Everywhere a Book Is Waiting

The new issue of World Literature Today arrived in the mail this past week, and just in time—swinging back and forth as I am from sadness to despair to a cold anger that needs to be fed by increased political engagement, I find I need literature more than ever to help ground me.

So what a gift, to read this passage from an interview with the Macedonian novelist Lidija Dimkovska:

“In my school the teachers preferred to say that books were our best friends. Not dogs, but books. As a child, even if I loved books more than everything else, I considered this a facile phrase. But over the years I realized that it is true: people in our life come and leave, relationships change, even best friends sometimes don’t have time for us. Human beings, being flexible, dynamic, and busy, cannot stay with us all the time. But books can. Always and everywhere a book is waiting for me.”


I both agree and disagree with Dimkovska. I think she underestimates how friends and family stay with us as interior presences, whether they’re near or far (or for good or ill). But books, yes, books wait for us. In my study I’m surrounded by them: walls of what I’ve read and what I want to.

Among those waiting books are the ones I’ve kept returning to over the years, and these days I find myself especially drawn to books of poetry. One such book, as dog-eared and binding-cracked as can be, is (Asian Figures), a collection of proverbs and aphorisms from seven Asian countries, translated by the American poet W.S. Merwin.

These proverbs and such, presented by Merwin as poems never more than three lines long, are little nuggets of often cynical wisdom. Some land like a punchline, others reward lingering for a deeper unfolding.

From Korea:

Tree grows the way they want it to
that’s the one they cut first
blames the ditch
Even sideways
if it gets you there
Even on dog turds
the dew falls
shadow boxer

From Burma:

When you’ve died once
you know how
Telling a fish
about water
Eats all he wants
then upsets the dish

From China:

Before you beat a dog
find out whose he is
The rich
are never as ugly
After winning
Comes losing
Books don’t empty words
Words don’t empty thoughts

That last proverb would certainly start the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s head nodding. Pessoa was a poet who created a series of alternate personalities—heteronyms, he called them—who each wrote their own distinctive poetries. They all balanced inside him—Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, and Bernardo Soares, among many others. Pessoa spent his entire adult life juggling these various aspects of himself, creating his own internal literary salon.


The following untitled poem, one of the relatively rare poems written under Pessoa’s own name, is a kind of road map of his life’s work. And yet, as personal as it is, it speaks a truth we often ignore about the multiple possibilities within ourselves.

I’m a fugitive.
I was shut up in myself
As soon as I was born,
But I managed to flee.

If people get tired
Of being in the same place,
Why shouldn’t they tire
Of having the same self?

My soul seeks me out,
But I keep on the run
And sincerely hope
I’ll never be found.

Oneness is a prison.
To be myself is not to be.
I’ll live as a fugitive
But live really and fully.

(from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, translated by Richard Zenith)

I can’t remember now what first led me, back in the late 1970s, to the work of the Serbian poet Vasko Popa—maybe an approving review by the poet Charles Simic, another favorite of mine? Popa wrote his main body of work when Serbia was still a part of the now-extinct country of Yugoslavia, and some of his poetry, as the years have passed, seem to be to be predictive of that break-up, of the flawed human urges that helped create the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.


One of the most powerful sections in his Collected Poems (translated by Anne Pennington), titled “Games,” uses the conceit of the structure of play to reveal an elemental something else that is not playful at all. This poem is perhaps my favorite in the sequence:

Some bite off the others’
Arm or leg or whatever

Take it between their teeth
Run off as quick as they can
Bury it in the earth

The others run in all directions
Sniff search sniff search
Turn up all the earth

If any are lucky enough to find their arm
Or leg or whatever
It’s their turn to bite

The game goes on briskly

As long as there are arms
As long as there are legs
As long as there is anything whatever

Perhaps this poem is a little too close to home these days. Let’s try another poem about play, written by an eleven-year old boy, Tozu Norio. It’s from the collection There are Two Lives: Poems by Children of Japan, edited by Richard Lewis. Torio’s poem offers us a glorious dizzy ride, bringing us back to the time in our lives when, even if only once, all we wanted was for recess to never, ever end.

