The many voices of nobody


Poetry: David Butler has done an honest job of work in his translations. He has captured the essential melancholy of the Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), in his many guises.

No tinkering here. Butler's version of the Selected Poems is as good an introduction to the enigmatic character of Pessoa's poetry as exists in English.

The fascination that Pessoa has held and continues to hold for many readers, both Portuguese and non-Portuguese, lies in the multiplicity of the "personalities" through which his work was mediated. These "personalities" - first of all himself and then three others in his poetry, Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and, in the prose of The Book of Disquiet, Bernando Soares - were described by him as "heteronyms" (the Oxford English Dictionary defines these, as applied to optics, as "two images of one object seen in looking at a point beyond it"), to be distinguished from such concepts as "personae" or "masks" as these would be understood by Yeats or Eliot or Pound or Valéry.

It is all much deeper than literary technique. Psychiatric medicine may have a name for it. Possibly that name is schizophrenia, the common psychiatric malaise of the last and this century. It may very well be that it is essentially in this that Pessoa can lay claim to modernity. At the level of literary technique, however, he is no James Joyce despite his experimentalism in prose and poetry.

From the time of his childhood, Pessoa had had dialogues with imaginary personalities. He heard them, saw them and even named them. In time he came to write their poems for them. Here is how he described the "birth" of Alberto Caeiro:

On the day when I finally desisted [in an attempt to write a kind of pagan nature poetry out of his own personality] - it was the 8th of March 1914 - I went over to a high desk and taking a sheet of paper, began to write, standing, as I always write when I can. And I wrote 30-odd poems straight off, in a kind of ecstasy whose nature I cannot define . . . my master had appeared to me, to whom I at once gave the name Alberto Caeiro.

The following by Caeiro, expressing his odd brand of "paganism", is as good a key as any to the heart of Pessoa himself:

The astonishing reality of things

Is my discovery of each and every day.

Everything is what it is,

And it's difficult to explain to anyone how much this gladdens me

And how much this suffices me.

It is enough to exist to be complete.

But to return to the book as a whole, the usual method of presenting Pessoa's poems is to group them heteronymically or chronologically, giving us, separately, the pagan Caeiro, the neo-classic Reis and the experimental Álvaro de Campos. David Butler, in his scrupulously honest translations, has opted instead for a thematic arrangement; and he has used brief quotations from the prose of The Book of Disquiet to provide linkage. It is an interesting experiment and it makes it possible to hear, as though coming from one individual, the voice of this strange, multiple-voiced writer. But this thematic arrangement also runs the risk of denying the fractured personality of the man.

It may be that Pessoa, who was a devotee of Shakespeare and greatly interested in drama, was by nature a frustrated dramatist for whom theatrical opportunities did not exist in the Lisbon of his time. There is one predominant theme in Pessoa's work, both in the poetry and prose: the impossibility, at least at a philosophical level, of establishing an abiding "self". Even functionally, Pessoa had difficulties with this. Despite his many literary friendships, he was a lonely man in life, incapable of emotional relationships. It was only in the world of literature, contemporary and past, that he could feel at home. There the ghosts of writers, those ghosts that survive in words alone, gave him the companionship that life denied him. In this he resembles Borges, who admired his work, but who was equally unsuccessful in living in the "real" world.

Finally, I have often thought the best comment on Pessoa is to be found in these lines from Emily Dickinson:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you - Nobody - Too?

It is this predominant theme of anonymity, as well as our post-structuralist uncertanty of the nature of language that gives Pessoa's poetry its continuing relevance and fascination.

• Michael Smith is a poet, critic and translator. A selection of his poems is due out later this year from Shearsman/New Writers' Press