Grace Davis

"Our Heart's Gordian Knot"

  The Writing of Mary de Rachewiltz

    One of the greatest legacies of Ezra Pound is often overlooked in praise of The Cantos and all of the help Pound gave to other writers. His daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, giving most of her life to the tireless effort to bring Pound the recognition he deserves, is also a fine poet in her own right. Early in her life, Mary took on the persona of Pound's advocate and torch bearer. The elegant pithiness of her language in her memoir, Ezra Pound, Father and Teacher: Discretions, and in her poems often depicts her in that role. As she has used her own work to further the work of Pound-work that she calls "a blessing"-her poetry, her prose, her life have become so inextricably intertwined with The Cantos and with Pound's place as one of the most important American poets that her efforts and those of her father form a Gordian knot, impossible to untie.

I first met Mary when she came to Athens, Georgia, to read from her book of poetry, Whose World? I was immediately intrigued by her reading, her English honed with a German accent that combines the Tyrol with Italy. The images in her work appealed to me, and I assured her, when she asked me about whether young women might be able to relate to her poems, that they would, evidenced later that week in my poetry class when I saw college girls - who had been bored to death with my teaching of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and tedious figures of speech - sit up straight in their chairs with eyes lit up and questions on their lips about Mary's poem, "To My Night Bird." To them, this poem was about New York and fashion, success and the glittering nightlife:

To My Night Bird

After a certain age
women know how to court
They have the words
in their pockets and spend
readily, having bought them
at a reasonable price, no need
to pay exorbitant interest.
But one stopped looking
at the windows with a "Vacant"
sign around N.Y. Grand Central
-there never were any
on Bank Street-courting
a shadowy figure
in a long shimmering
gown of mauve taffeta
while thinking of building
a nest for her night bird. (WW 11)

The student of Pound may think of the night birds in The Pisan Cantos and Cathay or Olga Rudge's fancy dresses and her care of Pound in "the Hidden Nest." However,I did not think of any of those things when I first read Mary's poem. The power of her words and images held me, inspired me, and made me want to know more about the woman who learned to "use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something" at her father's knee (LE 4). When I expressed my appreciation for her work and said I would like to work with her, she said, "You must come to the Tyrol."

I knew about Brunnenburg and its beautiful setting at the foot of the Alps. Going there seemed like a dream out of my reach, but I also knew that Mary's invitation was sincere. It took me some time to get up the courage, but I finally wrote to ask if I might come to write poetry and work with her at the Castle at the Fountain. Her answer was warm and inviting, and I packed my bags for the Alto Adige. Before I left for Italy, I reread Discretions, the second reading teaching me more about Mary and Pound, especially that I must accompany the reading of Mary's work with The Cantos. Armed with my little velvet journal, the pages empty and ready for my new creations, I set out for an adventure in the middle of my life, my mind filled with the prose and poetry of Mary de Rachewiltz and Pound's "poem containing history."

As spectacular as it was to be visiting a castle and a principessa, my mind kept going back to Discretions. I wanted to understand Mary's relationship with her father, and I wanted to know her source of strength. All that she had experienced in the first half of her life-shepherding the sheep and keeping bees in Gais, her visits with Pound and Olga in Venice where she seems fearful at times, her schooling at La Quiete, Pound's teaching of her and his insistence that she be Bauernfähig (country capable) while at the same time well read in the classics, her work at a hospital during the war, her marriage to Boris de Rachewiltz, the rearing of her own children and one adopted child-these experiences surely make up an exciting life. But when one superimposes on part of this life the experiences of World War II, the uncertainty of what had happened to her father, his incarceration near Pisa, the news of his having a wife and child in England, and his being sent to Washington for further incarceration at St. Elizabeths, one sees a fascinating person indeed. Her passion for making the world see the importance of Pound and his poetry is alive and burning brightly, even now, at the beginning of her eighties. Alive also is the undercurrent of creativity, Mary the poet, whom I saw on her balcony in the early mornings sometimes, writing away.

Discretions gives us a different "tale of the tribe," the beginning of Mary's tribe, but at the same time, the memoir of her life and the times she had with Pound is full of descriptions and stories that clarify Pound's work and some of his actions. The student of Pound understands immediately Mary's title and recognizes the allusions to her father at the beginning of this book:

"If that's how you see it or saw it, O.K., that's
that, was Homer's comment to his son's Revue
des Deux Mondes.

