Despondence

In the heart of July the man went mad.
He became convinced he’d traveled
to the world’s core and captured there
its beating heart. He became manic
and wild and crazed and maddened.
Little by little he lost his mind
and meaning seeped from his words
like color from a wilting rose. He forgot
his family. He forgot his name.

As the summer heat sunk in
and dug its trenches in rows
of ripening corn and sweetening fruit
in the orchards, he began to regain
the sense he’d lost. Little by little
it came — and he grew despondent,
stripped of his image and the
imaginary fame he’d transplanted
around himself. Despondence.

He wrote to his girl. Or was she his wife?
He did not remember. My love, my love,
he wrote. What do I love and where,
where are you? That I lost my center,
fighting the world. The dreams clash
and are shattered and scattered —
and that I tried to make a paradiso
terrestre, a heaven on earth.
I have tried to write Paradise. Do not
move — let the wind speak, that
is paradise. Let the gods forgive
what I have made. Let those I love
try to forgive what I have made. 

a glass ball showing a reflection of the world
a man showing despondence

M’amour, m’amour
what do I love and
where are you?

There’s an extended story beyond the poem, “Despondence,” you’ve just read. it starts with my reading of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical account of his time spent in Paris with people of the like of Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and, yes, Ezra Pound. I don’t necessarily expect anyone to recognize the passage from Ezra Pound’s Cantos that I’ve fit into this poem of my own, because the Cantos aren’t commonly read.

I attempted to read them because I looked up Ezra Pound, saw that they were one of his major works, and decided to give them a shot. I got them out at the local library and would’ve started reading away, if they hadn’t been written partly in Chinese, partly in Greek, and partly in languages I didn’t even bother identifying. Now, I mean — if you think the work of T.S. Eliot is pretentious, you’ve got to try the Cantos. 

Ezra Pound in and of himself is a polarizing figure, because during World War II he came out as highly anti-Semitic. After the war, during which he had broadcasted anti-American messages from Italy, he was arrested by the United States. Various friends of his, including Hemingway, made a case for his insanity, and he was deemed unfit to stand trial and sent to a psychiatric hospital, where he spent twelve years. He later called his adoption of anti-Semitic attitudes the biggest mistake of his life. Whether or not he was genuine in recanting these wrongs, we can’t know. But he left behind a vast and varied body of work, the Cantos — a failed project that consumed roughly half of his life — being the largest and most extensive piece. 

Ezra Pound called the Cantos “botched.” They were written between 1915 and 1962. A subsection of the larger work, known as the Pisan Cantos, was published in 1948 to accolades. But the rest of the work remains enigmatic, impossible to read without the use of a commentary (for those of us who don’t read about eleven languages, many of which are completely unrelated to each other), and many sections simply elude understanding.

Here’s the fragment I built my poem “Despondence” around.

M’amour, m’amour
what do I love and
where are you?
That I lost my center
fighting the world
The Dreams clash
and are shattered-
and that I tried to make a paradiso
terrestre.

 

I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise
Let the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.

This fragment is not actually a part of the Cantos, but part of the fragmentary material at the end. I see it as Pound’s “apology” for his “botched” work. But as someone who has struggled for many years with the notion of taking the world’s beauty and putting it on the page in words, it strikes me as a very poignant passage. Because that’s what Pound is talking about. In writing the Cantos, he failed to create his paradiso terrestre. He tried to write Paradise, but came up short. His experience is a lesson: a lesson for writers to avoid hubris. As hard as we try, we cannot write Paradise. 

If you enjoyed “Despondence,” I encourage you to check out my other poem “Expats and Amour.” I’d also like to invite you to follow Voyage of the Mind using the buttons in the sidebar at the top of the page, or by subscribing to our newsletter at the bottom. And if you’re loving the work we produce here, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi

 

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