Why are poets and cities so entangled? Perhaps because they allow us to feel, to dream and to live in the landscapes they create with their words. Discovering Pessoa and the many heteronyms he created in Lisbon
What makes poets and their cities so entangled? Why do we naturally associate Santiago with Neruda, Lahore with Faiz and London with Eliot? I try to toy with this Rubik’s cube as I read Fernando Pessoa, walking around Lisbon. The poet is omnipresent in the city. Having never been in Lisbon before, I try to find a good bookstore to walk to - it is a tried and tested route, it will always lead you where you need to be. Not knowing its significance, I reach Livraria Bertrand in Chiado. I look for the English version of a French title that catches my eyes – Le Livre de l’intranquillité. They don’t have it. I look at some other books by the poet and come across a translated collection titled Forever Someone Else. From memory, I fetch fragments of readings that described how Pessoa invented himself in the many personalities he created, insisting that he himself was just one of them.
The guy at the counter smiles and asks that since I’m at the oldest bookstore of the world (their disclaimer: oldest in operation), would I like a stamp on my book? I don’t really know how to react to this. The phrase ‘oldest bookstore’ makes me feel uncomfortable - as if there was a beginning to reading and writing - I’m sure there was, but I don’t like the thought of limiting the business of books in these temporal terms - but saying ‘no’ to something like this just means you are rude and strange. Thankfully, the salesperson senses my discomfort and shoves the book in a packet, handing it over to me, still smiling. ‘Obrigado’. The word for thanks in Portuguese translates as ‘I’m bound to you by obligation’. It just makes so much sense.
I begin to read as I loiter around the old districts, sauntering along serpentine lanes, climbing up and down the hundreds of stairs from Chiado to Alfama via a long stroll to Rossio. The first poem I read is titled Lisbon Revisited (1926).
Once more I see you,
City of my horrifyingly lost childhood…
Happy and sad city, once more I dream here…
I? Is it one and the same I who lived here, and came back,
And came back again, and again,
And yet again have come back?
Or are we - all the I’s that I was here or that were here -
A series of bead-beings joined together by a string of memory,
A series of dreams about me dreamed by someone outside me?
Once more I see you,
With a heart that’s more distant, a soul that’s less mine.
This poem was written by Álvaro de Campos, one of the heteronyms Pessoa created - or rather as he insists, all of them were created by Alberto Caeiro, their master. Caeiro, writes Pessoa of one of his heteronyms, ‘was born near Lisbon in 1889 and died where he was born in 1915. This Alberto Caeiro had two disciples and a philosophical follower. The two disciples, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, took different paths: the former intensified the paganism discovered by Caeiro and made it artistically orthodox; the latter, basing himself on another part of Caeiro’s work, developed an entirely different system, founded exclusively on sensations. The philosophical follower, Antonio Mora, has one or two books to write in which he will conclusively prove the metaphysical and practical truth of paganism. A second philosopher of this pagan school, whose name has still not appeared to my inner sight or hearing, will write an apology for paganism based on entirely different arguments.’
And thus, we are introduced to the many poets and their many lives in this crystal world of words. Pessoa is said to have invented more than seventy parallel lives of poets, among which Fernando Pessoa-himself is just one. I think I am in love with Álvaro de Campos, the sensationist, the dandy, the flâneur - from Pessoa’s descriptions, he was born in Tavira, is a naval engineer who studied in Glasgow (like Pessoa himself), lives in Lisbon and does nothing. He is ‘tall, slim and a bit prone to stoop’, ‘neither pale nor dark, vaguely corresponding to the Portuguese Jewish type, but with smooth hair that’s usually parted on one side’. But what I love most about Campos is that Pessoa writes in his name when he feels ‘a sudden impulse to write’, not knowing what.
It is Campos again I read after a small hike up the stairs. I come across a clearing, not knowing its name. On one empty bench, I sit down and begin to smoke. I see the word ‘Saudade’ engraved onto the cobbled street. The Portuguese word for a deep, nostalgic sense of longing or desire, for someone or something one has lost, when that someone or something can never return. There is much debate regarding the Portuguese-ness or exclusiveness attached to the word - I am often a literary sceptic - but I cannot completely wish away this exclusiveness - perhaps other languages do have parallels of the word but the right kind of sincerity in suffering and deep emotional heaviness of being tormented from loving an impossibility is perhaps something not easily attainable in one word in most languages. Saudade seems to be written across the walls of Lisbon - what makes this beautiful city so sad? One can really listen to the silence of music while walking up and down the stairs and suddenly, the physical reality and location of being in a city does not make any sense. It is an effervescence that is constantly under the threat of being engulfed by the River Tagus, to be drained into the depths of the Atlantic.
Is it, in fact, this geographical location of Lisbon - and Portugal, with its history of discoveries of sea routes, separation from loved ones, lives lived in melancholic journeys, shipwrecks the news of which never reached land, forever waiting for the known un-return of those who left? Is it the loss of Portugal’s position and colonial power - the empire that would have mastered the world? Or is it a deep sensitivity that rises from constant interaction with the many others - Arabia, Africa and Asia – the others Portugal interacted with, loved and departed from? Why is memory so overwhelming that it owns and transforms the present into an object of beauty? Why does being in this city have a sense of timelessness?
