Monday, January 26, 2004

Two radically different books that are, at some level, both involved in the process of coming to terms with a major poet are Michael Rothenberg’s Unhurried Vision, his journal for the year 1999, when he was working with Philip Whalen, and Ezra Pound’s The Saló Cantos, edited by Kimberly Filbee, a poet & critic whom I believe does not exist.


Saló, 20 or so miles from Brescia on the shore of Lake Garda, east of Milan, is the city to which Mussolini fled after the Americans landed in the south in 1943 & took Rome. By now, Mussolini was little more than a puppet for an occupying German force, one that began to round up the Jews (something Mussolini himself had never done). With the end of the fascist project obviously in sight, Pound visits Saló & then composes two short elegies for the lost cause. Canto 72 is presented as an elegy for, & largely addressed to, the Futurist poet F.T. Marinetti, who in death had become a fascist literary icon. Canto 73, written in the persona of Cavalcanti, tells the story of a rape victim who deliberately leads a group of Canadian soldiers into a minefield, where she & they are blown to smithereens. The celebration of a suicide bomber!


Filbee, whom I take to be the project of one or more post-avant poets, wants to confront the problem of Pound, the idea that the “father” of American modernism was himself as close to pure evil as one might imagine. Yet he is also The Father. The book’s production is almost an apotheosis of these competing visions. The volume itself is tiny – just six centimeters wide, 7.5 high (roughly two by three inches). The main body of type is just two points high – one-fifth the size of the type here. Quotations & footnotes are even smaller – one-point type. With the type photo-offset, it’s hard going unless you have your magnifying glass from the compact edition of OED handy. Yet the book is also meticulous – it has both front & back jacket pockets, one containing the opening of Canto 72 in the original, the other containing all of Canto 73 (short enough to have been printed on a single page in two columns). Each flap also has a photo of Pound giving the fascist salute in 1958 upon his return to Italy after incarceration in the U.S. The translation of Canto 72 is by Pound himself, Canto 73 by “Shinaz Giusti,” another nomme de intellectual property appropriation (& which may or may not be the same Shinaz Giusti of Lubbock, TX, who co-authored Rodnoni Sadiani in 1996).


This is a painful little project & Pound’s own writing doesn’t improve it – these are easily the most turgid sections of The Cantos, which is saying something when you consider all the Van Buren ones. In fact, reading them, I am even more amazed at the transformation that makes the Pisan Cantos possible. Surrender, in the most literal sense, has serious psychic value. But Pound in the cage was a different creature than the survivor who returned to Italy a decade later. Filbee’s point, tho, is worth keeping in mind – these particular Cantos, which have been translated & published previously on at least two occasions, really are political agitprop before they are anything else.


If The Saló Cantos have the feel of an exorcism, however incomplete, Michael Rothenberg's Unhurried Vision comes across as an act of devotion. Composed in 1999, the year when Whalen's health truly began to fail, it chronicles Rothenberg's work assisting the old beat poet as he edits Overtime, Whalen's selected poems & package his archives for sale to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.


But Rothenberg's journal does much more than that & does so almost without seeming to try. Rothenberg, like more than a couple of other poets who've found themselves in Whalen's orbit over the years, adopts & adapts Whalen's own notational literary style. Although Whalen himself appears not to have written  in many years (the latest journal Rothenberg finds is dated from1987), it's as if he's found a method of channeling his poetry through others. And, indeed, these are very pleasurable poems very much in the same way that Phil Whalen's poems are pleasurable: attentive to detail, just a little cryptic in places, seldom piling multiple meanings onto a single word or phrase, showing a wry wit, quite generous & yet full of irony.


Part of the pleasure, no doubt, is voyeuristic, getting to glimpse the old master with his guard down, imagining his lone kin


a sister in San Diego

smoking cigarettes in front of TV

as frail as he is


or seeing just who shows up for his birthday party, or the cranky comments of a man irritated by modern medicine. Parts too are sad, not so much the frailty of an elder, but seeing Whalen misunderstood literally (referred to as a language poet, by the New York Times no less) as if his poetry doesn’t stand just fine on its own two feet.


Unlike the effaced critic Kimberly Filbee, Rothenberg doesn't try to erase himself in this project, but it's hard to know exactly where Whalen ends & he begins (& vice versa). The project itself suggests that this need not really matter.