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The Quality of the Affection: Part Two

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Yesterday granta.com published Part One of the story of Ezra Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge, by Lloyd Lynford. Below is the second and final installment.

All the mourners had left Hidden Nest and Olga had picked up as best she could. She was alone, afraid of going to sleep. For company, she turned on the reel-to-reel and listened to some of the recordings of the Cantos she had coaxed Ezra into making in his last months. It had been a diversion to keep him occupied, to remind him of who he still was. But Olga was shaken by Ezra’s disembodied voice filling the front room – as he read, she began filing away the last lists and daily schedules. All his meals, his medicines, the dosages, how much he’d slept, she’d written it all down on sheets of lined paper. Olga didn’t notice the hours passing, or that she’d been dozing, her head in her folded arms on the small table, but she awoke startled and Ezra was calling to her:

Olga stood. She walked to the window and looked at the November moonlight on the Mendicanti canal. Ezra was calling, and his voice was like smoke. That’s how they’d lived these last years, like mendicants. She hadn’t been extravagant, but the funeral had been costly, and she hated the thought of asking Dorothy to cover the expense of renting the gondola and hiring the special gondoliers. Ezra was calling. Just last spring she’d taken out the manuscripts of the last fragments – though he hadn’t written poetry for over a decade – and propped them open in front of him and set up the tape recorder. He’d been in such despair, fumbling about, dropping the microphone into his lap – it’s all a muddle, he’d said, and she was impatient with him, bossy really, and she pointed to the page and told him to take a deep breath, to start again:

Olga turned off the tape recorder. She turned off the reading lamp next to Ezra’s chair, and went upstairs to bed. As she put on her nightgown she thought about their last night together – the two of them walking How extraordinary it seems now, sharing a roof, a table, a man, and for an entire year. the calle Querini to the mooring, and Caro holding her arm and then letting go of her and stepping so beautifully, unassisted, into the gondola. Olga scanned the bookshelves in their bedroom but she could not find what she was looking for. She picked up a foot stool and carried it over to the shelves and stepped onto it. On her tiptoes, almost falling over, she managed to find Thrones, the last volume of the Cantos. She held it in her hands before she opened the front cover and read the inscription, For Olga, Canto CXX / if there is a clear line of Mozart or any fragment of beauty left in my ruins she found it & held it . . .

That first night sleeping without Ezra next to her, Olga was assaulted in her dreams. She was under a moonlit quilt and a man appeared to be sitting on the edge of her bed. He was reading from a file, oblivious to the startled Olga. He lifted the quilt and Olga could barely breathe, gasping at the violation. Then he tugged the sheet from the mattress and snapped it high and it billowed in the moonlight and when it fell away he was gone and Olga saw the tape recorder on the pillow beside her. There was a voice coming from it, and it was Mama’s voice and she was asking if Olga still had the ten-volume Shakespeare that she had given her for her twelfth birthday. The set I bought for two pounds, six shillings but was so beautiful you asked if I’d stolen them. Julia was sitting at the far edge of an endless canal and her voice was flying over the ribbon of water, like the long leap of a porpoise, but when the voice reached Olga’s ears it was a voice over a radio.

– Europe calling! Pound Speaking! Ezra Pound speaking!
– Ezra Pound speakin’ from Europe for the American heritage!
– Nothing can save you. And it is for this filth that you fight. What does a Baruch or a Solomon care for Canterbury? Nothing. It is not his Canterbury, it is NOT his cathedral. The destroyed monuments are not monuments to the glory of Judah. They show NOTHING that the Jew can be proud of. They were built in the open defiance of the Jew slime, and of the Talmud.

The tape recorder continues to play and Olga realizes that a woman is speaking, and she immediately thinks Mama’s accusing her of throwing her life away. Was your hair down? How were you dressed? But that’s not Mama’s voice, it’s not the voice of the dead, and Olga realizes it’s Dorothy’s voice, Dorothy demanding answers. You have no right, Olga hears herself saying, and she puts her hands over her eyes to block out the sight of her rival but she feels only the pulse of her own weeping. But Dorothy does, she has a widow’s rights, Olga realizes, which is more than I have, perhaps she’s returned from England to claim them, perhaps she’s brought her son. They’ll be standing on the turned earth around Ezra’s grave, the grave I chose, paying their respects, occupying their places – rightful or not – as wife and son. Please, God, will they at least realize that the patch of myrtle to Ezra’s left has been reserved for me?

