We are driven through the Italian Tyrol at night, by a laconic chauffeur in a Mercedes Benz. The car slows a little as we zoom up switchbacks, snake through a one-road village, then down through steeply sloping vineyards over what once may have been a moat, but now seems to be a black mass of blank air. Then we're through the gate and onto a postage stamp of land that encircles Schloss Brunnenburg, the castle of Ezra Pound's daughter.
It's a real castle, dating from the 11th century, a two-towered mass of stone. It perches on a pinnacle, like an illustration from a Grimms' fairy tale. Except that our Rapunzel is the Princess Mary de Rachewiltz, who greets her guests this night with hugs and hospitality. I'm traveling with my companion, John Espey, one of the earliest of the Ezra Pound scholars, who published the definitive work on Pound's "Mauberley" and who considers this trip a kind of scholarly pilgrimage. The princess takes our luggage from us, clatters up stone steps, puts Espey and me in a vast room that has been fitted out as a kind of shrine to her father. His walking stick lies across one chair, his wide-brimmed walking hat on another; artifacts and sketches hang on every wall around us.
The princess marshals us once again, runs us up and down stone steps and into a tiny, rustic kitchen. The princess serves us supper: meatloaf, the best vegetable soup you ever had, garlicky potatoes. She's out of breath, happy to see us. "I don't believe in documents," she says almost at once, "I believe in genes. I'm an American citizen. I'm a working woman. I've worked all my life. I believe in hard work. But, of course, you'll find all that in the Cantos."
Ezra Pound. Mary's father. For years one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, and now that T.S. Eliot's stock is going down, maybe the greatest. On the other hand, who, now, reads the Cantos? Who, now, cares to decipher the dense, encoded, atonal poetry that changes languages -- English, Latin, Greek, Chinese -- as whimsically as a disaffected teenager pressing the TV remote?
And there's that other troubling question about Pound. On the one hand, he was a marvelous editor -- cutting "The Waste Land" in half when Eliot had just about come to the end of his rope with that intractable poem. And Pound was a great friend, tireless in his efforts to get his colleagues published, so generous that when he was living in England and James Joyce wrote him a desperate letter saying how broke he was, Pound crossed the Channel with a pair of shoes for Joyce wrapped up in a parcel. You could even count it as a virtue -- at first -- when Pound, in the years before America entered World War II, decided that poets, in general, had an obligation to save the world, and that he, Pound, in particular, was the man to do it.
We remember from our English classes that Pound journeyed from Rapallo, where he was then living, to the United States, to see President Roosevelt. All he would need to serve the country, he wrote the president, was a furnished room and a hot plate. When the president failed to acknowledge his letters, Pound returned to Italy and sought out Mussolini. On Jan. 30, 1933 he lectured the bemused dictator on what we can only assume were typically Poundian concerns such as draining swamps, planting soybeans, keeping interest rates down. He left refreshed, glad that a head of state somewhere would listen to his ideas. The good news was that he thought an individual poet might still dare try to influence heads of state and the ways of nations. The bad news was that as an individual poet he sought to influence the ways of nations -- and he got it wrong. He broadcast a series of pro-fascist, antisemitic, anti-American talks from Radio Rome before and during World War II, "rasping, ranting and snarling" his increasingly vitriolic and incoherent views. This eventually got him indicted for treason, then locked up for years after the war in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington. Where would he go after that? What would become of this great poet who had made such grievous miscalculations?
His daughter thought she knew. She had already married her prince, Boris; she had a castle now. She would move her father into it, and anyone else he saw fit to bring with him.
This really does read like a fairy tale: Once upon a time a poet and his girlfriend had a little girl named Mary. (At about the same time, the poet's wife gave birth to a son.) The poet was very busy. His wife sent her son to be raised in England, and he and his girlfriend gave Mary away to be raised by a peasant family. She learned sowing, reaping, cooking, cleaning. When Mary was about 15, just the age of a beautiful princess, her real parents took her away to Rapallo, where they taught her table manners, good posture and how to make polite conversation. Then came the war with all its terror. By that time Mary spoke three languages and lived in two worlds, the hard working life of the northern Tyrol and the cultured, slightly cracked world of international high culture and art. Her father had already asked her to translate his first Cantos into Italian.
