Atlantic Poets: Fernando Pessoa's Turn in Anglo-American
Irene Ramalho Santos
University Press of New England, 2003
By pairing Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) with prominent Anglo-American
modernists, Irene Ramalho Santos' Atlantic Poets tries to secure
a place in the canon not just for his poetry, but for his poetics.
Pessoa's own concepts of Disquietude and Atlanticism are used throughout
the book to wed the Portuguese modernist to his American doubles.
But some of Santos' own terms are more straightforward, getting at
phenomena familiar to working poets, if not to their critics.
Arrogance is one of them. After single-handedly spawning a host of
modernist movements, heteronym Alvaro de Campos writes, "Go to
hell without me, / Or let me go there by myself!
Oh, what a bore-people wanting me to be one of them!"
Here Ramalho Santos sees a reflection of the proud genius of Walt
Whitman and Emily Dickinson, who were willing to set up shop on the
margins of literary society and let the center come to them.
Interruption is another concept that every writer knows well. Without
a rude knocking at the door, Coleridge might still be dreaming in
the tub, not furiously trying (and failing) to remember what it was
he dreamed. More to the point, "Kublai Khan" picks up speed
by splitting its own garden with a "deep romantic chasm"by
interrupting itself. Heteronym Alberto Caeiro's self-effacements ("I'd
give anything just to be the roadside dust / And the feet of the poor
would trample me
") and self denials ("I'm not even
") make his work seem like a tiny interruption from
The prose in Atlantic Poets often achieves completeness at
the expense of concision. But most of the chapters are so full of
two thingssmall earnest insights into the workings of the poems,
and theory that is close to the poet's craftthat it's hard not
to give their claims a fair chance. It's almost better to skip from
poem to poem than to plow straight through, turning the book into
a heavily-annotated mini-anthology of Pessoa and his American counterparts.
After a traditional British schooling in South Africa, Pessoa moved
to Lisbon and never left. He dropped out of university to steep himself
in Portuguese literature, but it was in the context of the English
language that Pessoa first discovered the text-obsession and scriptomania
that fueled the rest of his writing life. He went on to become quite
a few Portugal's great literary modernistsI recommend Richard
Zenith's recent translations of Pessoa's Selected Poems (Grove,
1998) and his prose masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet (Penguin,
Pessoa wrote through seventy-five "heteronyms," a term
of his own invention denoting something between a pen name and an
alternate persona. It started at the age of six, when a French knight
wrote letters through him. By the age of 26, a variety of fictional
writers with their own styles and opinions were expressing themselves
through his pen. These include a naval engineer (Alvaro de Campos),
a zen-master shepherd (Alberto Caeiro), a withdrawn accountant (Bernardo
Soares), a suicidal baron, several feeble Englishmen, a desperately
crippled womanas well as an ill-defined character called Fernando
The heteronyms were constantly interfering and collaborating with
one another. A British heteronym wrote "terribly, appallingly
new" in an introduction to Caeiro's complete poems, but then
failed to translate them. Two lesser heteronyms collaborated on an
unfinished book called Return of the Gods, and authorship of
The Book of Disquiet was passed off a few times. Many fragments
are signed with a few names and a question mark.