Ten Thousand Years’ Play

I got into the ocean and played.
I played on the land too.
I also played in the sky.
I played with the devil’s children in the clouds.
I played with shooting stars in space.
I played too long and years passed.
I played even when I became a tottering old man.
My beard was fifteen feet long.
Still I played.
Even when I was resting, my dream was playing.
Finally I played with the sun, seeing which one of us could be redder.
I had already played for ten thousand years.
Even when I was dead, I still played.
I looked at children playing, from the sky.


It’s dark outside now, the sun sets much too early these days, which adds to my sour mood about the state of today’s politics, and what the future will bring come January. I’m ready for the defense of what I hold dear about the promise of my country, and I’ll be reading from my “best friends” on the shelves in my study, letting them help sustain me, borrowing from their strength. As the Chinese proverb says,

Enough mosquitos
Sound like thunder

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November 22nd, 2016 by admin

The Self Is Not Constant

When I first lived among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire with my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, at first I felt relieved to hear that the language of the Beng did not conjugate verbs. Thank goodness, I thought, what a friendly language—the ever-morphing ways of verbs had been my downfall with both French and Spanish. My relief didn’t last long, though, since Alma and I soon discovered that the Beng conjugate pronouns, not verbs (with a few exceptions—aren’t there always exceptions when it comes to language?).

So a different linguistic challenge confronted me: to adjust to the notion of a past tense I, a present tense I, and a future tense I, and to move with ease through such pronoun transformations in a conversation.

It wasn’t easy—for me, learning another language (and I’ve tried to learn four) is never easy. But the more I thought about it, the idea that a person, not the action, changes profoundly in time began to make more and more sense. Here are two photos that I think aptly illustrate the point, captioned in English and Beng.

He ran/E bé (E: the past tense of he; bé: run)

He will run/O bé (O: the future tense of he; bé: run)

Though running is an action replete with all the physical particularities of any individual moving through space (particularities that no language can completely encompass), I think one might safely assert that the different ages of the two runners above are where the deepest change has occurred. My five-year old self is different from my fifteen-year old self, is different from my thirty-year old self is different from my current (and newly minted) sixty-year old self.

So which “self” am I?

“The self is not constant,” the actress Thandie Newton says, in her recent TED talk, “Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself.” Ms. Newton’s father is English, her mother Zimbabwean, and she spent a good deal of her early life negotiating a place within the two contrasting halves of her supposedly singular self.

What she eventually found was not one place to reside, but many, as she took on the challenges of inhabiting the characters she portrayed throughout her film career. “No matter how other these selves might be, they’re all related, in me,” she declares.

You bet! The essayist Carl H. Klaus could easily be offering a coda to Newton’s words when, in his marvelously varied collection The Made-Up Self, he observes, “The drama of one’s personality depends, after all, on the dramatis personae one is capable of performing.”

The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa understood dramatis personae. He engaged in a life-long project of giving names, identities and different poetic oeuvres to his many inner voices, turning the contradictory selves most of us gloss over into a literary salon. As Álvaro de Campos, one of Pessoa’s accomplished inner selves, wrote:

I study myself but can’t perceive.
I’m so addicted to feeling that
I lose myself if I’m distracted
From the sensations I feel.

This liquor I drink, the air I breathe,
Belong to the very way I exist:
I’ve never discovered how to resist
These hapless sensations I conceive.

Nor have I ever ascertained
If I really feel what I feel.
Am I what I seem to myself—the same?

Is the I I feel the I that’s real?
Even with feelings I’m a bit of an atheist.
I don’t even know if it’s I who feels.

So why are we inclined to gloss over our multiple selves? Our language tells us to do so. The “self” is a pretty pushy little word, asserting in its seemingly modest but authoritative way that we are defined by a unitary identity, rather than a concatenation of competing facets, each catching and reflecting a different light, other possibilities. For me, the Beng view of identity, as a morphing property expressed through tense changes, is far more insightful than the meager, static definition offered by the English language. Something else the seemingly solid word “self” obscures is its own morphing history, since the Western notion of self has changed, radically so, over time, and Douglas Glover charts this expertly in his essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought.”