        For years, I have resisted a voice: "Write it
down, write it down!"-Knowing that I shall
probably get no comment from the author of
Indiscretions takes the edge off my story,
blunts the keenness to tell. (D 3)

Even if the reader does not understand the allusion to Pound's own memoir, does not know that Homer is Pound's father, and does not know that it was Olga Rudge who told Mary to 'Write it down!' her book still holds the imagination and the heart because it tells a good story, and there are descriptions that readers can connect to their own experiences, such as Homer's visit to Mary in Gais:

Grandfather's visit conferred a sense of stability.
The Herr and the Frau [Pound and Olga] were
difficult to figure out, but a Grossvater you do
not conjure up out of nowhere. It means there is
a background. His first visit left a landmark. (D 20)

In only four sentences, she has conveyed volumes of feeling to which anyone who understands the need for a sense of roots and connection can relate, and there is no superfluity, no words that do not reveal.

To those who say that Mary had a chance to tell something that no one else could have about Pound, that she left things out and should have told more, I say that all of Mary and Pound is in Discretions, just as all of Pound is in The Cantos. Read her story with an ear attuned to the poet. The poet does not tell; the reader understands through the purity of the words. At the beginning, Mary writes, "Several realities are playing in counterpoint. Some minds take pleasure in counterpoint" (D 4). As she alludes to The Cantos, her words reflect both Ezra and Olga's-and now her own-love of music, and she explains, with as lovely a melody as she can, that it is Mnemosyne that is her muse here, not "the keenness to tell." She has written in Paideuma, "There is so much to say when love dictates and blood blinds," showing that love and family are all in all to her (8). In the New Directions edition of her memoir, she places after the title page a post script to her readers, trying still to spell it out for those whom Kenner describes as having "a prurience she scrupulously didn't pander to" (935). She writes, "This book is drawn from memory, for memory, and I shall make no changes." In 1988, when Mary writes about Pound and Joyce for the Journal of Modern Literature, she calls herself the "femme conservatrice des traditions" who has "avail[ed herself] of [her] gut feeling and memory," her point in this article being that the body language and mimicry Pound engaged in have been held in her memory, and that her memory is more important than precise recall (8).

She writes with that same conviction in Discretions and in her poems. The rereading and rumination we have to do notwithstanding, the feelings in the mind of Mary, the poet, are what we truly want to read. After all, the poets are the true rapporteurs, talebearers, in the world. Mary is a rapporteuse, a guardian of the language in the persona of la "femme conservatrice des traditions," using language to revive images and stories in our own memories: "Willing man look into that forméd trace in his mind" (Canto XXXVI). Mary's poem, "Let words not be dead," responds best to the reader who may yet think he wants more from Discretions:

Let words not be dead
insects pinned on a white page
but as unruly
birds, pecking at our entrails
so life's blood may spurt
and release unspeakably
full, informed, sounds.
We never say all we know,
truth lacking in words
not because we want to take
secrets to the grave,
but for failing to follow
each cause and effect
into our heart's Gordian knot.
A garden aglow
yet nobody is here to share
my ripe tomatoes. (WR 35)

Her words in Discretions are the deliverers of that "life's blood" which careful readers can see spurting in the book, and certainly we see such words in her poems. What seems like Mary's "fail[ure] to follow / each cause and effect" in the story of EP right into her heart is actually her own attempt to take Alexander's sword to the knot by writing about her father in the first place. Both Mary's prose and poetry are those "unruly / birds," and if we listen to the "full, informed, sounds" that her words from memory give us in Discretions, we will learn about both Mary and Pound. The book is full of the facts that no one else could have known, except Mary, her foster parents, Olga, and Pound, whom she calls, at the different stages in her life, "der Herr," "Tattile," "Babbo," and finally "Father."

Mary begins her memoir with a myth, reminiscent again of The Cantos, but hers is a much more personal myth than that of Odysseus: a tale of the Pustertal, a traditional story of Gais, "a root and a beginning after the deluge" (D 4). The story goes that an old woman named Agatha and her beloved goat were survivors of a great flood; the goat gave birth to a little boy and girl. Agatha dressed them in her petticoats, the children leaving the old woman as they were told, and the "Agathastoan" (shaped like the crouching old woman) is there to this day as a reminder to the people of Gais of their origins (D 4-7). Even though Mary's origins are technically American, she feels that she sprang from this place, endowed with tradition and closeness to the land. She does not want to get very far from that girl from Gais who worked and kept bees on the farm, as she says in her poem, "The Bee-Girl":

Don't ever shed that girl along the road
her brave pulse stitches your life together
whatever shape the cloth assumes

her unspotted cord seams neat and straight
and weaver's cunning and tailor's whim
shall not prevail on the lining of your coat

she'll pick the hues and hum of your future
out and in, till pollen laden legs
stand still, leaving sweet toil in wax encased

and you come to rest
with the bee-girl's wing. (WR 45)

Mary was born a bit further down the mountain from Gais, in the valley actually, in Bressanone/Brixen, the dual naming of towns indicating that the Tyrol became part of Italy after World War I. Pound and Olga saw that their daughter was brought to Gais as an infant, to be reared there with the other children to whom Johanna and Jakob Marcher ("Mamme" and "Tatte") gave a home. The Marchers worked hard and cared deeply for each of the children in their charge. Mary writes of "Mamme":

