A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe [Fernando Pessoa, edited and translated by Richard Zenith]

“I’ve divided all my humaness among the various authors whom I’ve served as literary executor…I subsist as a kind of medium of myself, but I’m less real than the others.  Less substantial, less personal, and easily influenced by them all.”

I was introduced to Fernando Pessoa in the excellent novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago.  Possibly the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th Century, there is so much to be said about Pessoa, whose name means “Person” in Portuguese, and this seems to have affected the poet throughout his life.

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist” Alvaro de Campos

Alvaro de Campos was one of the “heteronyms” (alter egos with startingly different styles, points of view, and biographies) that Pessoa created and wrote under.  These included, other than Campos:

Alberto Caeiro
Ricardo Reis
Alexander Search – who wrote in English
Charles Robert Anon – who wrote in English
Jean Seul – who wrote in French

Pessoa wrote poems, articles, essays under all these names, including references to the other heternoyms, such as the quote from Alvaro de Campos above.

Richard Zenith puts together a rich introduction to Pessoa, his life and his poetry. So you are itching to get to the poems themselves, and when they arrive, they do not disappoint.  Split between his main Heteronyms and their works, the whole volume is an odyssey whose reward is the sheer delight in reading the pure, simple and evocative poems that Pessoa wrote.  I wanted to include some parts of some of the poems, but as I would quite happily reproduce the whole book (and I’m pretty sure there are laws against that) I have simply highlighted my favourites, although a great number of them don’t have names.

Alberto Caiero, The Master, as he is referred to, is by far my favourite of the heteronyms.  His poems come straight from nature, and paint the picture of a serene uncomplicated existence.  The following excerpts are from The Keeper of Sheep

IV
…As if I’d lived my wh0le life
Peacefully, like the garden wall
Having ideas and feeling, the same way
A flower has scent and colour

XLVIII
…Almost happy like a man tired of being sad.

XLIX is a simply beautiful poem.

In his collection the Shepherd in Love, the poems become more scattered, like a storm of thoughts has interrupted his serene contemplation of nature.  The 2nd and 3rd poems of his uncollected works also deserve a special mention.

Ricardo Reis is the classicist, the lover of the Greeks whose poetry is slightly more formal, but no less enjoyable than the natural Caiero.

“…Let us also make our lives one day,
Consciously forgetting there’s night, Lydia,
Before and after
The little we endure”

“…Sunflowers forever
Beholding the Sun,
We will serenely
Depart from life,
Without even the regret
of having lived.”

“…Learn what your body
Your boundary, teachers you” 

Alvaro de Campos was originally going to compose five futuristic odes, and although three are in the book they have been partially cobbled together from the many verses de Campos wrote.  The Maritime ode particularly is a rambling, powerful ode, utterly compelling from start to finish, dedicated to the sea and it’s hold on those who travel on her.

“…Brushing against the ropes, descending the cramped stairways,
Smelling this greasy metallic and maritime mixture of all this-
Ships seen from up close are something else and are the same,
Stirring the same nostalgia and the same yearning in another way” 

His section also contains excerpts from two odes, the first one of which is some three pages of smooth prose dedicated to the night and the moon.

Pessoa himself is no less gifted than his creations, and everything from girls singing to shutting himself up in his house at night, everyday activities are described simply, purely and the whole volume is an absolute pleasure to read from start to finish.  A poem dated the 5th of April 1931 seems to particularly describe Pessoa

“…If people get tired
Of being in the same place,
Why shouldn’t they tire
Of having the same self?” 

I bought this to read while in Portugal for two weeks, along with The Elephants Journey by Jose Saramago (review to follow) and I ended up visiting the house where Pessoa spent 15 years of his life, now dedicated to him.  I’ll finish with some lines from Ricardo Reis, that I wrote on the first page of my notebook:

“Happy those who, placing their delight
In slight things, are never deprived
of each day’s natural fortune!” 

link to Casa Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon, here

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