DAVID POLLARD ON SIMON JENNER’S PESSOA SERIES
THE SIMON JENNER PAGE
Crowley and Pessoa
DAVID POLLARD WRITES:
Simon Jenner – the Pessoa Series
I bend to pluck its auxiliary nerve
We are treating here of colours. To be precise: of the constituents of white light. Can we use the prism as a metaphor for hetero-naming? Jenner at least implies as much as his series on Pessoa is flooded with the violence intrinsic to the breakdown of light – every colour of the rainbow as ‘a lozenge of April / shafts a century’s light through the glass, / oblique’. When a writer retreats from his own creativity, leaving it in the hands of others, his reader, especially if he is also a poet, will have to change the way he reacts to what is left behind; the shimmering range that flows from the other side of the prism which is ‘out of your shining character’ and cannot return to its origin. The flow is also, as it must be, of blood: ‘Take blood colour from you for visages you now don’t believe’. He will remind us of the medieval makers of stained glass that flooded the floor with golds and reds and blues – ‘some fantastic redundant glow’ – all that is visible of the transformation the window performs on the light beyond, ‘sectioned in jade’:
in different stains of glass:
intense throw of lapis, freaked with violet,
age-burnt ruby and sunken emerald;
gold whitened by the sun. Encrusted.
Or, in ‘Bernardo Soares’:
apple-green and stretched through the bole.
Coral dresses would flounce slowly to
Burgundy underwater, fluting in the glaze
Pessoa’s portraits returns the writer’s glance:
The slowing down of mauve I can face.
Its unnatural chemics striate: cerulean,
faded cerise stranding in my nose’s shadow.
This can be put another way, as Jenner also does. There is a discourse here that involves rather too much in the way of aufheben in the sense of a discourse that the prism has bent rather too much under the weight of its own creativity and cannot return to the upright to synthesise with its opposite. It “has been cleared away or annulled” rather than ”kept and preserved”; a bowed reed of dialectic which is indeed one of separation, of division, of distance that ‘could bend to pluck its auxiliary nerve’, ‘it was your language that leaned on without me’, granting speech to the other in a retreat that vanishes behind its newspaper in the corner of his favourite bar, the Martinho da Arcada:
mixed palate, hat dwarfing
me as it has to – sits on approval, smudged
into the Dufy marine of Lisbon
Here Pessoa sits while a host of others write chest-loads of words with the merest of glances in his direction. Thus at the core of his creativity is a refusal which speaks in strange voices that are (let us be clear) not his own and yet must (let us be equally clear) in some sense also be his own in order to grant him his avowal that:
Dignity is the last refuge
of the abandoned.
Some 25,000 fragments were indeed found abandoned in a trunk after his death. These were written on the backs of envelopes, on scraps of paper and on the reverse side of other manuscripts. They were written on a huge range of topics including philosophy, history, sociology and literary criticism There were plays, short stories, treatises on astrology and a variety of autobiographical material. Much of this is still to be catalogued. We are reminded perhaps of the valise that Walter Benjamin dragged across the Pyrenees in 1940 on his escape from Vichy France a journey that led to his death at the age of 48 (Pessoa died at 47). Like The Book of Disquiet, Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’ is a fragmentary work that was never completed:
And who’s here when I’d pick about his books,
piled in ranks like a hypocaust exposed?
Fernando’s stripped us back to our paper looks;
we play through his collapse, hot winds where no flue’s closed.
But we are left with a problem; If words keep flowing, surely the author must accept responsibility for them as words can hardly generate themselves. Indeed the word ‘author’ means ‘beginner, former, or first mover of anything; hence, the efficient cause of a thing; a creator; an originator’. Auto = self-driven; independency as in autochthonous, autobiography, autoerotic, etc. After all, when the author dies, the words stop coming. Again: a text cannot generate itself as long as the writer continues to place his signature under it and claims his copywrite. Seeing the writer as function (Foucault), position (Derrida) or relationship (Barthes) does not really overcome this.
