Born in 1881 in a mountain village in the Apennines not far from the marble quarries of Carrara, Enrico Pea was just the kind of Odyssean literatus bound to appeal to Ezra Pound. After kicking around the province of Lucca in his youth, as a mechanic, farmer, marble-cutter, and dockworker, Pea set off for Alexandria, where he frequented anarchist circles, befriended the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, and became a relatively successful importer of Italian marble and a furniture maker (Pound, himself a carpenter ý ses heures, would later write of his prose: He “writes like a man who could make a good piece of mahogany furniture”). Upon his return to Italy in 1914, Pea settled in the resort town of Viareggio on the Tuscan coast where, under the patronage of local celebrity Giacomo Puccini and working with such younger writers as Eugenio Montale, he organized outdoor arts festivals intended to bring theater and opera to the populo. Pea’s activities as a cultural impresario (which paralleled Pound’s in Rapallo, some thirty miles up the coast) were cut short in the early ‘40s. Suspected of anti-fascist tendencies, he retreated once again to the Lucca and remained there until he died in 1958.
In Italy, Pea’s reputation as a writer rests largely on his autobiographical trilogy of novels from the ‘20s—Moscardino, Il Volta Santo, and Il Servitore del Diavolo—which are often compared to the works of Sienese author Federigo Tozzi, owing to their intensely regionalist focus on rural life and rich deployment of local dialect. Both authors’ work was a refashioning of the tradition of Giovanni Verga, whose earthy Sicilian verismo D.H. Lawrence first “Englished” in the ‘20s. Pea’s Moscardino, published in modernism’s annus mirabilis of 1922, is a far more daringly experimental work. Upon first reading this “strange and wondrous book,” Italo Svevo confessed envy of the sheer “power and evidence” of its language. When Pound belatedly discovered the book in 1941, it came as something of a revelation: Here was the Wessex of Thomas Hardy hallucinated into a dreamscape whose fragmented cadences recalled the prose of Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, or CÈline. At his microphone on Radio Rome, the American poet excitedly informed his listeners: “This is just announcin’ that Italy has a writer, and it some time since I told anybody that ANY country on earth had a writer.”
Despite his nomadic, expatriate existence, Pound remained drawn throughout his career to the poetics of place. In his Pisan Cantos (perhaps his greatest celebration of the locus amoenus, written only a few miles south of Pea’s Viareggio), he mentions Pea in the same breath as James Whitcombe Riley, the American dialect poet and a lifelong friend of Pounds, as was Joel Chandler Harris. A similar nostalgia for the local informs his early praise for the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters and Robert Frost, and it extends into his admiration for Mussolini’s program of autarchia, designed (in theory, at least) to empower regional self-rule, a vestige of Il Duce’s (and Pea’s) anarcho-syndicalist beginnings.
Regionalism, Gramsci once quipped, is merely the pastoralization of class conflict. Although rooted in the local landscape and idiom of Pea’s native Versilia, Moscardino is definitely a version of anti-pastoral—which is to say, it belongs to that same genre of modernist satire to which Pound assigned both Joyce and Lewis. Loosely framed as a Faulknerian chronicle of the decline of a noble family into penury and disarray, Pea’s autobiographical novel casts a sharp and vitriolic anticlerical eye on the disintegration of Italian rural life at the turn of the century, as the traditional hierarchies of class and gender were giving way to a kind of generalized delirium. Fittingly, the central figure in the tale is the young protagonist’s mad grandfather, who between bouts in the local insane asylum (or “gook house,” in Pound’s idiolect) runs a household consisting of his mute mother, his two neurasthenic brothers (one of whom ends up hanging himself), and a servant girl from the mountains whom the grandfather has raped and impregnated. A blend of D’Annunzio’s fin de siËcle gothic and Verga’s primal screams, this family tragedy (or is it black comedy?) sometimes sounds eerily like Flannery O’Connor in Pound’s English version — although utterly without O’Connor’s gonzo Catholic vision of redemption.
Pound’s translations are among his most autobiographical works. Undertaken in 1941 when he was increasingly losing his grip (as evidenced all too dramatically by the logorrhea of his wartime radio broadcasts), Pound’s English rendering of Moscardino, particularly in those passages in which the lunatic grandfather reminisces, prepared the way for the great theatre of memory he would enact in the Pisan Cantos four years later. At the same time, the project served to reengage those fertile regions of madness and delirium in Pound’s imagination that, from his early Piere Vidal poems through his versions of Sophocles at St. Elizabeths, remain one of the deepest wellsprings of his work. “When the mind swings by a grass-blade / an ant’s forefoot shall save you,” Pound observed in one of the Pisans. At times, when the phantasmagoria of Pea’s prose momentarily lifts in order to reveal almost CÈzanne-like notations of local landscape, we hear the old miglior fabbro turning out sentences as splendid as any in Joyce: “Gulls at rest on the sea-water, in little groups, crowds of them further off, others scattered over a sea fanned by a cool northwest wind. Patternless as a field of daisies sprouting in an unbounded meadow. A sea paler than spring grass feathered by so gentle a breeze, petals, blown off, deflowered.” Or (shades of Hardy or Burns?): “Now it is winter and the hummock is green and the rosebush is a bundle of thorns.”
Out of print for fifty years, Moscardino remains the most overlooked item in the Pound canon. This handsome little volume contains a new introduction by the poet’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, as well as Pea’s own brief memoir of his encounters with his unexpected American double—the other E.P.