Tag Archives: Fernando Pessoa

Two Syllables In Love

Between what I see and what I say,
between what I say and what I keep silent,
between what I keep silent and what I dream,
between what I dream and what I forget:
Octavio Paz from, To Speak: To Act


The Poems of Octavio Paz is a compilation of works by the Mexican poet that lived from 1914 – 1998, edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger. It is a book, like many,  I mostly read standing in a kitchen while I transformed the random ingredients found in a client’s refrigerator into a beautiful meal. Broccoli con muddica (Sicilian cauliflower pasta with toasted bread crumbs – I love the Sicilian word muddica) and a perfectly pretty pink rhubarb compote slipped in between the verse, my wooden spoon periodically pausing to allow a sigh, letting the words oxygenate  my blood.

Cold rapid hands
draw back one by one
the bandages of dark
I open my eyes
I am living
                at the center
of a wound still fresh

In his poem A Draft of Shadows Paz has a beautiful line: To see the world is to spell it. I am an abysmal speller and this may in fact explain my skewed and incorrect perspective of the world. Now I know. The little dictionary I carry with me has been asked far too much, it simply is not up to the task of correcting all I see. Oh well, at least I can successfully correct for salt.

I love that Paz constantly refers to the mechanics of his art. The punctuation, the spelling and the syllables. He and I are mesmerized by the forms and functions. It’s not just the meaning of the words – it is the ingredients – the words, the commas, the syllables! Sílabas: se enlazan y se desenlazan (Syllables twine and untwine).

I am in a room abandoned by language
You are in another identical room
Or we both are
on a street your glance has depopulated
The world
imperceptibly comes apart
decayed beneath our feet
I am stopped in the middle of this
unwritten line

From Trowbridge Street

His poems are nearly always dedicated to someone, either someone he presumably knew or was inspired by, including the translator of the book which is marvelous to consider. There must be something very different in a collaborative translation, even if the author has no depth of fluency, the auditory and visual aspects can be experienced and molded.

Many of his poems are very long. I’m a little scared of very long poems, but when they capture – it’s awe. Blanco is one such. It is wonderful in many ways, its length is what gives a melody to the usual beat of poetry. By the forth or fifth page reader and writer are harmonizing, and its resonance is deep.

In The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa said (roughly) that poetry expressed everything- in a language that no one speaks. I love that idea: a language no one speaks. We are all bilingual! So what if it is a language of one? Through poetry one can originate a language of their own soul or, as reader, become sole translator to another’s. I’ve always wanted to be a translator. That’s grand.

In between yours and mine, you and me, is an entire lexicon, grammar, and comprehension.  If only someone could speak me. I speak Paz, but of course, it isn’t Paz when I speak it- between us there is yet another.

Words are inexact
and say inexact things.
But saying this or that,
                             they say us.

From Letter of Testimony

* Title comes from the extraordinary poem – Blanco.

for Lasse Söderberg

The world leaps
in front of thought
in front of sound
the world leaps like a horse
in front of the wind
like a sulfur bull
in front of the night
it’s lost in the streets of my skull
the tracks of the beast are everywhere
the scarlet tattoo on the face of the tree
the ice tattoo on the tower’s forehead
the electric tattoo on the sex of the church
its claws in your neck
its paws on your belly
the violet sign
the sunflower that turns towards the target
toward the scream toward the bored
the sunflower that turns like a flayed sigh
the signature of the nameless across your skin
everywhere the blinding scream
the black swell that covers thought
the angry bell that clangs in my head
the bell of blood in my chest
the image that laughs at the top of the tower
the word that explodes words
the image that burns all the bridges
the woman who vanished in the middle of a kiss
the derelict who killed her children
the idiot the liar the incestuous daughter
the persecuted doe
the prophetic beggarwoman
the girl who in the middle of my life
wakes me and says remember

That’s Not My Name

The fictions of my imagination (as it later developed) may weary me, but they don’t hurt or humiliate. Impossible lovers can’t possible cheat on us, or smile at us falsely, or be calculating in their caresses. They never forsake us, and they don’t die or disappear. – Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (142)

nhIt’s such a nice day that I don’t even feel like dreaming. I enjoy it with all the sincerity of my senses, to which my intelligence bows. (128)

The pressure of always having to explain ourselves is immense. This is a constant struggle in my life. Fernando Pessoa is a man that rejected the premise and yet embraced the challenge. The Book of Disquiet, which has quite captured me,  is a book of internal concerns, but whose? The more I read the more I am curious to know the man- Pessoa. Not the projected heteronyms that he is famous for, but the man. I have the feeling he would be impossible to know, and would start to make one doubt knowing anything at all.

