The Portuguese modernist poet, Fernando Pessoa, had not published many poetry collections during his lifetime (1888-1934). Though he wrote prolifically and was involved in literary ventures, several of his poems only came to light with the publication of The Book of Disquiet that brought together all his unpublished writings in one place. You might have seen the book crop up frequently in Amazon India recommendations as well. It has become quite popular in India too, similar to the fame that writers like Murakami and Marquez seem to enjoy among Indian readers.
Tiny and pastel green Penguin Moderns brought out a collection of Pessoa’s 29 poems, I Have More Souls Than One. For those daunted by the size of The Book of Disquiet, this mini collection is a good way to introduce yourself to Pessoa’s style of writing.
It is indeed his unique writing style that sheds light on his musings and philosophies of life. Pessoa wrote poetry not only under his own name but also under names of other personalities he created. Each personality appears to have a distinct style and personal history. The paths of different personalities even crisscross each other in Pessoa’s oeuvre. It then feels like an ultimate crossover of the many selves that Pessoa wrote about. This creation of various literary selves is known as heteronyms. Pessoa created almost close to 70 such heteronyms!
Heteronyms are not the same as a nom de plume or pseudonym. The latter is simply a name one adopts but a heteronym is adopting not just a name but a creating a completely separate personality.
I Have More Souls Than One focuses on three such heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Richard Reis. At the end of the collection, Pessoa speaks as himself. Caeiro’s poems are interlinked with nature and his existence and thoughts are inseparable from it. Whether it is describing his life’s impermanence as a bubble or the evenings as perpetually a brooding and melancholic time, Caeiro proclaims himself as ‘the only Nature poet.’
Richard Reis has a more Classical bent of mind, recalling in his poems Greek and Roman Gods to drive a metaphor. Alvaro de Campos, on the other hand, seems to be filled with the need to be everything yet nothing. He is more contradictory in his ideas and thoughts. Scholars have also noted the influence of Walt Whitman on Campos’ poetic style.
Campos’ most famous poem, Tobacconist’s begins with:
I am nothing.
Never shall be anything.
Cannot will to be anything.
This apart, I have in me all the dreams of the world.
These lines manifest the curious contradiction that Pessoa embodied in his work. His poetry asserts this idea that existence is nothingness or that there is nothing other than the self. Yet, this idea is opposite to how Pessoa expressed himself: through myriad personas or heteronyms.
As Adam Kirsch states, for all of Pessoa’s heteronyms “nullity was a muse.” This is not to say that Pessoa reveled in the nihilistic erasure of self. Instead, if one reads his work, they speak of nourishment of the self, of the need to care for it. For example, in Beyond the Bend in the Road, Pessoa exhorts us to think about only where we are, rather than chasing or worrying about what comes next.
The title of this Penguin Modern collection is derived from, ‘Legion Live in Us.‘ The poem contradicts the opening of Tobacconist’s as instead of being nothing, here the persona shows,
I have more souls than one.
There are more I’s than myself.
And still I exist
Indifferent to all.
I silence them: I speak.
In Legion Live in Us, Pessoa, through the persona of Reis, speaks of nothingness and also of multitudes existing side by side, “where thinking or feeling is.”
In the poems presented under Pessoa’s name in the Penguin Modern Collections, the poet speaks at length about an idealized love. This is again opposite to his actual life, where he only had one fleeting relationship. It is also a prevalent European subject among male poets since times immemorial. Pessoa’s other personalities speak of much more diverse viewpoints. Pessoa seeks to escape his usual, conditioned self through them. He plays with the idea that in multiplication can one find and understand oneself.
Perhaps for Pessoa, his self meant nothing other than the norm of multitudes. Self was not one, but many; or perhaps, it was his imagination or dreams as he puts it in Tobacconist’s that constituted his entire self. And through dreams, we can find one’s self. We can continue to ponder over such paradoxical prepositions. In doing so, we must also immerse and elicit our own understanding of our complicated self or selves.