Lunch With Uncle Ez

The author describes himself as Count H. Bibesco, who teaches fencing at an academy for young women in the Wellesley, Massachusetts, area and is writing his memoirs, Fifty Lunches. He claims to have gained his title by way of parricide and he withholds other biographical data in order to avoid termination of his remittance from Rumania. A likely story!

Had it not been for my infernal luck at baccarat I should never have encountered Ezra Pound in Rapallo’s only Chinese laundry.

The casino at Rapallo, I daresay, has changed little since that summer evening in 1931 when I first approached it from the direction of the esplanade along a path bordered by unkempt dwarf palms. The same cabmen are doubtless clustered outside the same pillared entry, the same fulsome rococo fagade surely bears identical swags of wisteria. I had come there not to gamble but to view the celebrated mosaics of The Paphian Revels which, according to my guidebook, “struck dumb Goethe and Tisehbcin.”I inspected the mosaics. Croupiers were standing on them; nevertheless I formed an impression that seemed appropriately Goethean (or was it Tischbcinian?) just as one of the casino tlunkics, observing me on my hands and knees, acidulously inquired if I had dropped a counter.

He deserved rebuke. The language of censure, however, eludes a Rumanian-born graduate student on Wanderjahre from his studies with Oswald Spengler, so I stood up sheepishly and a harlequin pile of chips was shoveled in front of me. A few years earlier I might not have been such a welcome guest, but The Crash had hit the casinos hard, i was permitted to play, permitted to lose. It took, as I recall, twelve minutes to lose the bulk of my Wanderjahre fund. The management donated a glass of near-champagne. I forgot about Tischbein.

After the debacle I went onto the terrace and, doing my best to sustain an air of insouciance, smoked a Melachrino. The sunset gave an adequate performance, underplaying garish mother-of-pearl and vermilion passages. Absentmindedly I began to whistle “Falling In Love Again,” the homage melancholic professors tendered that year to Dietrich’s garters. Whenever he sent his regards to an orchestra leader, Spongier always requested it.

“Permit me to inquire, sir, you are a poet? The voice came from the shimmer of a laurel’s lengthening shadow, and out of the shadow stepped a Chinese gentleman of moderate height. He wore a white double-breasted dinner jacket, his hair was neatly parted in the middle, and he carried himself with chipper formality.

“What gives you that notion?” I said.

“Your style of play. There is nothing mechanical about it. The average baccarat player has a system, but you—I was quite impressed by your metrical freedom. As Dr. Ezra Pound has written. ‘Most arts attain their effect by using a fixed element and a variable.’ ”

“All the same, I lost.”

“That too is poetic,” he observed with a shrug.

His voice, low, melodic, and exquisitely cadenced. implied visitation by the Muse. Did he write? “My card,” he said. A cursive script was barely visible through the dusk.

PAOLO WONG

“Rapallo’s Only Chinese Laundry”

Avventuroso più d’altra terreno

“Petrarch to Laura,” he explained. “The reference may escape my customers, but I find it not unpleasant.” He was a direct descendant, he informed me, of a Celestial who had returned to Italy with Marco Polo, and, save for an ancestor who belonged to the White faction of the Guelphs, his family had pursued the arts of ablution in Italy ever since.

Seldom did he frequent the casino and he would not have gone tonight if he weren’t seeking relief from the tensions of versifying in terzet rima. I was delighted to find my original instincts about him verified. For nearly an hour we discussed Petrarch while the cicadas shrilled, the moon rose, and within the nearly deserted salle the croupiers emitted their mournful croak, Banco, Banco.

Presently he invited me home for dinner; he lived in one of the tile-roofed whitewashed houses overlooking the bay, his laundry occupying the basement. Emma, his wife, a distant cousin from Milan and erstwhile “picture book” bride, turned out to be a magnificent cook. Before I had mopped up the remaining clam sauce on my plate, Paolo proposed that I stay a while in Rapallo: I could help at the laundry and give fencing lessons to their son, Ugo. This suggestion I seized upon eagerly. It was a capital arrangement. Ugo resisted improvement; he was a genial, moonfaced lumpkin whom Paolo considered a potential Renaissance gallant, although neither taste, physique, nor temperament equipped the poor clodhopper for such a role. Perhaps he might have achieved a degree of competence in the hearty school of the saber, but he preferred lounging on street corners with other leather-jacketed layabouts.

Heedless of the prodigal, his father spent each day scribbling rhymes on brown paper packages of laundry as Emma and I devoted ourselves to our ironing boards. Around four o’clock we would close the shop, Emma would brew green tea, and Paolo in mandarin robe and straw slippers would read aloud. He was a passionate Dantista, a student of Leopardi and Browning, and his own verse declared a picturesque bent, minor stuff to be sure, but reflecting fastidious tastes.