It may be that there are two kinds of hetero-naming: the liar and the truth-teller. The first of these is the role player who hides behind a mask so that his reader may mistake him, Cyrano-like, for what appears. He is a ventriloquist of sorts and wishes to avoid the fixity of personality or the constraints of a philosophical or literary position or the restrictions of a particular set of ideas. He may even be the victim of political repression. Here the hetero-naming is done for a reason, the retreat is tactical and this is a kind of lie and, inevitably, the voice behind the mask has a tendency to re-assert itself. The authorial voice still speaks behind the mask.
The second is more complex as the validation of his voices is grounded in a more radical otherness. This self-destruction or negative capability is crucial if heteronomy is to be authentic and entirely genuine.
And so to Keats as exemplar of so many who speak of this truth-telling retreat from pure light and the fragmentation of identity and write of the ‘silent workings of the imagination’ which come ‘continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness’. He writes that, ‘nothing startles me beyond the moment’ and continues, ‘If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel’. Hazlitt said of Shakespeare that:
“He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become. He not only had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling but he could follow them by anticipation, intuitively, into all their conceivable ramifications, through every change of fortune […] He had only to think of anything in order to become that thing, with all the circumstances belonging to it”.
We are speaking here of ‘negative capability’ where Hazlitt replaces einfühlung – empathy – with something more like einfüllung – a filling up with. The poet fills himself up with the object of contemplation to such a degree that his own ego, like white light, is dissolved into the many. Keats tells us:
“what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.
The “poetical Character”, the character “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously”, has no identity of its own, least of all some special kind of identity which can be called “poetic”. “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity”. A poet is “camelion”, “he is continually in for – and filling some other Body”. So, whereas “Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them some unchangeable attribute, the poet has none, no identity”:
“As to the poetical Character itself […] it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen”.
Pessoa wrote of his “purely negative” state of mind. In a “Personal Note” he writes: “My intellect has attained a pliancy and a reach that enables me to assume any emotion I desire and enter at will into any state of mind. And so the poet retreats into silence leaving the stage to the others. Pessoa as Keats and Shakespeare, Cyrano-like, vanishes and leaves the others (in his case 72 at the last count, the first appearing at the age of 6) to do the talking. “To deny me the right to do that would be the same as denying Shakespeare the right to give expression to Lady Macbeth’s soul. And if that’s true for fictitious characters in a drama, it is equally true for characters not in a drama, since it applies because they are fictitious and not because they are in a drama”. The white light is left behind in its ‘dignity’ shattering out into all the colours of the rainbow:
Jenner gives us:
He never borrowed these other selves. He purloined
both sides so much there was just a heavy pencil
shadow of him left, like the gable on a time-
eaten roof before the timbers crash
or, so as he is held at bay ‘simple in the soft declension of his no’s’ as another poem has it:
throw his casements open to denote
friends from all the suburbs of his will;
In Jenner Queiroz can write to Campos:
You need no’s like ball bearings,
Campos, my dear, offerings for sweet oil
to keep Fernando running on tracks he thinks his own.
We worry for it, want to freshen it from its calf
bind a gender; a name, so it can feel at home
with the way your joint and several selves
field different rhythms, let alone
vocabulary. This foxed it, spotted it quite.
An author’s words smell comforting, dark fustian
even. Yours war and shift, on some sucked-out
bones of metaphor.
Go for the verb, we told it, make black coffee sense
of Campos’ sweep of referents, or
Caeiro’s double-takes on sheep. Ries
crossing the cod classic bar-line; and Pessoa,
we said, simple in the soft declension of his no’s.
Pessoa’s grasp on his own self was so weak that he even wrote to former acquaintances in Durban as the psychiatrist Faustino Antunes. He earnestly asked their opinion on the mental state of one, Fernando Pessoa, his patient, who had, he said, either committed suicide or was in a mental institution. Having so little grasp of his own identity, he was desperate that they might be able flesh him out. Retreat because retreated from, perhaps, his father dying when he was only five and his brother a year later, the same year that his mother remarried.
This silence of retreat to the point of neurosis could leave a space for hetero-naming. Not ventriloquism which implies an original voice speaking through others, rather other voices speaking for. These speakers are rather too real, their existence crowding out Pessoa’s own orthonymous existence which was other even when writing under his own name. He certainly existed but so did Ofelia and so did More, Crowley and others. Jenner is concerned to give us a concrete insight into this rainbow of characters. We have come to the point when we are in need of some examples.
