Looking for Pessoa

Looking for Pessoa, in a shocking lapse I forget his name (and go up to the sales assistant, who’s sitting in the poetry ghetto, where even an “independent bookstore” like McNally Jackson in SoHo relegates us. She’s doesn’t seem to be busy, doesn’t give me a passive-aggressive answer, and googles “Most famous Portuguese poet”. He comes up. “God bless G,” she says, probably relieved to be saved so easily from another crazed customer) – I forget him, just as I remember my own heteronym, just as the volume by P goes Protean and splashes all over the floor; just as I almost forget Craig Arnold’s name, looking for a single salutary volume of poetry to take to bed, to take me through October and beyond. Shameless plug, but I look for Breytenbach and, another lapse, they don’t have his work – I would go to the NYU bookshop, but that monolith already has enough of my dosh.

The two eds of Pessoa, City Lights and Penguin, are different takes, and no original Portuguese. I “wanted the Portuguese” (I already hear some pretentious twat say that at some future adjacent table; he probably has an English accent, or sounds suspiciously middle class Dublin, like moi…). Indeed, I did so very much want the Portuguese (“did I tell you about my year in Porto? Wonderful, darling. Just wonderful”), so I’m going the way of the scab, the miser and the careful student, and will get it out of the Bobst Library which, like a red ochre beast with a suspicious resemblance to Uluru (previously known as Ayer’s Rock), has colonised one whole corner of Washington Square, to the ire of Greenwich Village’s matronery and marginals. I heard only last night over beers that the library sees several suicides per year, via its vertiginous central gallery.


After deciding against Pessoa, I “settled” on Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (in archipelago books),  a settling which, in fact, is more like rising into the air. I “discovered” him recently. In discovery, as upcoming Columbus Day reminds us (incidentally a day greatly feted by Italian Americans in pizza and cannelloni suits), you discover that other people were there before you. I joined a country called “Darwish”, so elegant and simple and proud. Luckily, there was no immigration process. (Maybe it’s also called Palestine, but it’s harder to get into and out of, if you’re actually from there.) And, there’s also quite a long, narrow, passionate, Chile-shaped country in NYC called Roberto Bolaño . Women outside literary bars ask me while dragging on a fag, “so, who’d you like?” And I feel returned to teenage discos, when “Cure”, “Smiths” could get you a snog, if she was a Cure-head; but the wrong answer was inner martyrdom (what about the “Buzzcocks”?) Bolaño gets them nodding – better get reading. (I could in the original if that were the only thing I were doing. But it isn’t, and I’m “sawwww fucking busy,” to plagarise the New York cliché that is so obvious that it shades into offensiveness. And yet, you overhear it everywhere: “I’m SO busy; oh, hold on, honey: (vicious tonal change)”can I get a triple macchiato with a Xanax froth? Yeah, stat. YEAH. To go. – Come on, barista? What else is there? Take out is the new eating in.”)

B. Breytenbach read the class Darwish’s poem, ‘To Describe an Almond Blossom’, one of those poems that builds with inevitable, simple, heart-breaking imagery (it is, in fact, a poem that merits that description). While hearing it, you hope, “please don’t disappoint me” – which it doesn’t; it fulfils your hearing. It also fulfils one of the most basic, non-logical criteria of art, which, to paraphrase either Lorca or Robert Graves, is that art should raise the hairs on the back of your neck – one the unmistakeable signs of artistic transcendence. (As the oracle says to Neo in The Matrix, “No one can tell you you’re in love. You just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones.”) So, when the hair goes up all along my arms and on my neck, I know what I’m hearing is the real stuff.

In the end, I bought his book: took away a little stone, to place among all the other stones on his burial cairn.