When Mary met her prince, he was an unemployed and charming German-Russian who happened to have a princeship in his back pocket. "I don't believe in documents, I believe only in genes!" Mary might have said, but she married him anyway. During the chaos right after the war, they found a castle, utterly in ruins, and with the permission of the government moved into it. There she would work at impossible tasks, much like Rapunzel, and curb her irritation when her "blithe spirit" of a husband professed himself incompetent at household tasks. She brought her father to the castle when he was released from St. Elizabeth's, even though he had with him his legal wife (not her mother) and another young girlfriend. The princess raised her own children and saw her son move into the tower next door. She nursed her aged mother until she turned 100, and threw her a huge party in the castle and the village with dancing in the streets. She was always short of money and long on courage, and she loved her father more than anything else in the world.
"People come here to the castle and describe a monster to me, a man I've never met. And many of them have never even read the Cantos! I can only say to them, I don't know the man you're talking about. My father was kind, courteous, loving and soft-spoken." This comes as the princess sweeps and talks the next morning in a courtyard of the castle. Her English is curious, a second language. And at times it becomes curiouser still: "But to hitch sensibility to efficiency?" She is quoting her father, channeling her father. Her knowledge of the Cantos is so great that they make up perhaps a quarter of her spoken conversation.
"I read your memoir [Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America]," Mary tells me, "and I like it very much. But . . . I couldn't understand about a third of it."
"That's because I'm from California," I say glumly. "I'm a regional novelist." The next day, again, in a flurry of domestic tasks, she stops me to say, "Regional. I think that's good. My father knew that all great art must begin with the local. That's the way it should be done." She smiles sweetly. Her complexion is clean and soft; she looks 20 years younger than she is.
Another guest sends word from her son's part of the castle that her visiting mother has come down with an allergy attack, and could she please borrow a vacuum? The princess obliges but remarks, as she's moving chairs from one courtyard to another for the dinner party tonight, "Doesn't she know that you can take a damp rag, wipe down shelves and hardwood floors? No, probably not. People don't know how to clean any more. Manual labor is what saves us, after all. It keeps us sane."
The princess and John Espey engage in hours-long conversations, which I can't pretend to understand since they're all about the Cantos. "What about the princess Troubetskoy?" Espey asks, and Mary teases him: "I always thought she must have been a double agent!" The 86-year-old scholar and the 74-year-old princess are flirting like mad. They can't stop beaming at each other, off in another fairy tale entirely, Pound-Land, where only a few can go.
On our second afternoon, Mary takes us on a tour of the castle. All up and down the spiral staircases hang portraits of Ezra, good and bad. The huge and famous head of Pound by Gaudier-Brzeska is planted in the ground by the castle's main door. Manuscripts, posters, first editions -- along with camelskin pouches her husband, Boris, brought back from expeditions to Egypt -- all rest in perfect order. Mary takes us through the empty apartments where her father, his wife and that other girlfriend lived for a few years after St. Elizabeth's, before he got bored and went back to Rapallo.
She shows us another room, with glassed-in shelves filled with memorabilia. "Here are the shoes he wore when he walked all the way from Rome during the war to see me . . . and here are his evening pumps. Because I want people to remember that he was a very well-dressed man."
At one point during this, Mary becomes vehement. "The Italians judge a man by his death as much as by his life. Look how my father died, surrounded by family. Not like other poets, alone in furnished rooms. And now look at his daughter! And then think of the daughter of James Joyce." (That would be poor Lucia, dead so tragically and so young.) "My father couldn't be the man they say he is."
The amazement is not that Mary de Rachewiltz is Ezra Pound's daughter and has turned out so well; the amazement is that this woman -- as strong-willed in many ways as her father -- could conjure up out of chaos an orderly world based on family, labor and devotion, and make it work. It's the best part of his vision, perhaps, shaped and modulated by scholarship, reason, sanity and love.
Carolyn See's book reviews appear Fridays in Style. Her most recent novel is "Handyman."