Metis, metis, not polu-
but a single-minded know-how:
the grip on the handle
the right twist and elbow grease.
How she swung her hips
into her labours
driving the scythe through
sharp grass, or danced
when turning hay to the sun.
Now a stuttering bald head
would come to tell me
it was merely sex.
Swaddling other people's children,
milking cows and her breast?
Eyes lost on the crucifix
on her deathbed she kissed
her own hands and knees. (WW 17)

One cannot miss the respect she held for Mamme, who threw herself "into her labours" and gave her life to "swaddling other people's children." What she learned from both Mamme and Pound has turned into Mary's own fine work ethic and country capability. Though she left Gais, Mary made sure that Mamme was in Martinsbrunn, the hospital near Brunnenburg, when she became ill, and she was with Mamme when she died.

Of the children with whom she grew up, she mentions Margherita the most, her dear "Margit . . . the oldest of us all," (D 9-10) whose beautiful voice Pound heard on his visits to Gais and whom he immortalized in Canto LXXVII: "And Margherita's voice was clear as the notes of a clavichord / tending her rabbit hutch." Memory is also one of Pound's most important muses, especially at Pisa, where he thought constantly about those people and experiences dearest to him, all that he truly loved, that would never "be reft from" him (Canto LXXXI).

Beginning at the age of four, Mary went to Venice for short visits with Pound and Olga. Olga's house in Venice was a completely different world from the one to which she had become accustomed in Gais, for various distinguished writers, musicians, and visual artists were the usual visitors at what she calls "this house of elegance, tense symbols, charged with learning, wisdom and harmony" (D 22). More "realities playing in counterpoint." Olga must certainly have been intimidating, not only because she insisted that Mary wear short fancy dresses and work on her Italian and English, but because Pound had told Mary: "The real artist in the family is your mother" (D 120).

Mary describes the difference between Mamme and Mamile (Olga) as an "abyss" (D 23). To say the least, Olga's personality type was vastly different from Johanna Marcher's, Mamme having impressed upon Mary "the sinfulness of immodesty" (D 23); therefore, wearing the short skirts was strange and uncomfortable to her. The other children in Gais teased her when she returned for putting on airs. The water in Gais is pure and delicious, and one only wore gloves when it was very cold, so having to wear gloves and drink "foul water" were parts of Mary's Venetian education that caused her tantrum on her first visit there. Pound comforted Mamme Marcher when she cried "at the tortures [Mary] had to endure" (D 23). He seemed always to try to make the transitions easy for all involved.

In those important young years of Mary's life before Olga sent her to school in Florence to study with the nuns at La Quiete, Pound seems to have been educating her as much as he could from his own storehouse of knowledge, taking her on various jaunts, about which Mary says:

I fancied that all the passersby applauded and bowed to
the hero. The hero was unaware, rapt in his own visions or
problems, and would, as often as not, continue the search
after some particular book or information in a long, narrow
secondhand bookshop at the end of the Calle Larga. (D 99)

And "rapt in his own visions or problems" is as important here as is the evidence that Mary adored her father, just as any loving daughter would, thinking of him as "the hero" being met with applause. The great poet was indeed "rapt" in a vision, as The Cantos show. Mary later said to me, "The responsibility of the poet haunted him." For those who say that his vision was Fascism and therefore to be angrily dismissed, Archibald MacLeish's words wipe away that narrow view:

But it is possible, as Dante proves, for the most dogmatic
opinions-opinions hateful to multitudes of human beings-
to live in a poem beside the most profound and enduring
insights, where the poet's overriding loyalty is to the poet's
perception of the world. With Pound, . . . the loyalty is not
to dogmas of fascism but to the poet's vision of a tragic
disorder which lies far deeper in our lives and in our time. (47-48)

After Mary's final break from the Pustertal, she returned to Gais for visits but not for good. She spent time in Venice, and later Rapallo, with her father and Olga. She was there many times when friends brought young poets to meet Pound, and she writes,

Babbo would immediately challenge the newcomer
by pulling out a ten-lira note and telling him to look
at it carefully, to read the fine print. What did it mean,
what did it say, what did he know about the nature of
money? Nothing. Unless he understood the nature of
money he could not understand or write good poetry.
Then followed a list of assignments. The young men
seldom came a second time. (D 100)

That the importance of understanding money and its prevalence often crops up in Pound's words is interesting, and, some may think, a bit ironic; however, one must remember that it is "USURA"that Pound knew is ruinous to good life (Canto XLV).

