work as she is to the poet himself.

In one way, Discretions is the recounting of an education given by a great man through precept and example to his daughter.

A bastard child, Mary is the daughter of Pound and the American violinist Olga Rudge who, after two years of living with Pound, supplanted his legal wife, Dorothy Shakespear.

Pound is known as the great mover and teacher of the "modern" poets, and he's remembered as the anti-Semitic "reactionary" who hoped to sell America Fascism over the Italian radio. His daughter sees him most clearly not as the artist or the political man, but as a sage so heroically proportioned that he could deal on an immediate personal level with anyone. He was able to order his life consciously, despite the anguish he suffered from loving two women at once, and despite his incarceration as a traitor in his homeland.

Mary was born during the years that "M. and Mme. Ezra Pound" sponsored concerts in an attempt to create an artistic renaissance in Italy--an effort that stretched from 1925 until Pound's arrest in 1945 by the American liberators of Italy.

When she was born, Mary--the "nature child"--was placed in the care of a peasant woman and her husband, "Mamme and Tatte," on their farm in the Italian Tyrol. For much of the time that the poet and violinist were nurturing European "kulchur," their daughter lived on the farm. Her first language was Tyrolese, and her life was formed among the traditions, the legends, and the Catholic piety of the village people. The allegiances of the village of Gais, and of Mary, went more to Germany than to the Italian government.

As the girl grew older, and as she began to spend more time in Venice with her real parents, "Mamile and Tattile," the seeds of cultural and political ambivalence were sown.

Mary's parents were firmly upper-class. In Venice they forced her to put on white gloves, to act the role of the young aristocrat, and to speak Italian instead of her German dialect. Life with the indulgent poet and the aloof, implacable violinist was made out of what her village parents would consider frivolity. In the village farmhouse there had been only two books: The Life of Christ and The Lives of the Saints. At the center of Pound's villa library in Venice, among all the books in all the many languages, there was huge, wood-bound Ovid.

In those years Pound was, by any measure, an extraordinary man. He was the American poet who read the Classics diligently, mixing Idaho slang with Italian, Latin and Greek. He was the enthusiast who could leap and tap-dance his way through the streets of Venice after watching a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film. He was the public figure who had his own strong theories of economics and who travelled to America with hopes of preventing war between the U.S. and Italy, and of selling his friend Mussolini to F.D.R. When his daughter was fully weaned from the mountain soil and joined for good the "two Americans who had brought to life Vivaldi in Venice" she began her education in earnest.

That education was informally initiated with a list of instructions Pound sent to her foster parents that he called "Laws for Maria":

1. That she is not to lie, cheat, or steal.

3. That is she suffers, it is her own fault for not understanding the universe. That so far as her father knows, suffering exists in order to make people think. That they do not usually think until they suffer.

5. In case of disliking things, to blame 'em either on the universe or on herself. The former course is in some religions considered presumptuous.

The education continued first as a social one--complete with lessons in fencing and facial exercise--and later as intellectual and moral apprenticeship. The instructions were sometimes hard and dry, but the relationship between father and daughter was full and warm. To Mary, Pound "tried to express more with his eyes than in words." In the years Pound was broadcasting his own Italian Radio "propaganda" messages to America, he spent a part of his private life giving his daughter the best books to read, guiding her in translating Thomas Hardy and his own Cantos into Italian, and encouraging her to do her own writing, both as an artistic and a practical skill. "I can only teach you the profession I know," he wrote.

World War II, however, put a stop to Mary's education. During most of the war years she worked in a German hospital in Italy; when she returned home, she learned from her mother that Pound had been taken to an American "Disciplinary Training Center" near Pisa, where he was charged with treason for his broadcasts, and caged. He was not released from the American mental hospital where he had been interned on the eve of his trial until 13 years after his original arrest. Mary's own role in the international effort to free Pound was kept out of the lights: she was an illegitimate child, and she had worked for the Germans. Pound's legitimate son Omar, (whom Mary had met only briefly) had joined the American army--a point in Pound's favor.

The poet's release finally enabled him to join his daughter and her husband--the prince and heir to a long-crumbled kingdom--in their castle in the Tyrol.

Mary de Rachewiltz limits what she tells in Discretions to the events in which she herself was a participant.

The book stands apart from all that has been written about Pound, valuable as an inside story of much of Pound's personal life, but also valuable independently as an autobiography of deep self-perception and sensitive writing, a remarkable accomplishment of literature.

Like much of Pound's poetry, Discretions can be annoyingly obscure, especially for those not in the know about Pound and pre-war Italy. But extensive quotation from Pound's Cantos--along with an index citing the location of the verses--makes much of Pound's difficult poetry come clear.

As all good autobiographers should, de Rachewiltz points out early in her book that several realities are "playing in counterpoint." It's this acceptance of counterpoint that makes Discretions a valuable work of literature as well as of memory: the acceptance that the different realities of different stages of maturity can play in the same story consecutively or all at once, in harmony or in discord. The counterpoint plays clearly as the teenaged, peasant-raised girl describes an uncomfortable visit with her father's friend, T.S. Eliot, as she is waiting for her father's release from America. "The room and his words felt chilly. After a while he went to fetch some tea....And stooping, he returned carrying a small tray with two cups and a tiny plate of very thin, very dry Saiva biscuits. And I inwardly: I wish I could give him some bread and butter....I had met a great man, and Loneliness.

It's hard to say, in fact, how many realities are playing in Discretions. It's a work that has, in a way, been in the making since the author first tried autobiography at age 8; and all through it are tantalizing intimations that her life is part of the acting out of a myth seized upon by the madness, or the vision, of her father. Her story starts with the local creation-story of her childhood village of Gais, a story of an old woman and a goat, the only survivors of a great flood. But the myth she emphasizes most, the myth of the god with two wives, of Zeus with Hera and Dione, is perhaps the one she wonders most about--partially because her father spent two years "pent up" with two women who loved him only a little more than they hated each other.

For the daughter of Ezra Pound, for the woman who lived the life of a peasant foundling before discovering a larger world of harsher realities, it is not pretentious but compelling and revelatory to write of age-old plots being played out in the 20th century but "Somewhere between Mamme and Tatte's world on earth and God in Heaven there was an island of demigods not ruled by human laws. Here the range of imagination was wider, feelings more passionate and ruthless....Every myth I came to know, I believed in, and lived through, giving it new twists."

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