And yet, I know that feeling. There is the me here, and the me there. The me that my friends see, and the me that wants to be. Late at night, as I struggle with my covers and contemplate whether or not I am cold or have to pee, there is sometimes-  just me. The ridiculousness of this situation, which is essentially life,  is what Pessoa perfectly captures.

My God, My God, who am I watching? How many am I? Who is I? What is this gap between me and myself? (187)

Perhaps because I am a woman who has had more than one name, I am more keenly sensitive to the point. There are four that accompany me. But if I only take the first, Jessica- there are many variations. I am Jessica, and yet that is the name that I associate with being in trouble. Jess is short and somewhat dismissive. Only one person ever called me Jessie, I could have loved him just for that, but he did not press the point. I think if Fernando Pessoa had been named Frank he would not have been capable of the identity shifts that he excelled in.

And since I now know beforehand that every vague hope will end in disillusion, I have special delight of already enjoying the disillusion with the hope, like the bitter with the sweet that makes the sweet sweeter by way of contrast. (169)

I’m not at all sure who wrote this book. It’s that voice inside you that is a water tap left on- the one that wants to retreat so far from it all that it is not even a matter of wanting or not wanting to have hope. It is the space above where there is no wanting or not wanting: that is the feeling that is fully articulated in this mesmerizing compilation of  musings.

Inside, things are different than they appear outside. Pessoa uses a single stream of focus to drive this point home. If I take a little bit of me and run, run, run away with it- but would I have the nerve?  I could not be so selfish to devote myself to the absolute fleshing out of all my facets. I am sure they are not that interesting, not even to me. But Pessoa insists they are. His, mine and yours. It is our parts that join us. I am all these things and none of them too.

Today I was struck by an absurd but valid sensation. I realized, in an inner flash, that I’m no one. (227)

Time for a Dolorous Interlude:

Reductio ad absurdum is one of my favorite drinks. (252)

Oh, I’ll drink to that.

* Penguin Classic edited and translated by Richard Zenith

Indifference or something like that

Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me. The presence of another person derails my thoughts; I dream of the other’s presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define.
– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet


I have a very pretty copy of Marcus Aurelious’ Meditations. The stoic message has  provided some succor to my mind over the course of my adult life. Although, lately I found the philosophy wanting; the insupportable  prejudices and limitations that we are all suppose to approach with the long view of historical relativism makes me impatient, and the connotations of a philosophy that is rational to the point of emotionlessness leaves me cold as I labor to seek warmth in my life.  I think I prefer to feel this life, this body, this day.

This is of course a gross simplification of Aurelius’ philosophy, which still resonates with me on many levels, I only bring it up to explain why I am so intrigued with the Portuguese poet and writer, Fernando Pessoa. As I read his strange and fascinating musings The Book of Disquiet, I am constantly brought back to Aurelius. There seems to me a direct connection and conversation between the two thousand year span. Pessoa’s meditations are of the disquieting push-pull of disconnection. Yet, as much as it might annoy Aurelius, if he debased himself enough to feel annoyed- which he wouldn’t, they read similar to me:

The truly wise man is the one who can keep external events from changing him in any way. To do this, he covers himself with an armour of realities closer to him than the world’s facts and through which the facts, modified accordingly, reach him. – The Book of Disquiet (94)

Among the truths you will do well to contemplate most frequently are these two: first, that things can never touch the soul, but stand outside it, so that disquiet can arise only from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and will be no more. – Meditations (Book IV, 3)

It’s like a street corner philosophy slam. Pessoa agrees with Aurelius that one shouldn’t confuse body with imagination, but Pessoa then says- to hell with body, your imagination is preferably sufficient. Live there. It seems to me a logical conclusion of Stoicism. Nothing can touch your soul. But wait -I forget, why don’t we want our souls to be touched? Aurelius might just ignore me and think I was a womanly pain in the ass for asking such a question. Maybe I am. But Pessoa is a pain in the ass too. He might look up from his inner reverie and see me for a moment.

Pessoa’s beautifully rendered “factless autobiography” in which he outlines his proud yet regretful removal of himself  from the physical world is similar to Meditations, but Pessoa’s meditations are of a modern profound disgust.

All this stupid insistence on being self-sufficient! All this cynical awareness of pretended sensations! All this imbroglio of my soul with these sensations, of my thoughts with the air and the river – all just to say that life smells bad and hurts me in my consciousness. All for not knowing how to say, as in that simple and all-embracing phrase from the Book of Job, “My soul is weary of my life!” – The Book of Disquiet (77)

Yet the capacity for sensation belongs also to the stalled ox…- Meditations (Book III, 16)

Where Aurelius is sublimating, Pessoa depresses the exaltation. But they end up near the same place. Somewhere on the arch they overlap. In a way, Pessoa is more honest in the inevitable difficulties and contradictions of any strict ideology.

