Selected Poems

By Fernando Pessoa

Translated by David Butler

Dedalus. 87 pp. £7.95

Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888 and died there in 1935. When he was 7, he moved with his mother and stepfather to Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather was Portuguese consul. He returned to Lisbon when he was 17 and rarely left the city thereafter. He earned a modest living translating and writing business letters in English and French for Portuguese firms doing business abroad. Though he contributed to literary journals and was a respected member of Lisbon’s intellectual circles, he was largely a solitary figure, living with relatives or in rented rooms and having virtually no love life at all.

Pessoa’s first poems were written in English. His first book in Portuguese, Mensagem, was not published until the year before his death. In fact, he published very little during his lifetime. His literary legacy was contained in a large wooden trunk filled with poetry, plays, criticism, even horoscopes. The jewel in this heap of litter seems to have been The Book of Disquiet (Penguin, $15).

Pessoa designated some of his poetry as his own, but most of his writings are attributed to one or another “heteronyms.” What’s a heteronym? In Pessoa’s view, apparently, a pseudonym is simply a name an author uses in place of his own. A heteronym is a full-fledged character, complete with biographical details, whose writing matches his character.

For instance, one of the heteronyms whose poems are included in Selected Poems is Alberto Caeiro. The biography Pessoa supplied for Caeiro states that he was born on April 16, 1889, lived most of his life with an aunt in the country and died of tuberculosis in Lisbon in 1915. The Book of Disquiet is attributed to Bernardo Soares, called by Pessoa a semi-heteronym, since his personality was merely a “mutilated” version of Pessoa’s own.

Translator David Butler is the Education Officer at the James Joyce Center in Dublin, where an exhibition devoted to Pessoa opened in April (Pessoa’s writings, like Joyce’s, are saturated with the presence of his native city).

Butler has put together a  representative sample of  Pessoa’s poems and punctuated them with appropriate selections from The Book of Disquiet. It is the perfect introduction to Pessoa’s peculiarly compelling work.

In addition to poems Pessoa acknowledged as his own, there are others by Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos (a monocle-wearing, opium-smoking, absinthe-drinking dandy who was also a naval engineer), and Ricardo Reis (a physician, classicist and monarchist said to have moved to Brazil in 1919).

According to heteronym Alvaro de Campos, “Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist.” Small wonder then that Pessoa’s semi-heteronym Soares should call The Book of Disquiet “my factless autobiography, my lifeless history.”

What is most real for Pessoa and his invented collaborators is what gets put on the page in writing. In “This,” one of his own poems, Pessoa writes that “I feel / With the imagination. / I don’t use the heart.” He explains:

… I write in the midst

Of that which isn’t to hand,

Free from personal involvement,

Serious about that which is not.

Feelings? Let whoever reads feel!

Pessoa and Co. clearly see  themselves as the measure of all things. As Caeiro puts it:

From my village I can see as much of the Universe as can be seen from the Earth …

For this reason my village is as large as any Earth whatsoever

For I am the stature of that which I see

And not the stature of my own height …

Pessoa’s writings to some extent remind one of Beckett’s, except that Pessoa lacks Beckett’s mordancy. The Portuguese writer and his alter egos seem not only content with their alienation, but even pleased with it. As de Campos puts it “Tobacconist’s,” “I enjoy, in one sensitive and appropriate moment, / The liberation from all speculation / And the knowledge that metaphysics is a consequence of being out of sorts.”

This anti-metaphysical attitude is characteristic of de Campos:

I have a rotten cold,

And everyone knows how rotten colds

Alter the entire system of the universe.Å

They irritate us against life

And make us sneeze even at metaphysics.

Caeiro has a different, though not entirely opposed, point of view: “The soap bubbles with which that child / Amuses himself at the end of a straw / Are transparently an entirely philosophy. / Clear, useless and transient as nature … And nobody, not even the child that releases them, / Claims they are anything more than what they appear to be.”

To get a copy of Selected Poems you’ll have to go online to www.centralbooks.co.uk. Go to the virtual bookstore and order it there. It’s worth doing because Pessoa is, quite simply, not like any other author. In the words of his semi-heteronym Soares:

I am the outskirts of a town which isn’t there, the lengthy commentary on a book that hasn’t been written. I am nobody. I don’t know how to feel, I don’t know how to think, I don’t know how to want. I am a figure in a novel that has to be written, passing in the air, taken asunder without having been, among the dreams of somebody who had no idea how to complete me.

Contact books editor Frank Wilson at 215-854-5616 or fwilson@phillynews.com.