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Fernando Pessoa and His Fictional Coterie of Poets

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In 1935, the family members of a recently deceased corporate translator were sorting through the detritus of his home, in Lisbon, when they unearthed a large wooden trunk. Inside was a collection of paper scraps, notebooks, memo pads, and envelopes so vast that it is still being archived and transcribed today, where it is housed in Portugal’s National Library. This assemblage of writing, the nearly overlooked offerings of one Fernando Pessoa, has come to represent the single greatest contribution in several centuries to that country’s national literature, and has engendered an academic cottage industry similar to Joyce studies in the UK or Faulkner studies in the US. But Pessoa’s work is far more varied.

The collection of poetry, letters, horoscopes, and prose, all in the author’s distinctive scrawl, is ascribed to no fewer than 137 aliases, which he referred to as “heteronyms,” each with their own distinct history, education, and relation to the other members of this vast interior society. After decades of disentangling, new melodies from this panoply of voices are finally entering the English language, thanks to the work of Pessoa editor Jerónimo Pizarro, translator Margaret Jull Costa, and the team at New Directions Press. In 2017, this coalition published the most complete version to date of Pessoa’s discomfiting, revelatory Book of Disquiet. Now, with the help of editor and translator Patricio Ferrari, they have produced for the first time in English a compendium of poems from the heteronym considered to be Pessoa’s “Master,” The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro.

Pessoa preferred his term over pseudonyms because the latter implies a level of artifice he wished to circumvent. His heteronyms have their own histories, artistic influences, and disparate political views; in addition, he made detailed horoscopes for many of them. Often, all they have in common, across various forms and styles, is a shared belief in the unknowability of the self and the porousness of all identities. “We are merely ashes endowed with a soul, lacking any shape, not even that of water, which takes the shape of the glass containing it,” Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, behind the mask of Vicente Guedes, an unhappy corporate grunt who moonlights as a poet and seems to personify Pessoa at his most anxious and sad.

The only way to know ourselves, Guedes contends, is to pay attention to our dreams, “We will be able to create at second hand — we will imagine in ourselves a poet writing, and he will write in one style, while another poet might write in another. […] The highest stage of dreaming is reached when, having created a cast of characters, we live them all, all at the same time — we are all those souls jointly and interactively” (italics in original). This may seem like a moment of inspiration for Guedes, but for Pessoa, who began writing under assumed names as early as age six, it was already old hat. His was a lifelong identity crisis, to which he responded with manic creativity.

Because of Guedes’s overt similarities to his author, The Book of Disquiet can be read as almost autobiographical, albeit limited to the darkest and most self-punishing corners of Pessoa’s mind. It isn’t until Alberto Caeiro that we get the chance to see Pessoa’s dissociative strategy in action, with his creation of a man with whom he shares nothing besides a birthplace.

Unlike his creator, Caeiro left Lisbon at a young age and moved to the countryside, where he spent his life as a rustic shepherd. Uneducated, with open animosity toward cities and their cultivated inhabitants, Caeiro is Pessoa’s escapist fantasy, and his pastorals arrive with a hardened didacticism, as if presenting a counterargument to any alternative selves left behind in dreary Lisbon.

The epitomic act of Guedes, in The Book of Disquiet,is that of looking out a window, usually with darkness gathering, as people weave through the street toward their unknowable destinations. By contrast, the feeling Caeiro invokes again and again is that of sitting in the grass, free from oppressive thoughts, feeling the warmth of the sun behind closed eyelids:

Someone sitting in the sun and closing his eyes
Begins not to know what the sun is
And to think many other things full of warmth.
But he opens his eyes and sees the sun,
And he can no longer think about anything,
Because the light of the sun is worth more than all the thoughts
Of all the philosophers and poets.

This kind of happiness, so innately simple, is a form of pleasure hardly helped by description. Accordingly, Pessoa’s master heteronym often seems ambivalent about his dedication to record the direct experience of nature, “The astonishing reality of things,” as he tells it, “Each thing being what it is.” A tension arises in his insistence that trees and flowers can have no possible metaphorical or interior meaning (“Why would we see one thing if there were another?”) — for what, then, is the point of writing poetry about them, which in its most basic language begins to elevate or modify the thing itself?

Caeiro’s ambivalence about his vocation is the only sign of trouble in his otherwise untrammeled, naturalist bliss. His advice to love flowers, not because they are beautiful but “for being flowers,” is echoed so many times throughout the collection that it can grow tendentious. At times, he turns on himself, wondering what language can possibly do for Nature, if she is already complete, before deciding that he is here to prove a point:

Since I write so that mankind will read me, I sometimes sacrifice myself
To the stupidity of their senses...
I don't agree with myself but I absolve myself,
Because I don't take myself seriously.
I am only that hateful thing, an interpreter of Nature,
Because some people don't understand her language,
For she isn't a language at all...

Caeiro, as pastoralist, is perfect in ways Pessoa never can be, and in ways that his readers can only aspire to. He has the unhurried bliss of someone who accepts things exactly as they are, and who knows that our only wealth is seeing them as such. As a figment of Pessoa’s imagination, he was a shepherd without bills to pay or sheep to shear — his flock is, after all, only a metaphor, despite all his insistence otherwise. In this, we can begin to understand better why someone as troubled and prolific as Pessoa felt the need to invent a dead poet’s society all his own.

His heteronyms were not only mouthpieces through which to express his torrential emotions, but masters, object lessons, who could instruct him (and, thanks to the happy discovery of his trunk, the rest of us) on how to get along in life. Caeiro may be entirely fictional, but the poetic discoveries he made were very real, and remain as relevant as ever. As a saint in the canon of his overeducated creator, Caeiro was forever crusading against the brutality of the Ideal in favor of the humble phenomenon of everyday life. “How hard it is to have eyes and see only the visible!” he wrote,

The essential thing is knowing how to see,
Knowing how to see without thinking,
Knowing how to see when you see,
And not thinking when you see
Nor seeing when you think.

But this (alas for those of us whose souls wear clothes!)
This requires long study,
An apprenticeship of unlearning.

The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari, edited by Jerónimo Pizarro and Patricio Ferrari, is published by New Directions and is available online and from indie booksellers.

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