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Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) - a poet who lived most his life in Lisbon, Portugal, and who died in obscurity there - has in recent years gained international recognition as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Now Richard Zenith has collected in a single volume all the major poetry of "one of the most extraordinary poetic talents the century has produced" (Microsoft Network's Reading Forum). Fernando Pessoa was as much a creator of personas as he was of poetry, prose, and criticism. He wrote under...
Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) - a poet who lived most his life in Lisbon, Portugal, and who died in obscurity there - has in recent years gained international recognition as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Now Richard Zenith has collected in a single volume all the major poetry of "one of the most extraordinary poetic talents the century has produced" (Microsoft Network's Reading Forum). Fernando Pessoa was as much a creator of personas as he was of poetry, prose, and criticism. He wrote under numerous "heteronyms," literary alter egos with fully fleshed identities and writing styles, who supported and criticized each other's work in the margins of his drafts and in the literary journals of the time. From spare minimalism to a revolutionary exuberance that recalls Leaves of Grass, Pessoa's oeuvre was radically new and anticipated contemporary literary concerns to an unnerving degree. The first comprehensive edition of Pessoa's poetry in the English language, Fernando Pessoa & Co. is a work of extraordinary depth and poetic precision. "Zenith's selection of Pessoa is a beautiful one-volume course in the soul of the twentieth century." — Booklist
Even in his native country, Pessoa spent his life in relative obscurity. Born in Lisbon in 1888, Pessoa was transplanted to South Africa at the age of six; his first poems were written in English. Upon his return at 17, Pessoa rarely strayed from Lisbon, where he was a frequent and solitary drinker in the cafés and taverns of the old quarter. Like Kafka, he eked out a modest income as a clerk, living alone with few friends and virtually no romantic attachments. During his lifetime, Pessoa published only one slim volume in Portuguese, as well as more than 200 poems and 100 pieces of prose in magazines and journals.
This seemingly mediocre existence masked the violent exuberance and radical inventiveness of Pessoa's poetic efforts. After his death, more than 25,000 manuscripts were discovered in a wooden trunk in his rented room.
Pessoa's single most important contribution to modernism began in 1914, when he invented the "heteronyms"— fictitious characters — who were to serve as the ostensible authors of the majority of his future poems. Pessoa was careful to distinguish a heteronym from a pseudonym, for while the latter is merely a false name for an author, the former is an individual in his own right, with a distinct voice, biography, and system of beliefs. Thus were born Alberto Caeiro, a 'noble savage,' unlettered, bucolic, and immersed in his immediate sensations; Ricardo Reis, the middle-aged pagan, monarchist, and present-day Horace who taught school in Brazil; and Alvaro de Campos, the aesthete, an opium-eating explorer of the Orient, engrossed in reflections about his own nature. These were only the most important of the estimated 70 personas to whom Pessoa attributed his writing. Last of all, of course, was the "orthonym" he created: himself. The writings signed by the individual called "Fernando Pessoa," we are told, should be viewed as separate from the man who lived in Lisbon, employed as a clerk. Though the two share much in common, the orthonym is completely inserted into the dimension of the other heteronyms -- this "Pessoa" was deeply inspired by his first meeting with Caeiro, had his work criticized by Campos, and so forth.
These four major heteronyms are here very sensibly organized by Zenith into four distinct segments of the book, which are each in turn arranged in chronological order. This allows the different personas to emerge as fully fledged poetic entities, each with different aesthetics, techniques, and concerns. Where Caeiro possesses a beautiful simplicity and purity in his reflections of nature, Reis is classical and elegant in his considerations of the metaphysical; and while Campos has a fervency and revolutionary urgency resembling both Whitman and Marinetti, "Pessoa" undramatically but with perfect precision probes the uncertainties in his own identity and in the spiritual structure of the universe. It is here, in his orthonym's incisive, subtle examinations of the self, that we gain a glimpse of Pessoa's essential project:
The poet is a faker
Who's so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.
And those who read his words
Will feel in what he wrote
Neither of the pains he has
But just the one they don't.
And so around its track
This thing called the heart winds,
A little clockwork train
To entertain our minds.
The poet's pain, the fictive pain he describes, the pain that the readers perceive -- for Pessoa, the world is reflection upon reflection, a labyrinth of mirrors. This labyrinth is the soul itself, or rather, the multiplicity of soul:
"I don't know how many souls I have.
I've changed at every moment.
I always feel like a stranger.
I've never seen or found myself."
Even before postmodernism dissected the unified subject, Pessoa performed the surgery on himself, becoming a host of selves formed out of language:
"That's why I read, as a stranger,
My being as if it were pages
Not knowing what will come
And forgetting what has passed."
Pessoa's sacrifice achieves its purpose: This collection is one of exquisite epiphanic discoveries and dazzling explorations of the inner landscape.
— Monica Ferrell
Posted July 3, 2011
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