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The Collected Poems of Álvaro de Campos Vol.2: 1928-1935

The Collected Poems of Álvaro de Campos Vol.2: 1928-1935

Translated by Chris Daniels

Shearsman Books, 198 pp, paperback, £12.95, ISBN 978-1-905700-25-7
Series 3 No.14 - Polyphony

Campos is nothing if not sincere and at the heart of Pessoa’s endeavour was a deeply serious poetic that sought to explore and create art/poetry as an act of spiritual expression.

Review by Karen McCarthy Woolf

Unlike a pseudonym, or an anonym, the heteronym is a wholly fabricated persona: the author is not writing as himself under another or a concealed name, he is writing as another character altogether. An exact contemporary of T.S. Eliot, Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888; he died young, at forty-seven, of cirrhosis of the liver. He published in his own name and also created dozens of literary alter egos in his short lifetime. Some wrote prose, others, such as Alexander Search wrote poems in English (Pessoa emigrated to South Africa as a child, returning to Portugal in his teens, and was therefore fluent). All his personas had individual biographies, poetics, preoccupations and styles: Álvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro and Ricardo Reis being the most prolific and inter-referential.

Anyone with an urge to learn more about the effusive, extravagantly confessional, ‘sensationist’ verse of Campos would do well to read the letters he wrote to his contemporary and ‘master’ Caeiro. In turn, those with an interest in Caeiro’s bucolic opus as the ‘absolute essence of paganism’ should refer to the rigorous introductory essays of the neo-classical formalist Reis. To know something of Fernando Pessoa, it is advisable to read some of all three… And thus a corner of the irresistibly complex heteronymical project that has defined Pessoa as the father of Portuguese modernism unfolds.

Campos – a one time naval engineer who trained in Glasgow and lived in England before returning to Lisbon – made his debut in Pessoa’s controversial literary journal Orpheu in 1914. Pessoa continued to attribute poems to Campos until his (Pessoa’s) death in 1935.

This chronologically organised volume comprises the latter part of his output; together with Volume I it will be ‘the first-ever collected edition of Campos’ work in English’ and forms part of Shearsman’s Pessoa series, which includes The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro, also translated by Chris Daniels. As such, the poems in this individual volume are, like their author, just one part of a polyphonous and multi-faceted whole. 

Some 27,543 documents and 70+ heteronyms are thought to make up the body of Pessoa’s work, which he kept in a large wooden trunk. Many of the Campos poems are dated yet untitled; one, it is noted, is written on the back of an envelope, and viewed here they add to the pervasive feel of the collection as an intimate, uncensored journal that has just been unearthed from the bottom of that large trunk. No thought or detail that crosses Campos’ mercurial, and regularly tormented, mind is left unuttered.

In the opening long poem ‘Tobacco Shop’ the first four lines announce both the collection itself and allude – as do many of the poems herein – to the heteronymical project.

I’m nothing.
I’ll never be anything.
I can’t wish I were anything.
Even so, I have all the dreams of the world in me.

The relationship between dreams and reality, madness and sanity is an enduring fascination for Campos (early poems cast him as an alternately indolent and frustrated opium addict) and later, as a poet endeavouring to make sense of life’s existential dualities, as in poems such as ‘Typing’ (1933):

We all have two lives:
The true one we dream in childhood
And continue to dream as adults in a misty substrate;
The false one we live among others,
The practical life, the useful life –
It ends up sticking us in a coffin.

Campos referred to himself as a ‘sensationist’ poet, one whose commitment to an often melancholic poetry of the senses overshadowed all other enquiry. Almost invariably he wrote in vers libre, the lines long and meandering and often anaphoric; Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was said to be one of Campos’ (and Pessoa’s) early and defining influences. Here, the effect is an intense musicality and at times an almost breathless stream of consciousness. In his brief Translator’s Notes (a longer introduction will, presumably, appear in Volume I, which is forthcoming) Chris Daniels says he left the punctuation intact so Anglophone readers could enjoy Campos ‘as is’. This seems an astute decision, as it is perhaps by retaining the original syntax that Daniels’ achieves a naturalness and ease that suits both Campos’ voice and philosophy.

Freedom is what Campos seeks: ‘No! All I want is freedom!/ Love, glory, money – they’re prisons’, he exclaims in an untitled poem from 1930; and freedom is also what the heteronym bestows on Pessoa himself. Daniels notes that Campos is thought to have been the person Pessoa would have most liked to have been. Ironically, of course Pessoa was Campos, but it is arguably the separation of the poet from the heteronym that empowers the work. It is perhaps because Campos is only one aspect of multiple poetic personalities that he feels able to express his thoughts and feelings so emphatically. The pretence allows him to be himself.

The poems also exhibit an indulgence that is at once a witty self-parody and a means of exposition that Pessoa uses to create the Campos character, as he does here in ‘Oxfordshire’:

I’m universally uncomfortable, metaphysically uncomfortable,
But the hell of it is I’ve got a headache.
That’s more serious than the meaning of the Universe.

But if we are to laugh at Campos with Pessoa, the joke is a good humoured and playful one. Campos is nothing if not sincere and at the heart of Pessoa’s endeavour was a deeply serious poetic that sought to explore and create art/poetry as an act of spiritual expression. However, the road to Ithaca – or in this case Sintra – was rocky and the question of god(s)/faith versus logic a maddeningly insoluble one that he explores in conversation between a large and interconnected dramatis personae. ‘My conscious soul is such an ache in my real stomach!’ Campos writes in ‘Trolley Stop’ – but, as he concludes in ‘Quasi’, ‘Like a god, I never straightened anything out, not my life, not the truth.’

Karen McCarthy

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