First is Alberto Caeiro, the pagan who is closest to Pessoa himself and almost but not quite orthonymic:
He bid me rise pristine, he said. I can’t see this.
I was there, phlegm in the throat of his idiom.
Stood within him? He could hardly spit me out;
a year his junior, I’d taken possession of words, walked in,
shook his flinched hand – the index still tender? – before he
dreamed of me
and, again like Pessoa, is himself a hetero-namer:
I never kept poets, but it’s as if I had.
You who claim me like a branding-iron
to crisp a finger-tip’s breadth of skin
where your writing callous crimps your index.
So Queiroz could write:
– told him only you existed.
Not the others, not him, but you, absent snap-
He has “all the simplicity, all the grandeur of the ancients”. He dresses carelessly in the style of Ribatejo after living too long in the country with little to do. He has little education. He has taken on the positivism of the peasant; ‘It’s how I shepherd the sounds, if I could imagine. / But I can’t’ (Jenner). ‘He sees things with the eyes only, not with the mind and he refuses subterfuge and artificiality. He does not allow any thoughts to arise when he looks at a flower and in this he is totally unpoetic. “My mysticism is not to try to know / It is to live and not think about it”’ (Pessoa). Jenner’s Caeiro begins:
To arrive, ripe with the appointed fire
and quake your scribbling like a seismograph
sheer off its track, wasn’t it at all.
so writes in free verse with a wide-eyed, childlike wonder at the infinite variety of the natural world which is hard, quizzical, homely: ‘a farm / cat’s purr amplified in an empty tin bath’. He is happy through simple acceptance and the limitations that demands and asks nothing of life.
who mastered him in a nice decree
Next we have Alvaro de Campos, another disciple of Caiero, a naval engineer, bisexual and a dandy who, after studying in Glasgow where:
They ravish patter-songs in upper Albion,
spilling from pubs on the Clyde, swinging
like derricks rusted by a hundred years.
Here, my tuning fork rings through an empty hull,
a campanile of instant religions.
They’re right. Cheaper labour will kill it all
like a finger on the fork’s windpipe.
I cannot stay here and breathe.
So went out to the Orient to work and later lived outrageously in London. He does his master’s travelling so that Pessoa can stay at home. ‘The best way to travel is to feel’ yet this feeling is grounded in a sense of isolation and nothingness which ‘throws a lattice work before him
shade of an Eiffel dawn, Chicago’s sudden steel reach’,
a powerful striving for exultation resting on a melancholic vacuum.
Unlike Caeiro he asks too much of life.
With Queiroz we come to something a little too translucent; too real, This is Queiroz; Ofelia. Pessoa worked with her in the offices of Valladas & Freitas in 1919, He 32 she 19, a middle class woman working in those day and at that time was thought dangerously emancipated. He developed a love for her that lasted something over a decade not entirely unrequited:
Your fingers reached for the difficulty
of yes across the cream lace fiction
of the cheap restaurant.
What surgery of refusal will your acumen elide
this time? My voice, perhaps, so I’m a girl
shuttling returns of black and white, silent
as the movies.
She it is who now stands up of her own free will and comes over to him placing on his table a few papers before paying the waiter with a strange smile and departing. Our poet replaces his glasses and, dragging the papers towards him, reads
my oxygen revives a spent taper
in a bell jar of glass arteries, pumped of
the old self that had blood to lose. I’m happening
to you in a last glow. Forgive me. You’re transparent.
He loves her among the heteronyms as our poet (in his own love for her) understands:
I could never stake out the man who kissed me
from the league who write each other screeds
of how it happened to another, dead now; as it had, and is.
What can a minor voice like mine
hope to sliver between such querulous giants?
Perhaps it was he put the non-requital in her soul:
but there’s me O stenographer,
putting words to your mouth to bite with your nails.
It’s me, stop, me.
She wrote a gentle portrait of him in her old age.
