Thoughts on writing & poetry after reading 20 pages of Fernando Pessoa

The gist of this post:

  • Thoughts on my writing process after reading 20 pages of FP’s work
  • A brief introduction to Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa
  • Contemplating poetry (Bukowski, most recently Pessoa)
  • The final line of this post: I could be wrong, but who isn’t?

When I ask it, the question of what to write and how to go about writing is accompanied by a certain amount of anxiety. The self-imposed pressure and constant torture that accompanies a will to arrange and rearrange words.

The full experience of my writing process, the A to Z, is the sensation of apprehension at the beginning and deep connection to my subconscious at the end. If a pool of water is my desire to write, then on one end is a shivering little boy, dripping salty tears and pissing himself with his toes hanging over the edge. On the other end is a shark gyrating its fins through the deep end, thrashing in a rouge tinted murk. Both equal parts of my experience with writing.

I purchased a book yesterday by the Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa. I had never heard of him before. Nina handed me the book, hardcover and wrapped in clear plastic. An image of a man, perhaps the author or perhaps a figment of the authors’ imagination, on the cover. A few distorted shapes cover the person’s mouth and left eye. The cover is the picture for this post and the title is The Book of Disquiet.

Nina handed this to me and told me to read the back. It read,

I created various personalities within myself. I create them constantly. Every dream, as soon as it is dreamed, is immediately embodied by another person who dreams it instead of me. In order to create, I destroyed myself; I have externalized so much of my inner life that even inside I now exist only externally.

To act is to exile oneself.

My wife knows me well and without even a google search of Fernando’s name, I had to purchase the book. Any information about the author (he was Portuguese and died in 1935 and dabbled in occultism and wrote under many different heteronyms, etc.) was attained on the internet, but only after reading 20 pages of his book. His words made me think of the process of writing and I imagined a pool with a kid on one end and a shark in the other.

The first few pages splashed at the shark in the deep end of the pool. Pessoa’s hand reaches through the murk with a fresh paper cut between his thumb and pointer. The smell vibrates my gills, propelling my fin into a circle; winding my attack into a tight coil, ready to spring out of the water, rows of teeth shredding into Pessoa’s hand, the current hand that feeds.

It’s a deep hunger I feel after only just sniffing at his capable hand. I will make a meal of his severed arm, then I will swim blissfully in his iron scented plasma before devouring the work of his beautiful body.

I find the slightest action impossible, as if it were some heroic deed. The mere thought of making the smallest gesture weighs on me as if it were something I was actually considering doing.

I aspire to nothing. Life wounds me. I feel uncomfortable where I am and uncomfortable where I think I could be.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Reading, I sense that Fernando Pessoa is a poet channeling a deeper desire for nothingness. I need to tear through all of his being to understand a part of myself. The aching for finding and identifying the emptiness in that part of my conscious that aches for nothingness as well.

Pessoa’s words struck me. I am working on a story about a man, Otto, who becomes obsessed with deconstructing his life to the point of nothingness. The nothingness he believes to be at the root of all life, that soil of absolute quiet somehow nurturing the noise. But why and how?

That same thread of meaning (or direct challenge to meaning) seems to be woven through Pessoa’s book of disquiet. Those same questions of why and how reflecting my obsession to write with my horror at writing, driving me into a paralytic state, stuck between two actions; to write or not to write.

At my worst, I’m a frightened little boy, standing at the edge of a pool, pissing myself. While an equally pungent yet opposite feeling carves confidently through white space, splattering ink and pixels, like a shark through a school of tuna.

Perhaps the only obstacle between pee pee and predator is my self. That underlying theme propelled forward by…whatever the hell all of this is.

What is fascinating to me about Fernando Pessoa is his hyper self-awareness.

I don’t often enjoy poetry. I’m not a fan of William S. Burroughs (though I am an admirer). His meaning is lost in the loose bag of words he calls Naked Lunch. It may be my laziness or sheer exhaustion of trying to focus on meaning but I struggle to find a cohesive narrative or thought. Drugs don’t always beget illumination.

The poetry I prefer is more explicit, direct. Call it the truth, draw a box around it and leave it black and white.

I think of a Charles Bukowski poem I once dog-eared in “Love is a Dog From Hell.” the poem is titled Chopin Bukowski and begins with “this is my piano” and ends with these seven lines:

it’s better than sitting in a room
with 3 or 4 people and
their pianos.

this is my piano
and it is better than theirs.

and they like it and they don’t
like it.

Charles Bukowski, Chopin Bukowski, Love is a Dog from Hell

I assume he refers to his typewriter or even the art or act of writing. I like his directness. He could simply say typewriter instead of piano and it would be just as poetic because it is a clearly stated truth. Not a universal truth but his truth, the truth of his experience.

He writes and he is stating that he writes. That is rare. Isn’t it rare to have a person boldly declare who they are and what they do? Aren’t those the people to whom we look up?

And so is my initial experience with Fernando Pessoa. He writes as if he’s annoyed with the limitations of language and expression. He is not satisfied and therefore continues to write the truth of his experience, which is not the truth of society (taxes, gummy bears, traffic signals, war, please, thank you’s, ad nauseam, ad infinitum) Pessoa makes this clear to me by calling out his own act of writing.

And I’m offering you this book because I know it to be both beautiful and useless. It teaches nothing, preaches nothing, arouses no emotion. It is a stream that runs into an abyss of ashes that the wind scatters and which neither fertilize nor harm– I put my whole soul into its making, but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time, only of my own sad self, and of you, who are no one.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Pessoa draws a box around his work and looks us right in the eyes without blinking. He hits the nail on the head, hits us right on the nose. I relish this poetry because it ties a string around the balloon of abstract (by abstract I mean that which does not have clear language to describe). It calls out directly the actions of the writer, himself and reminds us that we are not in another world but reading a book. This recognition of reality is a rarity. To expose the mundane actions of our lives in black and white, in plain statements is poetic precisely because of its rarity and naked truth.

If Fernando Pessoa continues in the same vein, then I will have found another writer who is unafraid to point out the obvious; that he is writing. Reminding me that I have purchased a book and begun to read. Holding open my eyelids and underlining the words that tell me I’m sitting down, reading a book. No suspension of disbelief, no escapism, simply a mesmerizing flurry of Pessoa’s experience that matches my own understanding of life and writing. The poetic nature of truth? No. The nature of truth is poetic.

That is poetry.

I could be wrong, but who isn’t?

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