Cathay: A Critical Edition by Ezra Pound, ed. Timothy Billings.
Fordham University Press, 2019. 346 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
Pound, as everyone knows, was a piece of work. Sometimes he was high-minded, nurturing; he was frequently as witty and quotable as anybody on earth. Other times, he sounded like some foaming Nazi podcast.
So. One question for many readers and writers today is “Which did you learn about first, his poems or his fascism?” For lots of people, where they rank him as an artist depends a lot on the answer to that question.
Take Cathay. It came out in 1915. It’s really more of a chapbook than a book-book. It only had a dozen poems in it. One could print the whole thing on less than fifteen pages. In fact, in the Library of America edition (2003), Cathay takes twelve.
The pieces are everything that most people want out of poetry: memorable, convincing, powerful. Plus they’re just neat. You read the stuff thinking “Surely this is how these poems came off to their original readers.” And (especially if you know Pound’s other poems) you feel like the translator has made himself wonderfully scarce. The stuff sounds nothing like Pound. So you figure it must sound like Li Bai.
You find out later that Pound knew virtually no Chinese, and that the translations contain some big boo-boos. You go back to the poems, expecting to think “Bah! How did I not notice before how fake and contrived these things are?” But you’re in for a surprise: The poems are still as moving and convincing as ever. So now you don’t know what to think.
For a long time, unless you were friends with some very special people, you were out of luck. Then in the ’60s a Chinese scholar set out to produce a guide for the perplexed (Wai-lim Yip, Ezra Pound’s Cathay; Princeton University Press, 1969). In that book, Yip discussed and re-translated the Chinese originals. The problem is his translations were constructed pursuant to a very personal, offbeat theory of how old Chinese verse should be Englished. Don’t get me wrong: the results are interesting. And he wasn’t actually saying Pound was a bastard who should have stayed away. Instead, Yip was (and he well knew this) at least somewhat vindicating Pound. Yet one still felt uneasy. One was nagged by the thought “I’d need to see an annotated edition of the Fenollosa notebooks to really judge this case properly….”
Well, your prayers are finally answered. Anybody who’s still worried about all this can now consult the book under review. It’s an annotated edition of Cathay, sure—but it’s mainly an annotated edition of the Fenollosa notebooks, every page that Pound used. And this puts you right where Pound was when he set out to translate all that stuff. ’Cept actually it puts you in a 10X-better position, ’cuz all Pound had were the notebooks. If Fenollosa’s handwriting goes astray, or if Fenollosa simply botches something, Pound just has to make do. But you don’t. The footnotes have you covered.
In fact, they have you so covered I gotta wonder who in the world is gonna read this book. Use it, sure. But to read it, even for somebody like me who has all the poems in question prettymuch memorized, is a wearying business. Imagine if movies didn’t go at twenty-four frames per second, but instead went twenty-four seconds per frame.
An A#1 reference work, then! And we can all feel assured that Pound, hanging out in Dante’s Inferno with Bertrand de Born and the other “stirrers up of strife,” is smiling. He’s probably thinking “When are they gonna get tired of vindicating me?”
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net