Recently, not long after watching the Thandie Newton TED talk, I came upon a rather extraordinary photo series featured in Guernica, “Self Study,” by the Iranian/American artist Natalie N. Abbassi, a series inspired by the dilemma of identity and made with the help of Commercial production company Toronto:

“It has always been a struggle for me to explain myself, who I truly am, and how I should or shouldn’t act in culturally diverse situations. Occasionally I feel confused, proud, and even awkward about how to deal with the differences of my two halves. Am I Iranian? Am I American? Should I be Muslim from my father or Jewish from my mother?”

Abbassi approaches this struggle by photographing her two halves as buddies, engaging in daily activities—driving, playing cards, or running—side-by-side yet each maintaining her defining characteristics. Would that we all could look into the imperfect mirror of our inner differences, and clink glasses!

“I Study Myself But Can’t Perceive,” by Fernando Pessoa/Álvaro de Campos, translated by Richard Zenith, from Fernando Pessoa & Co.

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September 15th, 2011 by admin

Countless Lives Inhabit Us

In two recent posts, “What’s Structure Got to Do With It?” and “The Life We Learn to Lead as Writers,” I took a look at the various ins and outs of how writers structure their work. In this post, I’d like to consider the idea of anti-structure, or at least to think about what might be the cunning use of the absence of structure, as I see it, in the work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

If you don’t know the work of Pessoa (oh but you should, you should), here’s a little capsule description. Pessoa lived most of his life in the first half of the 20th century (he died at the age of 47 in 1935), and he was a poet who didn’t write poems as much as he created poets, who then wrote poems. Basically, Pessoa invented his own internal literary salon, consisting mainly of poetic voices that he dubbed heteronyms: more than pseudonyms but less than actual people. He gave them not only names—Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, and Bernardo Soares were his primary creations—but also biographies, astrological charts, personalities and physical features, even individual signatures.

Since his death, Pessoa’s reputation has increasingly grown throughout the world, to the point where he’s recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century. The Portuguese adore Pessoa, and not only does his legacy pervade most discussions of literature in Portugal, but to the general public at large this modestly dressed, be-speckled poet is something of a rock star. Anywhere in Lisbon you can exchange euros for Fernando Pessoa tee shirts, coffee cups, notebooks and key chains, even Do Not Disturb signs—you name it. The first evening I ever spent in Lisbon, back in June of 1999, turned out to be the birthday of Pessoa (he would have been 111), and my family and I made our way to a grand celebration of the event: 400 Portuguese artists had been commissioned to each create a work of art about Pessoa, and these were displayed together on a long wall.

Not only did Pessoa’s invented poets have separate biographies and signatures, they each wrote an entirely different sort of poetry from the others. Alberto Caeiro, who imagined himself a sheep herder, was a poet of nature and a philosopher who distrusted abstraction in language:

“A row of trees in the distance, toward the slope . . .
But what is a row of trees? There are just trees.
‘Row’ and the plural ‘trees’ are names, not things.

Unhappy human beings, who put everything in order,
Draw lines from thing to thing,
Place labels with names on absolutely real trees,
And plot parallel lines of latitude and longitude
On the innocent earth itself, which is so much greener and full of flowers!”

Álvaro de Campos, an engineer by training, was a wilder, more loquacious poet:

“I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.

Windows in my room,
The room of one of the world’s millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?),
You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people,
A street inaccessible to any and every thought,
Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain
With the mystery of things beneath stones and beings,
With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white,
With destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.”

Ricardo Reis was a poet obsessed with fate and love and strict poetic forms, while Bernardo Soares was a prose poet who combined metaphysical musings with close descriptions of everyday city life. Yet all of them, in one way or another, wrote about the multiplicity of selves that inhabit every human being. Here’s Ricardo Reis’s take on the subject:

“Countless lives inhabit us.
I don’t know, when I think or feel,
Who it is that thinks or feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought or felt.

I have more than just one soul.
There are more I’s than I myself.
I exist, nevertheless,
Indifferent to them all.
I silence them: I speak.