She ignored being called an octopus, a vampire, being told she had a set of values he didn’t give a damn for. But when he discovered a peasant’s cottage in Sant’Ambrogio, Casa Sessanta, on the hill above the seaside flat where he and Dorothy lived, Olga felt as if she’d returned from exile. The perfect Olga knows there was an artery of hatred in Ezra and she knows she encouraged him pied-á-terre, he said, and Olga paid seventy-five lire a month for that cottage with its orange-colored wash, its stone steps obscured by creepers and honeysuckle, and only a half-hour walk down the footpath to be with Ezra. He spent mornings writing in the flat he lived in with Dorothy and then played a little tennis, but Olga’s afternoons with Caro – she would watch for him climbing the salita, the long stairway to Sant’Ambrogio, to the ingle of Circe. That’s what he called it in the Cantos, her cottage, the ingle of Circe, and it was until the bombing began.

How extraordinary it seems now, sharing a roof, a table, a man, and for an entire year. But it was an extraordinary time, she knew that when the railway bridge at Rapallo was destroyed. And then in May, the Allied bombing of Genoa enflamed the sky over the Bay of Tigullio. Olga tried to black out her windows, put dried fruit in the cellar. But what was she to do when they ordered the evacuation of the seaside? Ezra and Dorothy were given twenty-four hours to move – they had nowhere to go. For Ezra’s sake – that’s how she always explained it – and to keep him close, Olga invited them to live with her. She went to their apartment on Via Marsala and helped them load up the cart and haul their belongings up the hill. None of it was real, in a few hours there would be bombs exploding nearby and so Olga concentrated on pillows and bedspreads, on making Dorothy’s room as cozy as possible. And then she spruced up Ezra’s room. At the end of that day, there they were, the three of them, sitting together in darkness. They listened for news on the BBC, but the darkness could not hide twenty years of festering between Olga and Dorothy. That night’s bombing runs began and the timbers in the floor of Casa Sessanta began to tremble, but the two women, one on either side of Ezra, each with a child by him, were invisible to the other except in the split-second glare of the phosphorous bombs. Finally, Olga excused herself and went to her room and began to play by heart the Mozart Concerto in A Major, as beautifully, as cruelly, as she ever had.

‘Ci segua, traditore!’

If she had only been there when they beat on the door with their rifle butts. If she had only been at his side when they took him away. But neither Dorothy nor Olga was at Casa Sessanta that morning. Common thieves, thugs, all they knew was there was a reward on Caro’s head. Whenever Olga screened that short and violent film in her mind – of the Italian partisans coming for Ezra, shoving him as they descended the salita, of him standing his ground for a moment at the crook in the stairway, then stooping to pick up a eucalyptus pip, a feeling of deprivation swept over her as if all five of her senses had been stripped away.

Olga ran down the other side of the hill to Zoagli, finding Ezra there under guard in the makeshift headquarters. They were taking him to Lavagna. Olga insisted on going with Ezra, and finally they said get in the truck, and when they arrived Olga could see that the courtyard walls were bloody, that they had been settling grudges. From Zoagli to Lavagna to Chiavari, and finally, as it was getting dark, to the Americans at Genoa. They were led into an empty hallway and told to sit Over and over again they signed, they nodded vigorously, they told her of course he never harmed a single Jew. down and wait. They could hear crying in rooms all down the corridor. Olga realized that no one was coming for them, at least not that night, and so they tried to sleep on the benches. No one came the next day either; they would have guessed the building had been abandoned except for the crying. Finally in the early evening a soldier came to take Ezra for questioning. When he returned several hours later Olga had laid out their K-rations into the semblance of dinner. They were moved into what appeared to be a business office, and Ezra slept on two chairs pushed together while Olga curled up on the desk. They were, she always said, among the four happiest days of her life, sharing his ‘cell’, sleeping on benches and chairs and desks, and the emergency rations, and how after those first two days young soldiers brought them tins to heat water, and they had hot bouillon and coffee, the first they’d had in years. And all that time, being held incommunicado with Caro.

Except Dorothy got him back. Olga didn’t like to think about those years, after the second war–alone in Venice and Sant’Ambrogio, and Ezra locked up in Washington DC at St Elizabeths. Where Dorothy got to visit him every day. She was the official one, the wife, the one with rights and privileges. She was the one who sailed to America to be near Ezra. He would wait each day in his locked room for Dorothy to arrive to take him out, as if he were a punished child, to sit on his permitted spot on the asylum lawn.

