Hold Still by Sally Mann

Hardcover, 496 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (May 2015)
Language: English
Selected by Barbara Epler

“I think this will sell like Patti Smith’s Just Kids. There is a joy in somebody who is completely already recognised at the top of their field and then they hop over into another field. It’s so hard to have the bravery to do that.” —Barbara Epler

The first long-form literary work written by noted photographer Sally Mann, Hold Still is the result of sifting through her own considerable body of work and looking through boxes of family archives. There she found “deceit and scandal, alcohol, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeyman, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land… racial complications, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of the prodigal son and maybe even bloody murder.”

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One such night found a group of us with Cy and Nicola, his gentle, erudite companion, sitting after a late dinner on that porch, the newspaper-covered table nacreous with oyster shells, bottles of wine darkening the center. I mentioned my past fascination with Ezra Pound, an American who, like Cy, had found Italy his place “for starting things” and about whom I had written my master’s thesis. At this, Cy, sitting to my right at the head of the table, leaned over to me with the look of a confidence about to be divulged, so I pressed close.

When Cy was about to tell a story or make a naughty quip he would cover his mouth in a schoolchild’s way, fingertips lightly touching his primly pursed lips, while above them the eyes were alight and impish. I watched memory veil those eyes as he spoke of a time in the late 1960s when he and Nicola had been invited to the Spoleto Festival by its founder, Gian Carlo Menotti. That evening a Russian pianist was performing, and Menotti honored Cy and Nicola by seating them in his private balcony in the Opera Theatre. As they took their seats they were startled to see behind them Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge1, one of the three women with whom Pound had simultaneous relationships. Cy described Pound as having an aura, a mystical appearance, and as being somehow set apart from regular people. Nicola wrote me later that Pound “acted… extremely shy like only a northern blond child could be. He hardly looked at us and in a side way.”

Telling me of this in the humid summer night, Cy emphasised how rare it was to see the reclusive poet, who seldom appeared in public in those later years. Pound had been driven mad (or perhaps more mad) by his wartime incarceration in Pisa for treason. It was there, locked up like an animal in a 6 x 6 1⁄2 foot wire cage, that he began writing on a piece of toilet paper the uneven but brilliant Pisan Cantos.(Interestingly, housed in the cage next to him was Emmett Till’s2 father, Louis, until he was hanged “for murder and rape with trimmings,”3 as Pound put it.) After Pound began to show clear signs of a mental breakdown, he was shipped from Pisa back to the United States and confined to the “bughouse” at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. A decade after his release in 1958, Pound stopped speaking altogether. Much was made of his self-imposed silence, and it has always been reported that not a single word ever passed his lips once he began it.

Except, to their amazement, Cy and Nicola heard Pound speak to Olga. They both described it as the whispering of a deeply wounded and suspicious man, but also of a man fading out of this life. Cy said he would have loved to exchange just one word with this intransigent, mysterious, wrong-headed, brilliant man. Instead he and Nicola somehow maintained a posture of intense interest in the music played before them, arching backwards in their seats, hoping to hear the thoughts of a genius.

Imagine that – on my peckerwood porch, late in the humid, cloyingly fragrant Virginia night, Cy, in a Pound-like whisper, tells a story I found marvelous in the many improbable threads it wove together: that he had seen, had heard Ezra Pound, the author of the lines written on my father’s memorial stone, with whom I held a long fascination, and that within this tale was another of my long-held fascinations, Emmett Till. And of course that the storyteller was Cy, the local hero, come back to sit in the dungheap-turned-garden that was our home, the prodigal returning to Lexington.

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[1] Rudge was an American concert violinist. Pound was married to Vorticist painter Dorothy Shakespear and had an affair with his secretary Marcella Spann at this time.
[2] Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, probably for talking to a white woman. His killers were acquitted. As double jeopardy meant that they could not be tried for the same crime twice, they later admitted their guilt in an interview. Mann’s son is named Emmett.
[3]Lines 171-173 of the Pisan Cantos.

 

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  • Hold Still