This is an extract from Dancing In The Wind, the second book in my WB Yeats trilogy. It is narrated by a working-class Irish Parisienne, Rosie.
Iseult Gonne has been dispatched to London by her mother, Maud Gonne, to get her longtime friend and one-time suitor, WB Yeats, to come to France and escort her and her family to Ireland. There the 1916 freedom fight has resulted in the execution of the revolution's leaders, and further suppression of the Irish people, by the British government. As somebody who laid the groundwork for this revolution, Maud is anxious to be there at this important time.
Her daughter, Iseult, and the poet she's been sent to fetch are little concerned with the politics of Ireland, or of the World War that is raging around them. They are more interested in enjoying what pleasures can be had in wartime London and in this extract are enjoying a dinner party for five at Willie's flat.
Now Read On:
“Cats piss and porcupines!” says Ezra Pound. “People need to wake up to a few SIMPLE facts.”
He leans forward, points his fork at the dish in the middle of the table, and spears a potato. “And they’d better hurry up. Or they'll be waking up too late to DO anything.”
He lolls back to munch his capture.
What a strange one he is, thinks Iseult, this young poet that Willie has taken in. Ezra, as he insisted she was to call him. “Call me Ezzzzzzzzzra,” murmured into her ear, followed by a cackle loud enough to fill the room, while she tried not to stare at his attire: a most outlandish garb of motley robes with an earring in one ear.
It wasn't just the clothes, but the whole conglomeration. How he extended his hand to Willie in an American handshake, when he arrived, two hands around one, letting his ebony stick clatter to the floor. How he paced the room while they had their pre-dinner drink, rattling off sentences with bombshells of emphasis, jumping up out of his chair every five minutes, arms waving like an out-of-control windmill.
His accent is American but mingled with what seems, even to Iseult's French ear, a dozen different English
accents, mostly of the high-class variety. Though he sticks in some London Cockney, and made-up words and strange cries and catcalls, and French, Spanish and Greek exclamations.
And all so oddly inflected. And set off by dramatic pauses in which he stares at a person, as if daring them to differ. She would not dare.
Willie keeps smiling across at her, inviting her to be amused. According to Arthur Symons, her favorite among Willie’s friends, Pound pursued Willie for years, with the aim of worming his way into his life. And has now taken over, so that Arthur and other old friends no longer attend his Monday night at-homes. To be sure, Ezra is very much at home here, now: topping up the wine, as if he were the host.
“Take the Irish rebels,” he is saying, through a mouthful of potato. “The Eagle’s Irish theatre had developed a wide sympathy for the country which they have now wiped utterly away.”
“I do wish somebody would take the Irish rebels,” says Mrs Pound. “Please let us talk of anything but that tiresome rebellion.”
Her husband whips his head round to her, hands on the table now, lifting his shoulders, as he stares her out of it. “Very well, my dear. Do you wish to propose a topic for conversation?”
Dorothy looks away, holding herself delicately apart, as if her husband's sudden movements might cause damage.
“No?” His head whips round in the opposite direction. ” Then shall we ask our guest of honor what it is she writes?”
Iseult starts, blushes. “Me?”
“Indeed. The Eagle tells us you are a fine writer.”
“I have written very little of late.” A shake of her head signifies, she hopes, to close down that line of conversation, and fast. She could cheerfully stick her own fork into Willie. He has to stop this going around telling all and sundry that she's a writer. It's so embarrassing.
She takes a sip of wine, keeps her eyes down, hoping the attention will be moving on to a better target. A claret, Willie said. She feels giddy, has she had too much?
Ezra is blowing out his treatise, lambasting the flaws of the contemporary world, blah de blah de blah. Yet, coming out of her own thought and daring to lift her eyes, Iseult finds he is laying a most kindly look on her.
Lord, but how he talks. How much. And as if to an audience. Only to his wife, does he turn on occasion, for concurrence. “Is that not right, my dear?” he asks now, about the difference between that artists soul and that of “this bitched mess of modernity…”
“But of course, Ezra,” she says, with a wifely bow. “You are always right.”
They both laugh, as does Willie and Miss Hyde Lees, their friend. A laugh that sounds habitual to Iseult, like they've had variations of this conversation so many timesbefore that they know just when the laugh should come.
