Thursday, December 01, 2011



"In the henhouse he will leave only to die, the cock
crows hymns to liberty because he has been given two perches."

Hillary Clinton
clumps around Myanmar in
a turquoise pantsuit,
but in the museum of
marionettes in Lisbon

the most popular
Burmese puppets are either
the generals or
the alchemists. Portugese
political puppets smile,

blush and confess the
risks of more austerity,
while 2 million state
employees in the UK
walk off their jobs protesting

the gleam in the eye
of their government
officials, knives poised
above the gordian knot
of their pensions, their lifeline,

while here in Lisbon
the general strike fizzled
and fell on its face,
and Los Angeles police
chase off the folks camped out in

front of city hall,
while a team of Mexican lawyers
denounce Calderon
at the world criminal court.
Crimes against humanity

are are all the rage now;
as the ex-president of
the Ivory Coast
is brought to The Hague, many
others still wait in the wings,

and the most brilliant
puppet in Lisbon is a
woman in a chair
called A Piece of Soul Goes Out
of the Body through a Scar.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


15. The Post-Mortem Antics of Fernando Pessoa

Pessoa, clearly, is one of the more active dead poets running around these days.

When I first read José Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which Fernando shows up for visits with his alter-ego Ricardo first in his hotel room shortly after his return to Lisbon from Rio, then knocks on the door of the apartment he rents in Bairro Alto, and also occasionally appears in the street where Ricardo would surely be passing by sooner or later, Pessoa seemed like a highly singular character in an extraordinary novel, as I had never read any of his works.

I believe I read the novel in 1996 or 1997, not long after the Sunday literary supplement of the Mexican newspaper La Jornada had devoted an entire issue to Pessoa--including a narrative by either a Mexican or Spanish poet (my memory fails me here) who was pursuing Pessoa in Lisbon a bit like I have been doing, but sticking more closely to Pessoa's poetry and that of the three heteronyms who wrote poetry in Portugese. I do recall that there was a photo of the famous trunk, left in Pessoa's room and bursting at the seams with mostly unpublished works.

There were what have become the usual speculations about the origin of Pessoa's multiple writer personalities, as well as to why it wasn't really until the 1980's--50 years after his death--that Pessoa publications reproduced like rabbits, subsequently resulting in a number of fans.

For a while, when post-modernism was the catch of the day, Pessoa dangled from the critics' pens (or computers) like an entire boatload of postmodern sardines. Mercifully, postmoderism has pretty well passed into the archives of badly-concieved banalities, and Pessoa has held his ground--possibly due to his post-mortem predilection for prowling around the streets of Lisbon at night in some damned good novels (but I do not believe for a moment that he is part of the current craze for bedroom-eyed teenage vampires), first in the above-mentioned Saramago and then in Antonio Tabucchi's 1992 novel Requiem, where he only makes one nocturnal appearance (after all, the novel takes place from late morning on a summer Sunday until about 2 a.m. of the following day, so his presence from midnight is limited to a couple of hours).

Both novels are Pessoan in their philosophical underpinnings, with no distinction between dreams and "reality" and none between the dead and the living, either. In Tabucchi's novel, they are not only Pessoa, but the archetypal best friend (Tadeus) who slept with the narrator's partner (Isabel), but the narrator's father, and Isabel herself (who, in the film version, indicates that she was depressed and killed herself because she was not sure who father the child she was carrying).

In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Saramago pulls off a philosophical and literary tour de force, given that he makes Ricardo Reis credible as the novel's protagonist, and in many aspects (especially in his relationships with the women Lydia and Marcenda) much more alive than he was for 48 years--especially considering that he never was alive at all, but was one of Pessoa's heteronyms and therefore had to have died when Pessoa died, 76 years ago today.

The explanation given by Pessoa's character in the novel for his post-mortem walkabouts is that at least for some cases of the dead, they get to roam around for about 9 months after physically dying--a bookend image of their 9 months in the womb before being born.

The final turn of the novel's screw comes on the last page, when Pessoa comes to say that time has run out, and to say goodbye to Ricardo Reis, and Reis suddenly makes it clear that he knew all the time that he was not separate from Pessoa, and that he had been playing a game with himself:

"As they left the apartment, Fernando Pessoa told him, You forgot your hat. You know better than I do that hats are not worn where we are going. On the sidewalk opposite the park, they watched the pale lights flicker in the river, the ominous shadows of the mountains. Let's go then, said Fernando Pessoa. Let's go, agreed Ricardo Reis...." (p. 358)


Saramago, José. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Harcourt Brace & Co., Orlando, Florida, 1992


14. November 30, 1935

After having written his last commentary, in English, on November 29, Pessoa spent many hours in considerable discomfort, passing in and out of lucidity, during the night and the following day.

Shortly before 8:30 at night, Pessoa had a moment of ease. He opened his eyes and looked around him. When he couldn't make out the identity of his friends and his doctor, nor distinguish objects clearly, he serenely said, squinting his eyes a little, "Give me my glasses" (this request in Portugese), and then entered the abyss of silence.

