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The Death of Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound, drawn by Wyndham Lewis

1,906 words

Translated by Alex Kurtagic

Ezra Pound died in Venice on 2[1]November 1972, less than five years after our interview. I was in Spain, traversing that hard and ancient land. I had visited Ronda, down South, the city over the abyss, where Rilke once lived for a time. I had been reading Pound’s letters in the small museum that Spaniards have opened in the hotel where he once lived—his love letters to Lou Salomé, also lover and muse to Nietzsche.

I meditated about the fact that Spaniards have paid homage to this universal poet, who once trod their soil of history and legend. I later carried on northwards, toward a tiny town, near Madrid—Medinaceli—, where the Cid once sought refuge during his exile—a town of stones and ruins, Roman and Visigothic, heavy with Iberian mystery, perhaps Celtic, Druidic. The town is on a steep incline, on a hill, and overlooks a dry, arid sea of grizzly, yellow, lunar waves, like a vision from a dead planet. At times, on the distant horizon, there appears a solitary tree, placed there by beauty, by that someone who takes pleasure in ordering the Castilian landscape in order to later contemplate it from the summit of Medinaceli through the old Roman Arch, remnants of an ancient fortification.

I learnt of Ezra Pound’s death in Madrid, via the newspapers. The Spaniards paid him heartfelt homage. Eugenio Montes related the burial in Venice, to which I transported myself again with my imagination, toward his little house in Via Querini, seeing him setting off on his last journey, on a dark gondola, through the canals, toward the cemetery in the island of San Michele. The journalist Eugenio Montes told that during the last interview he held with the poet—likely many years ago— the latter had asked him, “Do the Cid’s roosters still crow at dawn in Medinaceli?” And he added that Pound had visited Medinaceli in 1906, following the Cid’s route. Pound loved The Poem of the Cid, which he considered superior to the Song of Roland. He had visited Spain in order to retrace the Way of “The Champion”[2]. In this way he had arrived at that small village high up in the heights, which remains as it was during the Middle Ages.

Once again I found myself in a hotel room, now in Madrid. It was evening and I wanted to continue a conversation—cut short one evening in Venice—with my friend’s ghost, now loose forevermore. The ghost came and sat on a chair, I don’t know where, certainly not in that hotel room, and began talking—talking, like he once did so long ago. He was young again and recited cosmic poems; said immortal, beautiful, immense things, like the city of Venice, like the Castilian landscape, like the mountains on the moon. I listened and forgot. Because all such things are forgotten and must never be remembered.

A Monument in Medinaceli

Days later I returned to Medinaceli. I found that a man from Chile lived there, professor Fernando del Toro Garland. We talked. He also talked to me about the article by Eugenio Montes and about Pound’s words regarding the Cid’s roosters. It had occurred to him to suggest to the Spanish authorities to erect a monument to Pound in Medinaceli, which recorded there the quote from Pound and the passing through those parts, at the beginning of the century, of the great American poet. I encouraged him in his determination. From that moment we were in contact, personally or by letter. Thus I followed the ups and downs of his efforts. The town’s Spanish authorities and several friends in Madrid collaborated with enthusiasm. Carvers and stonemasons transported with their mules an enormous stone, desquamated by the millennia, from the Celt-Iberian hills, through the raw winter’s snow. Mediaeval blacksmiths forged old and simple letters to be affixed upon the stone, bearing the quote from Pound, “Do the roosters still crow at dawn in Medinaceli?”[3]

The most beautiful square was chosen in that town high up in the heights (‘Medina’ means ‘city’ in Arabic; ‘celi’ means ‘sky’), and there, below an aged tree, the stone was embedded. It would also be a fountain, for water would run over its creased and cracked surface. That stone is like Pound’s face during his final years. The 15 May 1973—St Isidor’s day and the date of the town’s annual festival—was chosen for the monument’s inauguration. I took it upon myself to ensure that Olga Rudge, Ezra Pound’s companion, would be able to attend. Olga was seventy-eight and never went anywhere. But she went to Medinaceli.

That day young Spanish poets came from Madrid, along with Jaime Ferrán, Pound’s translator. Also present in Medinaceli were a few American painters who lived there. And also all the townsfolk in their Sunday best, with their well-cared suits; their berets; their shepherd’s crooks; their staffs of pilgrims of the heights; their noble aspects, made out of Castilian rock; their sons; their grandsons, already departing for the cities on the plains, cities without poetry. They were all there to pay homage to that poet from another land, from another world, which they never knew, which they never read—because many cannot read—, but which they know from within, with their rock souls, which resemble the face of the dead poet, of the ecumenical poet. Also there were the dogs and mules that accompanied and brought the stone; also there was the smith, the town’s priest, the Civil Guard[4], and the wine and the water and the bread, the grass and the birds of Medinaceli, of Old Castile. Also there were the roosters of Pound and of the Cid. Of those vanished warriors.