She is laughing too, all the same. Though her amusement is less knowing than theirs, still she is a part of something. It's been a long time since she felt part of something.
Willie says to Dorothy Pound, “You did not think him so right when he volunteered to fight the Germans.”
“No,” gasps Iseult. “Truly?”
“Guilty as charged,” Ezra says, throwing up his hands. “It was as Rilke wrote: ‘Into everyone’s breast, suddenly no longer one’s own, leapt a heart like a meteor'.”
“‘An iron heart, like an iron lung,’” she says, completing the quote and he's impressed and delighted.
Their likemindedness breaks her shyness. She's had her own experience of how war changes everything, in ways guaranteed to shake your sense of what you think you know. “Oh yes,” she says to him. “The war so swallows our own lives that one ceases…” She pauses, shy again. The two men lean in closer. “… I should say almost ceases to have personal experiences or emotion.”
The thought loses momentum in her. It doesn't warrant so much attention.
“That is exactly right,” says Ezra.
“But you have not been to the front, have you, Mr Pound?”
“Call me Ezra, did I not tell you. Ezzzzzzzzzzra, for pity’s sake.”
‘The War Office turned him down,” says Mrs Pound, making the WO sound like a sensible parent.
Iseult nods. “Yes, physical work is not good for the work of the mind. I don’t believe in it, though once I did.”
“Miss Gonne has been nursing,” Willie says. “At a military hospital in Normandy.”
“Nursing! Truly?” Dorothy is as awed as if Iseult has been on the front line. “Was that too dreadful?”
“It gives one a dangerous feeling of activity and energy, but it’s only an illusion, for it requires no real effort of will. While I was there, I lived just like a machine.”
“With no time to work,” Willie says, meaning no time to write.
“Or read, me supposums,” says Ezra, dropping a slice of cheese in under his moustache with his fingers. “It is an abrutisement life which leaves no room for the intellect.”
“I kept a copy of The Iliad close, though almost always too distracted to read it.”
“Miss Gonne has an admiration that borders on adoration for the Illiad,” says Willie.
Willie is beginning to get on Iseult's nerves with his Miss Gonne this, Miss Gonne that. All evening he's been at it. She doesn't know what she wants from him but it isn't that.
“Have you, b’dad?” asked Ezra, looking her over anew.
“”For all the gods of antique Greece and Rome. For all that is pagan, actually.” she admits.
“But this fellow led me to think you a papist. He has been praising the French Catholics and persuaded it me it was your influence.”
“Oh yes, Catholicism is my faith and when I pray it is in front of a crucifix. My interest in the Gods of antiquity is intellectual but I believe we should have perfect beauty if we could only unite the ideal pagan and ideal Christian. And when I was in Italy, I kept thinking …’
She falters. Eight eyes, four male, four female, rest upon her as. Words have absconded, her mind is this great blank that will yield nothing. Not a syllable. She closes her knife and fork together on her plate, outwardly calm, internally in a state of great panic.
The clock sounds the seconds. Torment. Torment. Torment.
When she dares to look up, she finds that Willie is beaming, almost idiotically, at her from across the table. As if she were a poem he had just completed.
Ezra winks, leans across and picks the rind of meat left on her plate and pops it in his mouth.
“The Roman poets are the only ones we know who had approximately the same problems we have — the metropolis, the imperial posts in all corners of the world and so on….”
This male attention makes Iseult turn to the women. Men are easy but women are always a challenge. “Which poets do you like to read, Mrs Pound?” she asks.
“I rarely read poetry,” Dorothy says. “I don’t really care for it.”
Can this be true, Iseult wonders? Or is it part of the baiting that goes on between a husband and a wife?
Dorothy Pound has a profile that is utterly lovely and emotionallly seems so clear and detached. Yet she's part of a great movement against beauty that has gripped the arts in England.
But if art does not add to the beauty of the world, is it art at all? Ieult and Willie have spent much time since her arrival debating this very question.
Ezra throws his wife a look like a gunshot, then he is off again, outlining the connections between the writings of Roman and present day Europeans. “From the Romans we can, if we can be woken from our MASS DOZE, learn that…”
Dorothy looks at the clock above the mantle, and suppresses a yawn and Iseult looks out Willie’s window at the smoke of a summer evening cloud drifting high.
In another few months, the sky will thicken again but for now, all is wispy and bright.