The following chapter from Pessoa: A Biography, forthcoming from Norton/Liveright, tells the story of how Alberto Caeiro, Fernando Pessoa’s first major heteronym, came into existence. The other full-fledged heteronyms, Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis, would emerge three months later. (The heteronyms, Pessoa claimed, were not mere pseudonyms, since they thought and felt and wrote differently from their creator.) Although he had published some critical essays and a passage from The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa was still virtually unknown as a poet. Literature, moreover, was not Pessoa’s only interest. Throughout his adult life,he wrote prolifically about philosophy, religion, psychology, and politics.
The story of Caeiro is preceded by a brief sketchof the political climatein Europe before World War I, especially in Portugal, where,less than four years earlier,a revolution had toppled a much–discredited monarchy, replacing it with a tumultuous republic.
For this publication in The Common,I have excluded most of the notes of the book version (bibliographical information, mainly) while adding other notes to clarify references to peopleand events mentioned in earlier chapters.
And then, as is its wont, death comes knocking at the door. This time from two thousand miles away.
I try to get the image I have of him in my head to focus. The man who tried to be my father for over thirty years. Officially, not biologically, and not anymore. A death that will nevertheless force me home, back to Lisbon, just when I thought I’d found my place on this dry and sleepy island.
When we identify respect (coming from the root word meaning “to look at”) as one of the dimensions of love, then it becomes clear that looking at ourselves and others means seeing the depths of who we are. Looking into the depths, we often come face-to-face with emotional trauma and woundedness. Throughout our history, African Americans have pounded energy into the struggle to achieve material well-being and status, in part to deny the impact of emotional woundedness. Truthfully, it is easier to acquire material comfort than to acquire love. —From Salvation: Black People and Love, by bell hooks
Home is not just a house; it’s this yearning for a place where you’re safe, [a place where] nobody’s going to hurt you. —Toni Morrison, in conversation with Claudia Brodsky at Cornell University on March 7, 2013
“We need to do more, Mom,” my son tells me. He’s fifteen, supports the Kurdish resistance and fancies himself an anarcho-socialist (“It’s not like being an anarchist, Mom, okay?”). The Young Socialist lives in a state of perpetual indignation about the state of the world. He insists that governments can and should do better, and that capitalism is the root of almost all problems—past, present, and future. He hopes for radical social change, but when I call him an idealist, he’s furious: “It’s practical, that’s all. Marx and Öcalan, their ideas would work if people weren’t just so… stupid. And greedy.” I usually tell the Young Socialist that, because I’m a literature professor, my version of “do more” is of the teaching and writing sort, rather than the man-the-barricades sort, which I know disappoints him. He says: “We’re all complicit, Mom. You’re white and a professor, and there’s no way to escape your own privilege, even if you’re only white by accident.”
“You Like to Have Some Cup of Tea?” and Other Questions About Complicity and Place
There are two twin girls in the courtroom. They look very much alike, with fine blonde hair, tightly bound, and short, pretty noses. One can see they have not yet reached the point in life where twins become separate. If they were to trade places, it would not be easy to tell the difference. But do not look at them in this way. A year and a half ago, a curtain fell between them.
These days, we tend our gardens, my sister and I, and we remember. Her yard is dotted with plants from our homeland – a pear tree, a plum tree, and couve, or collard greens, for making caldo verde, Portuguese kale soup. She’s planted blue hydrangeas around her property, instead of a fence. Just like back home.
In the living room of my parents’ home in Tripoli, Lebanon, an elaborate family tree is displayed in a golden frame. It is a constant reminder of a fatalistic vision of life’s ultimate purpose: reproduction. Males are depicted as branches; females as leaves. The thriving of the tree relies on branches like mine. A single man who bears no new branches or leaves could condemn an entire lineage to an end.
Every attempt to reach Osman al-Houri has failed. Some corroborative sources have informed me that the man has retreated to an isolated village, that he does not own a cell phone, and that there is no way to reach him. Even more than that, he has evidently given up—deserted, and renounced writing, or so I am told. It is May 2019, and at the moment there is a revolution in Sudan, and people, among them a great number of authors, have taken to the streets and squares, demanding the fall of a regime that has—like many of its “siblings”—weighed down on and repressed them for decades. The Sudanese regime—again like many of its siblings in such circumstances—has shut down the internet for nearly a month now, taken to shooting live bullets at protesters and setting loose its henchmen upon them. By so doing, the regime has further complicated the means of connection with a country whose connection with its Arab surroundings (perhaps excepting Egypt) is already complicated and semi-severed. In light of this, can one even speak of literary connection, especially in a field that in our times has become ever more “elitist”: that of the short story?
Connecting What Has Been Severed with Sudan: The Short Story as it Fills Voids with Imagining
This is a story about stacked tenses. It is an essay about the present tense: a now that is continually layered with what is coming and what is going, what is half buried, and what may bear fruit.
It is about seeing more than is comprehensible and learning to make sense of it. It’s about the dance between receptivity and agency. It’s about history in the present, clairvoyance, and freedom. It’s about destiny and release; side chicks and the sacred; questions that untangle themselves in their response. And circularity: a facet of both life and its records, of which this is one.
I had no idea what the short sentence meant, only that it came from the Bible and when I said it, all the other campers in my Bible study group laughed and I was off the hook for answering any more questions about God, Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, none of which I knew anything about.