I was recently solicited by an on-line journal to write a short piece on a poem that I was “holding close” during these trying times. Though I knew that presenting Ezra Pound’s “Usury” canto might present some problems, I went ahead because it has been much on my mind these days. When I dared to not explicitly label Pound with one or another standard and obvious epithet, I was taken to task and asked to do so, almost in the sense of pledging a loyalty oath, something I was completely unwilling to do. As the spectrum of permissible speech becomes more and more circumscribed, I remain ever so indebted to the autonomous zone Dispatches has created.

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The Cantos Project: Canto XLV

This very notable canto by Ezra Pound has been with me for a long time and I’ve found myself coming back to it again and again during the ongoing pandemic, particularly as politicians roll out various figures in the trillions and bankers and corporations lick their chops at the idea of a virtually endless supply of newly printed money and the ensuing financial chicanery that will transfer even more wealth to even fewer people.

The idea that private banks exert such enormous leverage on society through charging interest for the use of currency is a practice that outraged Pound, and that he felt to be one of the primary roots of the perversion and loss of value in the human community.

Whatever one might think about that, the line “Usura slayeth the child in the womb” is, actually, quite literal, since the ability to use or borrow funds affects the very possibility of life. Think of IMF “restructuring,” followed by bread riots in the so-called “developing world,” or red-lining to prevent the accumulation of wealth by African-Americans, to mention just a few obvious examples. If one thinks of interest as a means of social engineering—almost like a thermostat that can be set to have the kinds of sweeping effects that a famine or a war might have—suddenly our perspective shifts, as interest rates can actually determine the fates of whole peoples or a whole generation.

Pound was famously captured in Italy in May of 1945, interrogated by an agent assigned by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, then imprisoned in a 6×6 foot outdoor steel cage at a US Army Training Center in Pisa, and eventually charged with treason for radio broadcasts he had made in support of Mussolini. In the cage at Pisa, as Pound wrote in Canto LXXX, “the raft broke and the waters went over me.”

What rarely gets told in this complex story is that, while Pound was one of the few American citizens charged with treason following WWII, during the same month, May of 1945, key Nazi officers, intelligence personnel and scientists were quietly shipped to Washington, D.C., having been recruited by the burgeoning US National Security state to eventually serve in a series of operations with macabre and absurd names like Overcast, Paperclip, Pajamas, Dwindle, Apple Pie, Panhandle, Credulity, and Sunrise. In other words, while Pound—never having actually been put on trial—remained incarcerated at St. Elzabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane (a building now partially used as the headquarters of Homeland Security), people that, under different political circumstances, would have rightfully been considered war criminals, became key players in US Cold War policy and its clandestine operations that assassinated leaders, destroyed peoples and economies, and insured the hegemony of the American Empire and the US dollar.

In the present context, as politicians of all stripes grandstand and go to great lengths to cover their collectives asses, we would do well to reconsider basic questions of GROUND: on whose ground does authority rest? In what is it vested?  Beyond the hysteria and narcissism that characterizes the whole spectrum of our official current political discourse, where do “we the people” even find representation? For myself, as unfashionable as it might be, returning to Pound’s Cantos has proven a revelatory and unsettling source.