Monday, 13 April 2020

The Pet Canary of Pius XII

The Pet Canary of Pius XII

Peter Levi’s poem “Monologue spoken by the pet canary of Pius XII”, is an oblique poem I have never understood, although I must have read it around 1974, in Lucie-Smith’s anthology. Here is the poem.

Uccello cello cello
I love myself: it seems a dream sometimes
about the water spouting from tree-height,
and voices like a piece of looking-glass.
His shoulder had young pine-needles on it.
At night I used to wake when the big moonlight
swayed upward like a lighted playing-card,
and someone had uncombed the Great Hallel
with grimy fingers down the window-pane.
I am unable to read their faces
but the inscription like a neon sign
lights understanding in my thoughts and dreams.
The Spirit of God is gigantic:
white wings ripping aether bluer than air.
After I eat I plume myself bright yellow
Uccello cello cello
and hop about his borrowed finger:
the jewel in the ring without a scratch
and the white silk and the gold thread are mine.
Oh yes, I hop about and love myself.
I do not understand humanity,
their emotions terrify me.
What I like in him is his company
and the long fingers of the Holy Ghost.

(published 1966 I think). It is saying something like, “Pacelli was Hitler's sprightly pet songster”, but can't say this because Levi was a Jesuit priest and so subordinate to the Vatican at every moment. ‘Uccello’ means ‘bird’ (avicellus). This is a difficult poem but it is evidently a distancing from Catholic politics as they were from say 1918 to 1958. The line about “someone had uncombed the Great Hallel/ with grimy fingers down the window-pane” refers to Psalm 136 (and this is the Jewish term for that psalm, and it means “praise”). Psalm 136 “is a litany of thanksgiving about the beloved history and culture of the Israelites.” “It is used in the morning service on the Sabbath, festivals, and during the Passover seder.” It seems likely that Fr Levi, SJ, was pointing to the persecution of the Jews during Pacelli’s papacy, and to Pacelli’s notorious indifference to it. 136 says: and [God] redeemed us from our enemies: this is the key line and its function is to bring up what Pacelli didn’t do for the Jewish people. Much of the meaning of Levi’s poem is embodied in Psalm 136, and the poem needs to be considered as a commentary on the psalm, which we need to have in mind as we read the poem. As for the fingers, the canary later trills "and [I] hop about on his borrowed finger ... and the white silk and gold thread are mine". The papal arm (in a silk sleeve) on which the canary hops is perhaps a parody of the psalmist's "With a strong hand, and a stretched out arm".  So, I guess both references to fingers refer to the same hand - and it was Pacelli who 'uncombed the Great Hallel'. But there is a third reference, the last line describes "the long fingers of the Holy Ghost", so it may be that the Holy Ghost effaced the sacred text out of shame.
“I do not understand humanity” sounds like a self-description by Pius XII, the ultimate curial lawyer-bureaucrat. Why are the voices “like a looking-glass”? I don’t think it means ”cut-glass voices”, because mirrors are poured, not cut; but it does sound as if the voices are narcissistic, saying self-confident things about their right to rule Europe. They are the voices of the Curia and Vatican bureaucrats (but perhaps of other Italians, the Fascisti).
If you listen closely, you can just hear the “uccello” phrase as “pacello cello cello”. It looks as if the poem was written during the years of Vatican II, when it looked as if the Church were going to renounce its past as the voice of the land-owners, and when radicals from all over the world were meeting each other in Rome, eager for new ideas.
The interest of this is that after writing about David Jones and Hitler I wanted to think about left-wing Catholic poets. I am glad to have worked out the meaning, even if after a 45 year lag. For a Jesuit to attack a Pope was pretty awesome and demanded a certain lack of directness.

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