I suppose one might call him a Chinese-ltalian equivalent of the Georgians. Originality never intruded, yet he captivated me with his urbanity and refinement, and I account myself fortunate to have heard such expressive interpretations of his sonnet cycle Carvèd Walnuts. Sometimes our little salon deliberated upon men of letters. Yeats, whom Paolo esteemed, was a client, and once a month would forward his pince-nez for steam-cleaning. Max Beerbohm, to Paolo’s regret, did not patronize our establishment, preferring a blanchisserie de fin in Paris. Ezra Pound, however, was Paolo’s dream customer.

On the face of it, they were psychic opposites; but it was not Pound the modernist who enchanted Paolo, it was Pound the august anti-modernist.

Dawn light, o’er sea and height, riseth bright.
Passeth vigil, dear shineth on the night.

Even now I associate those lines with lye-struck laundry air, the groan of the shirt mangle, the shelves of compact bundles covered by inky ideographs. Disparate aspects of Ezra had fused in Paolo’s mind; Pound was no longer the modernist or the anti-modernist—he was The Poet. One memorable day, in fact, their paths had almost intersected. Pound was standing on the other side of the street; their eyes met; and suddenly Ugo on a motorbike (his girlfriend sidesaddle) roared across the cobblestones, and when the dust settled, Pound was striding elsewhere. To Paolo it was a visionary experience. The sputter of the motorbike faded beside the sea, and The Poet, wrapped in his cloak, proceeded toward a nameless destination.

The Poundian myth pervaded the laundry. I felt a presentiment that he and Paolo might meet. A meeting could only result in anticlimax; nonetheless I felt a distinct thrill the morning I looked up from the mangle and discovered Pound, stooping slightly to avoid the basement ceiling, framed in our doorway.

“Where is the genius?” he cried. “Where is the bloody GENIUS?”

Paolo and I exchanged apprehensive glances. Emma kept ironing, as though wearing blinkers. It was, after all, Mussolini’s Italy.

Pound strode down the stairs and rapped briskly on the mangle wuth his ebony stick. Yeats’s pince-nez jumped slightly, then resettled at the edge of its shelf, ribbon dangling and a gleam of annoyance dispersing.

“Are you looking for Count Bibesco, sir?” asked Paolo.

Pound inspected me. The dripping shirt in my hands did not augur well, “Heavy memories of Horeb,” he said. What did he expect? The gypsy strain of my ancestors is a source of pride in our ancient and noble house. He turned away, brandishing a brown paper scrap covered with Chinese script,

“By gumbo, this is the finest poem ever made in the five-stroke Yen-wi ‘grass’ style,” he explained. “I found it on Yeats’s linen, delivered to my flat by mistake.”

Paolo displayed the bashfulness of true authorship. “Complimenti!” said Pound, and addressed him in Chinese.

“And a Happy New Year to you, signor,”Paolo replied.

“How’s my Peking accent?” Pound wanted to know. “Am I Mandarin enough in the ‘high-rising’ tone? What do you think of my aspiration?”

“Most original,” said Paolo, but Pound paid no attention. Shouting “litterchure!" in his hoarse voice, he waved the poem and performed a clog dance. Next he had Paolo repeat the step. Finally they danced through the doorway together.

During the ensuing weeks I had occasion to observe several encores. Pound adored dancing; like Spengler, the only Hegelian in Munich who could do the grizzly bear without dropping his monocle, he seemed to have been born with taps on his shoes. Paolo, on the other hand, wore the pained smile of a tenderloot in a cowboy film who is forced to jig by saloon loafers emptying their six-guns. As soon as he and Pound were gone that first morning I picked up the paper scrap which had fallen on the stoop.

“What does it say?” I asked Emma.

“No starch in union suit,” she said.

My presentiment about Pound proved justifiable, though not in the fashion I anticipated. He had decided that he and Paolo would collaborate on the Hua shen mei, the Book of Secrets of the famous Tang poet Li Chao, as well as on a revision of the Shuo wen dictionary of the Ch’in emperor. Vanished now were our tranquil afternoons of Georgian verse. Instead, there was Uncle Ez (as he insisted we call him) bellowing “Bunkum!" or “Kulchur!” or “Social Credit!” and coercing poor Paolo to execute a listless buck-and-wing. Because of his doubts about my antecedents Uncle Ez distrusted me, but for Paolo’s sake I was sometimes invited to lunch on the roof garden of the Pound flat, number 12 Via Marsala, fifth floor.