Once Olga burst into the local barbershop in Rapallo to ask the patrons to sign a petition. The barber was startled and the man in the chair pushed the razor from his throat, wiped away a line of blood and asked Olga what it was all about. But he was being polite; he already knew. Everyone in the barbershop, everyone in Rapallo knew because Olga burst in everywhere, at any time. She was stealthy in approach, and suddenly she had the butcher by the elbow or was pounding her fist on the sweetshop counter – Was he? Was he ever? No, of course he wasn’t, Ezra was never a member of the Fascist Party. And everyone signed her petitions. Over and over again they signed, they nodded vigorously, they told her of course he never harmed a single Jew. Did they know he had been held in a cage outside Pisa, in a death cell? And they said this was the first they heard of it – how shocking – Il Poeta treated like a wild beast. Yes, open to the rain, a concrete floor, steel mesh, flood lights trained on him through the night – the poor man couldn’t sleep.

Olga didn’t complain about the latest indignity – the army had finally allowed Ezra to write letters – but only to Dorothy. But never, not once did she admit to anyone that it was to Dorothy that Ezra sent drafts of new Cantos, and that Dorothy forwarded them to Olga for typing. So Olga sat at the desk, which was really a door across two sawhorses that Ezra had rigged up before the war, and as she typed she searched for allusions to their lives together, perhaps to August of ’23, that month in Provence where Olga photographed Ezra under the gargoyles in Ventadour and he taught her about troubadours. He was so much the teacher then, sometimes tender, sometimes stern. But when he spoke about troubadours, which he did every supper that August, he was sublime, coiled but gentle, and she remembered one night he drew a map on the tablecloth to show her exactly how their songs spread from western Aquitaine. Despite the fact that she’d already read over and over every word of these new poems, she began to type and she thought surely he’ll allude to that time he called me the dawn before the dawn, an Oriental princess under Occidental stars. But there was nothing, not a word about their love, so Olga stood, opened her violin case and felt under the plush velvet for the hidden key and then she unlocked a small chest, and took out again the school-exercise notebooks from the twenties in which she had recorded their days together. There they were, so many of her entries punctuated by XXX, and she smiled at her simple code for intercourse.

And then there was the morning she read that verse in Canto 76:

No matter where she is, whenever Olga thinks of those lines she goes to the window and it is that morning, and she can make out the white breast nestled in the vines, clinging to the honeysuckle, and the martin panting after its long and dangerous flight from Pisa. It always completes its mission, is always obedient to Caro’s orders that it speak a single word to his Oriental princess: amo. The image of the martin in the vines provokes a memory of another word that Ezra had used in one of the last Cantos – splendor. Like a rush light to lead back to splendor. Olga felt that splendor in Sant’Ambrogio in ’45 and she feels it, if for only a moment, revive in her as the gondola closes the last hundred metres to San Michele. She can make out women disembarking from the public vaporetto and carrying pots of huge pink chrysanthemums, an army of blossoms parading in front of the Emiliani chapel and dispersing silently down the cemetery lanes. A year ago they’d come to pay their respects to Stravinski – he was the hero – and now she’s returned with Caro, her pariah.

They always ask was he a fascist, was he an anti-Semite. People always say they want to be fair, to hear both sides. She always tells them the same things, but they don’t listen. He wasn’t paid by Mussolini to make the broadcasts. He was only speaking his own mind. He never encouraged the troops to lay down their weapons. But none of that matters any more. He did what he did, said what he said. Except maybe age has worn down her resistance, and she looks back at Ezra but there is only a casket full of silence, and Olga knows there was an They were, she always said, among the four happiest days of her life, sharing his ‘cell’, sleeping on benches and chairs and desks, and the emergency rations artery of hatred in Ezra and she knows she encouraged him – And Dorothy too, of course! – certainly Dorothy had her resentments. Genteel English calm, always an air of Henley, and perfect diction, but underneath she blamed the Jews – Jews, she insisted, sold the fire bombs to Roosevelt, and once, at Sant’Ambrogio, after a particularly brilliant eruption over the bay, Dorothy said that’s the magnesium, and they get that from Jews, and even Ezra looked astonished. In fact whenever the conversation got round to Jews, which it often did, there would be a gleam in Dorothy’s eye. Olga laces her fingers and holds her twined hands in front of her until she realizes that her gloves are damp from the morning mist on the lagoon. Will Ezra rise up this evening to find the island quiet? But if that’s all it was, Caro, if it was only bigotry and hatred and bile . . .

Caro, you should have stood trial, you should have cleared your name. What could have happened? Prison? Prison would have been infinitely better than twelve years among those husks. All of them staring and rocking in front of the television. That was also Dorothy’s fault. Dorothy wouldn’t sign his release papers to get him out of St Elizabeths because she feared he would return to Olga. And when he was released it was into Dorothy’s custody, she was the Committee for Ezra Pound, appointed by the judge. And he came back to Italy with her, and with that young secretary, Marcella, the one who was with him every afternoon on the asylum lawn, the one he wrote that revolting line about, Marcella of the long flank, the firm breast. Olga had forced herself to be patient. And she had been, she had been patience itself when Ezra took Dorothy back to Olga’s own daughter’s home in the Tyrols, to Mary’s castle at Brunnenberg. To Olga’s own grandchildren!