Celestial Signs

I found out the day before that I was to speak during the homage ceremony; Olga Rudge wanted me to say a few words for the occasion. What words? What to say that could resemble the silence of Pound and of the City of the Sky? At dawn I went for a walk on the streets of the dead town, among the ruins. I arrived at the little square with the monument and I sat beneath the tree, next to the stone. I carried with me a book, recently published in Barcelona by Editorial Barral: Introducción a Ezra Pound, with translations and commentary by Carmen R. de Velasco and Jaime Ferrán. I opened and read: ‘the stone under elm … the curled stone at the marge … the stone taking form in the air …’[5]

It was Canto XC. I stopped, astonished. But… Here’s the stone and this is precisely an elm!  Nobody thought about it before, nobody knew it. This was all done without human agency. But… was it truly done without agency? I remembered a quote by Nietzsche: ‘Things come to us eager to become symbols.’[6]And Rilke: ‘Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us, invisible?’[7]

Or else, dreams become visible outside of us… This is what Jung termed ‘synchronism’, ‘coincidences’, and ‘acausal phenomena’, and Nietzsche, ‘chance laden with meaning’[8]. It was all ‘meaning’, all ‘magic’, all miracle—truly, all and nothing. Who orchestrated this? Who has ordained it? Perhaps Pound himself? Or that Being who composes the landscape, according to the highest sense of beauty; who makes a tree grow on the Castilian horizon, so that it may be contemplated from high up in the heights, through a ruined stone arch? That Being, moved, ‘touched’ by the beauty, by the depth of meditation, by the dreams, by the verses of a son of the sky and of the Earth, desires in this manner to manifest Itself as he returns to Its bosom. (‘Nature imitates art.’) The Being may be the Earth itself, Mother Earth, the Spirit of the Earth. When Jung died, the heavens exploded with a storm that was unheard of at that time of the year, and a lightning bolt struck the tree under which he used to sit, marking it forever. When Ezra Pound died, things—the stone, the tree, nature— recited one of his poems, organised themselves after one of his verses: ‘The stone under elm…’

And more still…

‘thick smoke, purple, rising / bright flame now on the altar / the crystal funnel of air / out of Erebus, the delivered, / Tyro, Alcmene, free now, ascending / e i cavalieri, / ascending, / no shades more, / lights among them, enkindled / and the dark shade of courage / bowed still with the wrongs of Aegisthus. / Trees die & the dream remains.’[9]

On the afternoon of the homage ceremony, before the entire town, as I have said, and also before Pound’s heroic companion, was lifted the Spanish flag that draped the monument, the ‘face’, the ‘stone under elm’. And then, up on the elm, sung a blackbird. And the town commented on this event and will continue to comment on it for a long time, because the dwellers of those ancient ruined cities, of the towns of yesteryear, are like the Greeks of legend, like the Celts, and the Druids; and discover in a birdsong, on a day of auspices, an event worthy of interpretation, which in this manner fills their lives until their deaths.

What else can a great poet wish for, other than to have things recite his poems? What else can he wish for, save for a blackbird to sign his homage? What other proof may be given that a man is great, that a poet is so, except for the sky, for nature, to confirm it by manifesting itself in this way?

A blackbird still sings in Medinaceli. And it sings for Ezra Pound.

Notes:

1. In fact, Ezra Pound died the day before, on 1 November 1972.

2. In Spain, the Cid (real name: Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar) is also referred to as ‘El Cid Campeador’. ‘Campeador’ is the Old Spanish version of the Latin campi doctor, or campi doctus, which translates as ‘master of the military arts’, or ‘champion’. The Way of the Cid (‘El Camino del Cid’), to which Serrano refers, is a cultural tourist itinerary based on the feats of the historical Cid and his literary version in The Poem of the Cid, a XIIth century epic poem and the oldest in Spanish literature.

3. The quote from Pound, which is on a plaque affixed to the stone, actually reads ‘Aun cantan los gallos al amanecer en Medinaceli’, without question marks, which therefore translates as a statement, ‘The roosters still crow at dawn in Medinaceli,’ and makes no reference to the Cid.

4. In Spanish, ‘la Guardia Civil’, the Spanish gendarmerie, a military body charged with police duties among civilian populations.

5. Pound’s Canto XC contains additional verses in between the ones quoted, but here, as further down, Serrano quotes only the verses that interest him in the present context.

6. This is my translation of what Serrano attributes to Nietzsche.

7. Serrano’s quote in Spanish translates as ‘What else do you want, world, but to become invisible within us?’

8. This is also my translation, which seems to echo Pound’s statement, ‘Great literature is language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.’

9. The Spanish text Serrano is quoting from reads very differently, and makes more sense in the present context: ‘The tree has penetrated my hands / the sap through my arms has ascended / You are tree / You are moss / you are a violet that is by the wind caressed… / The trees die and the dream remains.’

 

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