The settings there were dressed by vases of red tulips indicative of a woman’s touch; but Dorothy Pound was never present, and Emma, of course, had to mind the laundry. Pound’s world was essentially male; he bestrode it (in baggy tweeds and open-necked white sports shirt, his red-gold beard jutting aggressively and accentuating his teeth) even while he conversed at the table beneath Gaudier-Brzeska’s marble bust. Potluck began with the ceremony of “passing the jade.” From his collection Pound produced a few cyanic-streaked stones which we handed about, pausing to close our eyes and breathe deeply. Caring more for Cellini than for Confucius, Paolo dreaded the ritual, as indeed he dreaded mention of all topics Chinese; in spite of that, he clung to the hope that between translations he might show Dr. Ezra Pound tidbits from Carved Walnuts.

Immediately after the jade ceremony, the maid served the egg foo yong and the tiger-bone wine. You must take into account that Westerners were not overly knowledgeable then about classic Chinese cuisine, and Pound’s first contacts with the East had occurred in the chop suey emporia of Wyncote, Pa. The tiger-bone wine was a cleanish vin ordinaire supplied by a local grower who used a second label in the hope that he could sell some of his bottling to the merchant seamen of Marseilles. Uncle Ez never touched the wine or food, though, explaining that he preferred Kweichow cooking. This was always a crucial moment: he might essay a Kweichow dialect, and Paolo, who had confided to me, “Without a trot I can’t understand a word he’s saying,” would be expected to maintain the discourse. For my part, I tried to avoid the subject of fencing; in my estimation Ugo knew more about it, and Pound was wise in selecting the mature Yeats as foilmate. Poetry was neutral ground.

“Quicunque cupitis saltantem me lohannem cernere . . .” I can still hear our host’s stentorian timbre. “Take it from a full-fledged Maestro of Arts, Bibesco, yer out of yer skull listenin’ to the damn hooey of Spongier. What I believe is EUROPEAN and by no means in a state of Untergang. Spengler? Just plain baloney, nawthin more’n a bush-league Frobenius.”

“You were speaking of the hexameters of John Hymmonides,” Paolo reminded him.

“Why so I was . . . nunc cantantem auditote, iocantem attendite.”

The Poet at last! Paolo, profoundly moved, the tiger-bone wine low in the bottle, saw his opportunity.

“Uncle Ez, I too—” he said.

But Pound had begun munching a tulip. When he was a diner-out in London he had acquired the habit. At the Rhys house in Hermitage Lane one evening, if we are to believe the memoir of Mrs. Rhys, he had polished off a table setting while listening to Yeats dominate the conversation, had emptied a carafe of water at a single draft, and had “flung himself fulllength upon a sofa where he reclined, gurgling internally, for the rest of the evening.” I do not doubt Mrs. Rhys. Chez Via Marsala he added a pinch of salt. Dorothy Pound’s tulips, no mere decoration, constituted Uncle Ez’s lunch. When he had finished, he patted his lips with a napkin, brushed a petal from his lapel, leaned back, and spoke to us in the Kweichow dialect. I think it was the Kweichow dialect, though indistinguishable from the internal gurgling described by Mrs. Rhys.

Pound’s green eyes seemed glazed and he was preternaturally pale. Not even a poet satiates the higher appetites of poetry without inevitable consequences. I wondered if I should phone for a stomach pump, but Paolo presided over the crisis. “GENIUS,” he exclaimed, the capital letters prancing across the balcony. “We dance.” Pound protested weakly. “Litterchure!” Paolo whooped. “E.P., migliore fabbro!” He seized Pound and they capered about the table. Manifestly The Poet was not wearing his winged sandals. As he clattered past, he gave me a piteous, baroque glance of supplication which my fellow cabalist Bernard Berenson could have identified in terms of connoisseurship. I could not, so I jovially raised my glass. The third time around, pleading a sudden indisposition, Pound bolted from Paolo’s grip and sprinted into the flat, leaving us to find our way to the laundry alone.

That lunch did not close the chapter on Pound’s collaboration with Paolo. It resulted in a slight aloofness only, a perceptible chill. Work on Li Chao and the Shuo wen dictionary ended a fortnight later; Pound had finally realized the linguistic limitations of the characters for “two dzn hnkchf” and “must have dress shirt by Fri.” Shortly afterward I left Rapallo for Pisa, taking with me memories of Emma’s ambrosial pasta. No dish of hers, however, competes with Uncle Ez’s egg foo yong and the blissful moment when—to paraphrase Rapallo’s other great resident bard—I was able to tell the dancer from the dance. □