The crossing urges of what
I feel or do not feel
Struggle in who I am, but I
Ignore them. They dictate nothing
To the I I know: I write.”

Most of the poems written in Pessoa’s name or in the names of his many heteronyms were not published in his lifetime. After his death, his friends and literary executors opened a trunk in his study and discovered thousands of pages of works of every sort: poems, of course, and prose poems, essays, translations, short stories, plays. Most of what we know of Pessoa’s literary life and imagination comes from that trunk, and literary editors have been mining it for over half a century, collating the work into genre, category, and attribution—Pessoa used scores of alternate names besides the main four I’ve already mentioned. And collections of Pessoa’s poetry are usually broken down into different sections, the poetry of Caeiro kept together, separate from the poems of Reis, and so forth. One of the most popular collections of Pessoa’s poetry translated into English is Richard Zenith’s aptly titled Fernando Pessoa and Co.

Perhaps Pessoa’s greatest sustained individual work is The Book of Disquiet, by Bernardo Soares, a kind of memoir of the interior, written as prose poems and filled with gems such as this:

“I never sleep. I live and I dream; or rather, I dream in life and in my sleep, which is also life. There’s no break in my consciousness: I’m aware of what’s around me if I haven’t fallen asleep yet or if I sleep fitfully, and I start dreaming as soon as I’m really asleep. And so I’m a perpetual unfolding of images, connected or disconnected but always pretending to be external, situated among people in the daylight, if I’m awake, or among phantoms in the non-light that illuminates dreams, if I’m asleep. I honestly don’t know how to distinguish one state from the other, and it may be that I’m actually dreaming when I’m awake and that I wake up when I fall asleep.”

The problem is that none of the scraps of paper in Pessoa’s trunk that were eventually collected into The Book of Disquiet were numbered. Which means that every ordered compilation of Soares’ prose poems is a guess, and there are an infinite number of ways The Book of Disquiet can be structured. You could say that Pessoa, before Borges, created a version of the infinite library Borges dreamed of.

Pessoa himself had written a number of contradictory ideas about how to structure The Book of Disquiet (which he never did in his lifetime). Perhaps the most telling description, in a letter to his friend Armando Cortes-Rodrigues, is “it’s all fragments, fragments, fragments.”

I’d say that all the various collections of Fernando Pessoa’s work, while initially exhilarating in charting the various borders of his various selves, ultimately appear to perhaps too easily pin down the fluid possibilities Pessoa remained faithful to all his life. Much of his work was written piecemeal over thirty years: each new poem, essay, or prose poem rose out of the crowd of voices inside Pessoa, waiting to be heard, and then placed in a trunk. Sometimes I think that Fernando Pessoa’s greatest achievement was not his work as eventually posthumously archived, organized, and structured. Perhaps his greatest achievement was simply the raw material that was discovered in his trunk.

This multiplicity of voices and different identities, the messy accumulation of competing versions of the self jostling each other in that hidden, disorganized mix announce, by their very disorganization, their lack of structure, that This is what a human mind is like without the lines of latitude and longitude. As if Pessoa’s life’s work, hidden in that trunk like thoughts in a skull, was meant to make the point that we are all, inside, a “perpetual unfolding of images, connected or disconnected . . . “

Excerpt from “The Keeper of Sheep,” by Alberto Caeiro translated by Richard Zenith, in A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe.

Excerpt from “The Tobacco Shop,” by Álvaro de Campos, translated by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa & Co.

“Countless Lives inhabit Us,” by Ricardo Reis, translated by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa & Co.

Excerpt from section 342 of The Book of Disquiet, by Bernardo Soares, translated by Richard Zenith.

Photos of Pessoa artwork and heteronym signatures: Philip Graham

In the work of art above by Roberta Frandino (click to enlarge), three of Pessoa’s heteronyms, Reis, Caeiro and de Campos, stand behind the open trunk filled with his manuscripts. The papers flow out, transforming into the distinctive square cobblestones of Lisbon’s streets, which Pessoa himself is walking upon . . .

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April 17th, 2011 by admin