Yes, I know that the rain’s mistiness is elegant.
I know that the sun, so ordinary, oppresses an elegant sensibility.
I know that to be affected by changes in light isn’t elegant.
But who said to the sun or to anyone else that I want to be elegant?
Give me blue sky and the sun in plain view.
I have mist, rain and shadows inside me.
Today all I want is peacefulness.
I’d even love a cozy home, as long as I didn’t really have it.
I long so much for peace it makes me sleepy.
Let’s not exaggerate!
I really am sleepy, inexplicably so.
It ended up being a rainy day.
Tenderness? Affection? Only children can have them…
For me they’re memories…
Later that day, I would find out that the square I was sitting in, is also the square in front of which stands the house Fernando Pessoa was born in. Around a bend, we also come across the church he was baptised in. But more than these, I find the poet in his undocumented habitats - walls of Museums, glasses of windows, the sad sunshine in Lisbon - he is also forever somewhere else - sketchy, evasive and simultaneously real. I try to be the tourist, enjoy the city and feel the fun one is supposed to, but I fail in strange ways. I find myself wandering off, trying to hunt time and place of solitude, as I continue to read. Why are poets and their cities so entangled? Is it because they give us the words to live in the city with? Is it because the cities give the poets their music, their chaos?
In Alfama, every other restaurant and café boasts of hosting Fado singers. Fado, literally Fate or Destiny, is as intricately entwined with Portuguese identity as Saudade. While Saudade is to burn with desire, Fado is to set free in mournful acceptance. To be sung in one voice, the singer or Fadista laments and mourns loss as well as expresses acceptance through his/her song. Played on the Portuguese guitar with twelve steel strings, the Fado is a musical genre that captures the grief of the working classes, maritime proletariat and urban melancholia. With a history that can be traced back to as late as the early 19th century, the music sounds surprisingly ancient - perhaps because mourning and sadness is as ancient as time, perhaps because it echoes the songs of the ancient seas. Pessoa is highly influenced by the spirit of Fado in his poetry. A recent work O Fado e Alma Portuguesa brings out Pessoa’s poetry in the voices of some of the best Fado singers today. And so in Lisbon, one cannot escape the poet - or his multiple presences - be it the paganism of Ricardo Reis, or the Flânerie of Álvaro de Campos, the elite Fado music clubs or the sudden string of music at a blind alley, the grandeur of history and architecture that the city displays, or the everyday beauty of its dingy, worn out alleyways, where people are always defying rules, breaking confirmations with laughter, shouts and silence, chaotically unbelonging to the order generally bestowed upon the European nations.
Every street has at least three small cafes that sell fruits, groceries, pastries apart from coffee. A cup of cortado costs a meagre 60 cents and the crowd of cigarette butts on streets sing of the afflictions of people’s daily hopes, griefs and desires, memorised in smoke.
I walk back to my apartment in the silence of the night and feel the desire to hear the poetry of Pessoa in his language. ‘The Portuguese language is my home’ he had said, despite writing in English and French. I listen to what is perhaps the most iconic poem of Lisbon - ‘Tabacaria’ (or The Tobacco Shop). There is music in the Portuguese that the English translation cannot capture. Yet, what poetry!
Today I’m bewildered, like a man who wondered and discovered and forgot
Today I’m torn between the loyalty I owe
To the outward reality of the Tobacco Shop across the street
And to the inward reality of my feeling that everything’s a dream.
I failed in everything.
Since I had no ambition, perhaps I failed in nothing.
Through the window at the back of the house
I climbed down the ladder of the education I was given.
I went to the country with big plans.
But all I found was grass and trees,
And when there were people they were just like others.
I step back from the window and sit in a chair. What should I think about?
How should I know what I’ll be, I who don’t know what I am?
Be what I think? But I think of beingso many things!
And there are so many who think of being the same thing that we can’t all be it!
The poet becomes his city as he owns all those scattered cigarette butts on the street, as he dreams up himself in the faces of other city-dwellers and makes poets out of them, poets who paint words with longing, desire, mourning and poets who draw poetry on walls of buildings and museums, and poets who reappear in music, in art and disappear from tourist spots and bookshops to haunt the city he has owned. Why are poets and cities so entangled? Perhaps because they allow us to feel, to dream and to live in the landscapes they create with their words. And yet, the poet and the city struggle to free each other of themselves, suffering eternally under the bondage of love and togetherness - transgressing to leave, only to return and revisit. To love is to lose, to love is to leave. I cling to the poems of Campos as I leave Lisbon, knowing that I will return in some way - if not in person, at least as a fragment of memory in some scattered cigarette butt.
Leave me in peace! I won’t stay long, for I never stay long…
And as long as Silence and the Abyss hold off, I want to be alone!