There’s more subtlety in my self-contradiction (115)

Pessoa’s prose are so relentlessly sad and capitulating, I find them very uplifting and amusing. I accept that that just may be my macabre sense of humor- I can not compete with his haughty revolt against the physical world. Pessoa wins. But I do love him.

I’m one of those souls women say they love but never recognize when they meet us – one of those that they would never recognize, even if they recognize us. (101)

And he mocks me. That’s okay, maybe I’m one of those souls that men say they love but don’t, so we are equals, Señor Pessoa and I.

*Title from chapter 124 (Chapter on indifference or something like that)

Penguin Classics edited and translated by Richard Zenith

Wrong Again

I know, I alone
How much it hurts, this heart
With no faith nor law
Nor melody nor thought.

Only I, only I
And none of this can I say
Because feeling is like the sky –
Seen, nothing in it to see.
Fernando Pessoa

DSCI0012I hope if there is ever a cocktail party in the afterlife I will find myself seated next to Herodotus. I just finished Book Two of The Landmark Herodotus The Histories which is edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis.

The enthusiasm with which he collected as much information in the form of fact, “fact,” anecdote, eye-witness report or opinion is highly engaging. Book Two focuses on Egypt and all things and matters Egyptian. It’s all very interesting and entertaining.

I have to say that I am enjoying the interplay between Herodotus’s text and the footnotes most especially. In a description of Lake Moeris, Herodotus is, as usual, very thorough in his account:

Its circumference measures 397 miles, equaling the length of the coast of Egypt itself, but in this case extending from north to south. Its depth is 50 fathoms at its deepest point. This is clearly a man-made lake… (section 2.149 page 187)

What I haven’t put in are the numerous footnote annotations. Along with converting, for instance, a fathom into feet, (1=about 6 feet) and that sort of thing,  is very helpful information such as – Herodotus is wrong about the origins of the lake. It is clearly a natural lake. That one made me burst out laughing because there is a “Herodotus is mistaken” on nearly every page. In fact he is wrong about the circumference as well, it’s actually 170 miles. But the subtle cheek of the retort “It is clearly a natural lake.” Well, I found it very funny.

Okay, so I might need Mr. Strassler seated on my left to keep the information on the up and up, but that’s okay, it’s a party! Champagne cocktails for all! What fun it would be to listen to all the fantastic stories Herodotus gleaned.

He is the father of history just figuring it out the best he can as he goes. It is his passion for it that is so attractive to the reader.

Today I was thinking all day about a discussion (maybe too strong – an exchange of comments more like) I had on an excellent literary blog in which my question was whether or not it really mattered if one possessed all, or at least a lot of the knowledge that was referred to in any given book. I had read the book in question  The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis almost 2/3 through before I found out (by happenstance) that Reis was a heteronym*  of the poet Fernando Pessoa (who was a character in the book, along with Reis – it’s a really good novel by the way).

I was put out at the time- it seemed pretty relevant information. How the hell was I suppose to know?- I had swiped the book from one of my kid’s bookshelf after all, I didn’t know anything about it! But then I calmed down, after all, I had been enjoying the book all along, so it didn’t really matter. Did it?

I used my embarrassing ignorance to illustrate the larger point that the story is that good. Good enough to stand on its own, unhinged by prerequisite knowledge.  But, as the other blogger commented,  (and pointed to another excellent literary blog as example) the knowledge adds layers. And that is absolutely true, hence my irritation.

The interesting thing to me however, is that knowledge, on its own, is merely pedantic (and sadly, often is, in the hands or words of the “educated”). It is the joined force of knowledge and passion in both the  writer and the reader that raises the meaning to the correct level. Like many people I am intimidated by really smart people, and yet knowledge is no mystery: it can always, and fairly equally be acquired. Passion is different.

Letting yourself really love something almost demands that you don’t think yourself away from the feeling. They are opposites in a way: knowledge is full, facts you can see and point to, but there is nothing to point to when it comes to feeling. It’s a funny sort of balance, but trying to get it right is half the fun I suppose. Maintain the boundless wonder while accumulating the facts, that’s the trick.

Herodotus may get some of the knowledge parts wrong, okay, more than some, but his passion and love of collecting and sharing as much information as he can is wonderfully inspiring. His opinions and insights are very enjoyable to read. I suppose there is the possibility that he might turn out to be a complete bore of a blow hard after a few drinks, but I doubt it.

*Heteronym is a concept of Pessoa’s invention, it is a term he used to name the characters that he sometimes wrote as. He wrote many poems, for instance, as Ricardo Reis, and there were others as well that even “knew” each other and had exchanges. As Wiki explains, these are not pseudonyms, merely false names, they are fully realized characters with individual writing styles.  See? Knowledge – it’s all good.

**Herodotus Book One
Herodotus Book Three