Ezra Pound said it.
To my mind, it was about the only worthwhile thing he said-not because he made broadcasts to support fascism during World War Two (that seems like a quibble compared to what we hear now) but because he wrote unreadable poetry (the Cantos) which college students have been afflicted with ever since.
And yet I am grateful, enormously grateful to him for having coined these two words out of decades of suffering, arrogance, and desperation. They came to me as a saving grace out of my sense of alienation and lostness, pushing through one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever encountered in the Mexico City airport.
Hundreds of people were jammed into a narrow, windowless, suffocating concrete tube through which over the course of an hour or so we inched towards the immigration officials to have our passports stamped.
No one spoke. Even the children were silent, although one little girl expressed an inexhaustible vitality, scooting along stomach down on her roller bag.
What a sight it would have been if all of us solemn and silently fuming adults had laid ourselves down on our roller bags and simply flown along!
Well, we didn’t, needless to say, nor did we connect although a word of humor or reassurance or even a raised eyebrow and a smile, would have seemed a miracle of connection.
But then it happened.
As my son and I finally approached the immigration official, an unsmiling woman doing her duty by this throng of foreigners, I summoned my bit of Spanish to wish her a good day, calling her “Señora.”
She glanced at me for the briefest particle of a moment, and she smiled.
In all countries, in the midst of our confusion and fear, there is nearly always, somewhere to be found, a brief smile—at least if we can move out of our preoccupations long enough to make eye contact and greet someone with the appropriate title.
Signora, Madame. The title of a married woman, no matter what her age or status, even today bestows a bit of welcome respect.
How many thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of faceless foreigners have walked to this woman’s desk, pausing apprehensively, while she scans the documents that prove something perhaps otherwise always in question:
Who are you?
Who am I?
Especially in a vast crowd of silent strangers at an airport in a foreign country.
And Ezra—to get back to him—did connect, through his rage, his generosity (he edited, supported and helped a generation of writers to find publishers) and through his imprisonment and near-execution for treason. (Robert Frost and other at-the-time well-known writers intervened.) And some of the final words of his Pisan Cantos, written when he was in an internment camp in Italy, waiting what might well have been his death sentence, carry some of his blessed rage—which is a form of generosity.
Addressing the conquering American army (which he called “half white half black”), he wrote:
“Pull down thy vanity.
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail…
Pull down they vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity…
Pull down they vanity
I say pull down.”
I made the mistake in my play Treason of having my big Pound person address those words to himself.
He never arrived at that degree of humility, as far as I know, although he did say toward the end of his life, perhaps more bewildered than regretful, “I never made anyone happy”—including the three women, wife, mistress and daughter, who stayed with him through thick and thin and were pretty miserable.
I have a feeling, though, that he would have smiled at the immigration officer and perhaps even called her “Señora.”