Old friends of theirs would write to say they ran into Ezra, or to ask if Olga had seen the picture in the papers of him marching with the Fascists? Mary told her that Ezra was wandering, from Brunnenberg to Rome to Merano and back to Brunnenberg, sometimes with Dorothy, sometimes without. He was restless and erratic, often refusing to eat, preoccupied with infection and contamination and blocked bowels, berating himself when not utterly silent. He started clawing the backs of his beautiful hands. In the early spring, Mary and Dorothy felt a visit to Rapallo might do some good; the weather was milder there and he could receive more effective treatment for his prostate. So Ezra went south, they operated in June and he was in bed for most of July and August. Dorothy probably did her best, Olga had to admit that, and Mary did everything she could, what with the children and the castle to tend to, but the two of them couldn’t help ease his anguish or depression. And then, in the course of one August night, Ezra was swept up in frailty, and so, finally, it happened. Mary picked up the telephone and dialed. It took forty years for the call to go through but finally the phone rang. The call had gone out. And the call was to Olga.

Olga has an idea of who or what she is, and who or what Ezra was, and she is struggling to keep those ideas intact as the gondoliers shoulder his coffin, set it on ropes and carefully lower it into what seems an endless well. She steps forward – surely there is a floor to the grave she chose, surely it doesn’t open onto the sea. In Paradisum Deducant te Angeli, and paradise for Ezra is not inappropriate because that’s what he was forced to abandon, what she could never coax from him, the third and final realm. He’d written his Inferno, his Purgatorio – she’d suffered through those – but in the end she could only watch him stare at the empty sheet of paper, and she knew he was reeling, that the walls of his Paradiso were becoming distant and blank.

Silence entered him, or at least that’s what people thought, because he rarely spoke in public, but he spoke to her: evenings at Hidden Nest they would read to each other, and listen to music on the gramophone, and it was even Ezra’s idea to dance. That was Paradise enough. And Olga invented tricks to cajole the occasional word from Ezra when friends stopped by. ‘Ezra, what was your friend Mr Joyce wont to break into?’ A long pause, slowly a smile would emerge from the crags: ‘My friend Mr Joyce was wont to break into song.’ At a restaurant she knew the silence was agony for everyone at the table, waiting for Ezra to order his lunch. But Olga wouldn’t plead, she knew better – patience, patience – and finally, when the waiter turned away and he could no longer ignore the prospect of no lunch, she would hear a single soft ‘Gnocchi.’

Olga looks among the mourners to confirm that Dorothy is absent, that today, Dorothy, if she is there at all, is the ghost lurking on the outskirts of Ezra’s story. But even today, even after today, it’s Dorothy who controls him, controls his money, controls the poetry. But that spring, that spring Ezra came to Rapallo, what happened then? He came to her, oh yes! He came to her!

Still, Olga has the capacity to pity – certainly more than Ezra pitied her – and she thinks of Dorothy with a tenderness that surprises her. She thinks about how Dorothy spent most of the last ten years at the bottom of the hill. She lived at the Grande Italia on the Rapallo seaside and Olga saw her from a distance sometimes, usually standing in front of the hotel. Sometimes Dorothy would walk a few paces in either direction, returning to stand in the doorway.

Mutual friends would come to visit, first Dorothy in Rapallo, then Ezra and Olga in Sant’Ambrogio. Out of Ezra’s hearing they would tell her how Dorothy passed her days in her room, looking out the window, reading, always reading, all of Shakespeare, except when she was writing out a list of every person in the Cantos. Olga feels remorse about that night at the movie theatre when she and Ezra sat in the same row as Dorothy. Why did she sit by as Ezra ignored his wife of sixty years? One afternoon she walks down to Rapallo and there are schoolgirls on the salita passing in the other direction and for a brief moment Olga finds herself thronged with children. Olga imagines walking towards the seaside, through the hotel lobby and into Dorothy’s room. She sits down next to her. They are quiet, two grey heads, one beside the other. Their knees touch. They are looking out into the dusk over the Bay of Tigullio, two pairs of eyes, greedy in recollection. ■

You can read Part One of ‘The Quality of the Affection’ by Lloyd Lynford here.

Quotations from The Cantos by Ezra Pound reproduced by permission of Pollinger Limited and New Directions.

The author gratefully acknowledges Anne Conover’s Olga Rudge and Ezra Pound for providing selected biographical details and quotations from the Olga Rudge Papers.

Comments (11)

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