Bernardo Soares as Pessoa avers “was only a semi-heteronym because, although his personality is not mine, it is not different from but rather a simple mutilation of my personality. Jenner’s Pessoa asks :
Why did I feel such cruel paring, this
shoehorn of a life to shadows, was more me
“He is me minus reason and affectivity”. It is he, of course, who wrote The Book of Disquiet and this demands apology:
I’m sorry I so straitened you, a poor clerk; me,
minus intellect and affectivity –
a stupid way to touch the why I felt.
Yet admits that there is some lack of control as there must be:
You’ve outgrown me, are the essence
of what I forgive in me for what I can’t absolve:
the Venetian blind heart that knows itself false,
for the gem mind that glances with the truth.
The heteronyms became more and more fantastical. Having so little ego Pessoa, influenced in this by his Aunt Anica, tried the occult.
Aunt, she vanishes into planets,
their essence of sanctuary, flashing rounds.
I can’t abandon such foreign witness.
I’ve jotted her dark lines into Venus’ mounds
For a year or so about 1916, he involved himself in a series of automatic writing sessions and succeeded in contacting several intelligences, among them Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist who told him: “You masturbator! You masochist! You man without manhood!… You man without a man’s prick!”
and advised him to lose his virginity.
You, sir, are a masturbator, as if
your destiny was a virgin splash of names –
a self-swallower’s barren touch of time.
How can an onanist engender truly, inhere
the identities of all your bloodless ticking selves?
The striking thing here is the solidity, the reality of all this naming. These people, even when they are real, are real. It is both the solidity of their reality and how this reality came to be that is the subject of this wonderful series of poems. This solidity is crucial. There is a fugal intensity here that plays with words to create an interplay of lives. A couple of examples
de Campos, sucked-in tubercular Caeiro, Reis wan
as a child’s first essay in wax pastels.
I’ve breathed each of you, Caeiro, Reis too,
though city-white I’m not his rich-skinned taste.
I give you breath, write de Campos who winces you
a second skin he sees I’ve burned,
These people talk among themselves, about themselves and about Pessoa. Even Pessoa speaks about Pessoa. And that is as it should be. Thus this series gives us a meditation on language and creativity as well as subtle biographies and inter-relationships.
So there should be a ‘library wine to sip books with’ that ‘should be noiselessly refilled. All these , ‘self-cancellings’ For now the poet (Jenner?) beckons to the waiter who brings him his bill. He is now a super-homonym and stands above them all, Pessoa included, and granting himself a quiet unnoticed smile, takes his leave of the place and of them all:
my self-communers who echo whitewashed
walls I concaved for them; and those who drew me
outside my circle. This café loses them; fleshed and
not of my sad gravity, they can’t compel me back.
Thus he allows himself, along with all of them to:
shuffle half-cut home, to bare boards,
an aching bulb, planting no long evening shadows;
days bleached so much together
that the scent of memory is impossible
David Pollard was born under a hospital bed during the blitz in 1942 and brought up a Londoner. After working in the furniture trade and serving his articles for accountancy, he fled to the University of Sussex where he was given his three degrees in literature, the history of ideas and philosophy. The last of these, a doctorate, awarded on his 40th birthday, was published as The Poetry of Keats: Language and Experience.
He worked at the University of Essex and Sussex and pesnt a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a Lady Davies Scholar. He also published the KWIC Concordance to the Harvard Edition of Keats’ Letters as well as other work on Keats, Blake and Nietzsche. His latest, Nietzsche’s Footfalls, is a meditation on the philosopher and his times and came out in 2003.
He has also reviewed extensively in the fields of both philosophy and literature. Apart from a Waterloo Sampler, this is Pollard’s first book of poetry although his work has appeared in: Omphalos, Tears in the Fence, Aletheia, Fire, Eratica, Eclipse and Poetry Monthly. He is currently writing a comparison of Blake and Nietzsche and his holiday task is a historical novel, The Memories of Herod Agrippa II.
Simon Jenner writes for Poetry Review, PNR, The Tablet, Music on the Web and the British Music Society, is the recipient of many awards and bursaries, his collection of poems ‘About Bloody Time’ was published in 2007. He is Director of Survivors’ Poetry, and editor of Waterloo Press (see http://www.waterloopress.co.uk)