Many important poets' last words have had to do with wanting to see more clearly--Goethe's famous request, "More light, more light" being one of the better known.

Poets have a need to see--whether their vision depends on the particular and literal images of poets who paint in words what they see in the landscape, as in William Carlos Williams' poem:

"so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

or a more universal landscape frought with metaphors, as in this observation from Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet:

"Eternal transients in ourselves, there is no other landscape but what we are. We possess nothing, since we do not even possess ourselves. We have nothing since we are nothing. What hands could I stretch out towards the universe? The universe is not mine: I myself am the universe." (p. 145)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


13. November 29, 1935

Pessoa's half-sister Henriqueta opens the envelope containing his telegram for her birthday.

She has no idea that Pessoa is as immobilized as she is--in a hospital bed.

And though he is immobilized, Pessoa's writing habits kick in, he reaches for a piece of paper and writes what will be his final written words, and they are in English: "I know not what tomorrow will bring". Words which we might dismiss as a banal bromide, a customary cliche, except that Pessoa is in a hospital in physical crisis.

What I see as peculiar, is that his last written communication would be in English. Tabucchi picks up on this, and in his novel Requiem has Pessoa speak only in English--explained as an idiosyncratic preference.

Perhaps, in fact, it had little to do with idiosyncracy and much more to do with a mechanism of putting fear and anguish at one remove by expressing his uncertainty in his second language--a sort of Brechtian endistancing effect?

Monday, November 28, 2011


12. "Nobody truly admits the existence of someone else."

In the Rua Garrett of the Chiado, there is a bronze statue of Pessoa seated at a table outside one of his favorite hangouts, A Café Brasileira. The table and chairs of ca. 1910 design are part of the composition.

I go inside to the bar, order and espresso and advise the woman (I refuse to adopt the fatuously inflated post-modern term, "barista" for someone who in this case is surely an immigrant from Luanda, or in other countries, would be either a dropout from a state university or a private university graduate with a degree in something like Peace Studies or Sustainable Horticulture) that I will be sitting outside.

Once I have deposited my book/camera bag and changed to clear distance glasses I take out my old Olympus SLR and position myself less than 4 feet from the sculpture, raise the camera to my eye and--just as I depress the shutter button--a short woman in a black jacket manages to squeeze herself between Pessoa and me, ruining the shot.

Because it is my birthday I have vowed to be generous and kind, and therefore resist telling her "Gracias, pendeja", as I would have if someone had pulled that agressive move in Mexico City, but under my breath I mutter "Thanks, asshole", and hope that she hears me--which, clearly, she will not, as she had admitted neither my existence nor the immortalized existence of Pessoa.

11. I turn 67 today, Pessoa taken to hospital at 47 in 1935

Something that is definitely odd about this entry is that I was writing it in my dreams last night, and in my dreams I had Pessoa entering the wrong hospital, the São José (possibly because it is not far from the pension, and the street of the same name is the extension of the Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, the street of my most-frequented restaurants), instead of the São Luis.

Two friends and his faithful doctor arranged for Pessoa to be hospitalized, but first he insisted on having the barber of the block come and give him a shave before being placed on the stretcher, and on the way to the hospital he prevailed on his friends to stop at the telegraph office and send a telegram with good wishes to his half-sister, Henriqueta, laid up in Estoril with a broken leg, as her birthday was the next day.

It is unclear to me, as I sit ruminating over a toasted sandwich of scrambled eggs, bacon and mushrooms in the Rossio, if Pessoa's medical crisis was due to kidney failure (which his frequently inaccurate English translator, Iain Watson, claims) or hepatic cirrhosis, as Pessoa was a devoted fan of an aguardiente called Macieira.

It may be the case that in my dream of sending Pessoa off to the wrong hospital, I could have saved his life? Not likely, and in any event by now he would have died of that disease of skepticism and disenchantment that we call "old age", as I am already 20 years older than he was then, and I was not born during the gasping fin de siecle gaeity of the 19th century, but smack in the middle of the frazzle and fray of World War II.

Pessoa wrote, as his "demi-heteronym" Bernardo Soares, in The Book of Disquiet (I prefer the term "unease" to that of "disquiet"):

"Civilization consists in giving something a name which is unsuitable, and then dreaming about the result. And the name, which is false, and the dream, which is true, really create a new reality". (p. 12)

Rather than being surrounded by the fog and rain which dominate the atmosphere of The Book of Disquiet, the day here is luminous--sunny and cold like it apparently was on that morning 76 years ago when Pessoa executed what we call in Spanish the "detalle", which is much more sensitive than the English word "detail", of having his friends send birthday greetings to Henriqueta, who confessed much later, when she was 81, that if there was anything she regretted in her life it was not having recognized her brothers genius, his greatness.

Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet. Quartet Books, London. 1991.