Money and the waste of it are concerns of Mary's as well. She hates any kind of ostentation. Though she says she is not a good cook, she will whip up a delicious meal for a visitor before she will even consider the waste of going to a restaurant. Just after Christmas in 2001, I was fortunate to be at Mary's lunch table, the three of us (Mary, her daughter Patrizia, and I) enjoying homemade minestrone, bread, salad, olives, and cooked, chilled persimmons from the castle's garden for dessert. In talking about recent news, Mary mentioned the fire at St. John the Divine in New York, the largest cathedral in the United States-also the one, I remembered, with the American Poet's Corner which had excluded Pound in 1999. She made no mention of the snub of her father, but she likened the fire, which started in the cathedral's gift shop, to Jesus's clearing the temple of the money changers, as His Father's house was not meant to be a den of thieves. Her poem, "Money Slips Easy," reminds me of that conversation:

Money slips easy through customs
And the salt house melts into the sea
As the fabulist knew, loading
Two bags of salt on the donkey.
The flotsam and jetsam has flown
Towards the most serene basin
So the city need not be rebuilt
On the mud banks of New Jersey.
Manhattan's capital now stands
Under the sphere of arrowed Fortuna
From the Adriatic word has gone out
In a dinghy: Mare Nostrum is conquered.
Within the temple Tintoretto
Hangs in the gloom and a wench
Serves at last Supper: pourboir!
A coin drops into the slot-machine. (WR 37)

Greed, usury, giving money to the Church for one's own glory-all of these things are anathema to Pound and Mary . . . like asking for a tip when serving Jesus at the Last Supper. Thus the decay of both New York and Venice.

In Discretions we read that Mary considered Brunnenburg to be her father's house, and she was anxious to bring him back there in 1958, when he was finally released from St. Elizabeths. She writes, "He must have all the beauty and space and comfort to recompense him for the DTC, the hell-hole and St. Liz" (D 303). But that recompense did not come, nor was true "recompense" possible. Though Pound moved to Rapallo and later died in Venice, his place will always be at Brunnenburg, because that is where Mary is. She has carried on, and God has provided her a Paradise at the Castle at the Fountain where careful words are her shelter, and the "fires within" keep her ready, as we see in "Be of words a little bit":

Be of words a little bit
more careful, if language
in place of love and country
is all you have-
build an interior syntax mansion
with many rooms and windows
and a widow's walk on high
ramparts to watch
the steamers going outward
carrying sheep to slaughter
old furniture for sale.
Burn your bridges, cut off ties
and base communications
with wily men of commerce
then open your door to the sunshine
and bid snow and sleet be your guests
light fires within and be ready

            for the bridegroom's knock. (WR 18)

The correlation of Mary's prose in Discretions and other essays, her poems, and Pound's Cantos goes on to book length. At a young age, Mary had heard her father reading his Cantos:

Their sound, the way Babbo had often read them
in Venice, without my having understood a word,
was somehow imbedded in me, something very
harmonious and beautiful. (D 155)

They are always in her mind, on her lips even now, their sounds winding the knot ever larger, ever tighter.

As I sat reading her unpublished poems, before For the Wrong Reason was compiled, I saw a note she had scribbled in pencil in the margin of her poem, "The Body of Sound" (46). She had written there:

The reason I now dare "indulge" in writing my own
poems is that the only subject I have been studying
all my adult life has grown beyond my physical
strength-i.e. the more I learn about Pound the larger
he looms-he needs the whole world for himself-his
vision is too strong and clear and scorching for me to
touch any longer.

Perhaps she felt overwhelmed at that moment and began to write her own poems by the fire of Pound's vision. Quite a few of Mary's poems in Whose World? and For the Wrong Reason are about loss but not about the loss of that vision. It burns still in her, in spite of its "scorching" heat. "Ils nous regardent:" she writes at the end of an article about Joyce and Pound, "we still have responsibilities towards them and towards ourselves" (JML 15). She speaks here not only of the responsibilities of the daughters of Joyce and Pound, but she brings us into the knot as well.


D = Ezra Pound, Father and Teacher: Discretions
JML = Journal of Modern Literature
LE = Literary Essays
WW = Whose World?
WR = For the Wrong Reason

Works Cited

Kenner, Hugh. "Impassioned Reticence." National Review XIII: 33, (August 1971):


MacLeish, Archibald. Poetry and Opinion: The Pisan Cantos of Ezra Pound, A

        Dialogue on the Role of Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1950.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. 1970. New York: New Directions, 1998.

__________. "A Retrospect." Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New

        York: New Directions, 1968. 3-14.

Rachewiltz, Mary de. "Dove Sta Memoria." Paideuma 23 (Spring 1994): 7-9.

__________. Ezra Pound, Father and Teacher: Discretions. New York: New

        Directions, 1971.

__________. For the Wrong Reason. New York: Edgewise Press, 2002.

__________. Whose World? Laurinburg, N.C.: St. Andrew's College Press, 1998.

__________. "Family Lore and Letters." Journal of Modern Literature XV:1

        (Summer 1998): 7-15.