Jascha Hoffman

Atlantic Poets: Fernando Pessoa's Turn in Anglo-American Modernism

Irene Ramalho Santos
ISBN: 1584652195
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! … Don't grab my arm! … 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 a poet…") make his work seem like a tiny interruption from everything else.

The prose in Atlantic Poets often achieves completeness at the expense of concision. But most of the chapters are so full of two things—small earnest insights into the workings of the poems, and theory that is close to the poet's craft—that 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 modernists—I recommend Richard Zenith's recent translations of Pessoa's Selected Poems (Grove, 1998) and his prose masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet (Penguin, 2001).

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 woman—as well as an ill-defined character called Fernando Pessoa himself.

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.



© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review