Thursday, August 28, 2008

Poetry: Fernando Pessoa

Photo: Lisboans visit the two-week Book Festival set up near the Gulbenkian Museum last June.

Yesterday afternoon, as a lovely antidote to the first department meeting of this new term, the Poetry Reading Group comprising myself and 6 colleague-friends met at Liza's beautiful and artistically-decorated home. This is the third time we met, and each time, I'm grateful to be part of a group happy to share poetry that we love without any other concern. While we often provide some background before reading and we generally chip in with analysis, questions, or commentary afterward, the focus isn't on scholarship but on pleasure (not that those two are mutually exclusive). Yesterday's offerings included work by Charles Wright, Philip Levine, early Canadian "cheese poet" James MacIntyre (for some great examples of very bad poetry), Shawna Lemay, Pablo Neruda, and the poet-I-most-need-to-read-more-by, the new-to-me marvelous Douglas Dunn. My own contribution was a pairing of poems by Fernando Pessoa, or, at least, by some of his heteronyms, as he called them: pseudonym didn't suit his purposes, constructing, as he did, an oeuvre of more than 25,000 manuscripts in French, English, Portuguese, including criticism, creative prose, and poetry, written by a panoply of alter egos for whom he created rather comprehensive backgrounds and who often interacted with each other in a complex social network. Born in 1888, publishing by 1912, he anticipated postmodern theory on subjectivity/identity by at least several decades. His work also makes some really fascinating statements about lifewriting as he writes other possibilities for himself into existence while obscuring any sense of what might be his "true self" (should anyone still be naive enough to believe in such a notion).

Here, for example, is "Countless Lives Inhabit Us" a poem dated 13 November 1935. Richard Zenith selected, edited, and translated it for Fernando Pessoa & Co: Selected Poems, Fernando Pessoa. It's attributed to Ricardo Reis, who Zenith notes is the "most elusive of Pessoa's heteronyms . . . born in 1887, in Oporto [who] went to the Americas when already in his thirties [and whose] exact whereabouts and livelihood were never very clearly established. . . . a trained physician [it doesn't seem that Reis] ever practiced his profession" (95). This poem is part of a Reis collection, Odes.

Countless lives inhabit us.
I don't know, when I think or feel,
Who it is that thinks or feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought or felt.

I have more than just one soul.
There are more I's than I myself.
I exist, nevertheless,
Indifferent to them all.
I silence them: I speak.

The crossing urges of what
I feel or do not feel
Struggle in who I am, but I
Ignore them. They dictate nothing
To the I I know: I write.

I'm also savouring poems from Alberto Caeiro da Silva's The Keeper of Sheep (Caeiro is another heteronym, born in Lisbon in 1889, died of tb in 1915, altho' he "kept writing poems . . . until at least 1930, apparently by dictating them through Pessoa" (39)!)

Paul and I were first incredulous, then amazed by the book fair we saw in Lisbon this spring -- I've never seen anything on this scale except for the New York street book fair years ago, and even that fair, I suspect, doesn't lasts for two full weeks with crowds thronging the booths throughout that period. Further, Lisbon is a fraction of New York's size, and Portuguese (which is the language of most of the books we saw) a language with significantly fewer readers than English (altho' Brazil adds considerably to the Portuguese reading and writing community). So this is a nation of readers, and I begin to understand why, and to understand the Portuguese a bit better as well, by reading Pessoa and his fellow poets. I'm determined to read more Saramago before we return to Portugal as well.

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