In a comment yesterday, Vince of the Philosophy of Romance blog reminded me that Alberto Caeiro’s writing often functions more as aphorisms than as poems, however he labels them. His plain pieces often seem like settings for his maxims, or wisdom, or punchlines, or whatever I should call them, which can often be stripped from the poem without too much damage.
Whether or not his paradoxes are resolvable, or his wisdom is wise, Caeiro does his work in chewy fragments:
Only Nature is divine, and she’s not divine. . . (XXVII, HB)
For the only hidden meaning of things
Is that they have no hidden meaning at all. (XXXIX, PR)
Like the Universe, I pass and I remain. (XLVIII, HB)
I don’t care about rhyme. You seldom find
Two trees alike, standing side by side. (XIV, PR)
That “seldom” (“raras” in Portuguese) is a hilariously fussy touch. I think this is how I have been responding to him, as a sage, or a trickster. As a philosophical stance, which I then try to understand, or, if I am Ricardo Reis, try to cram into my own stuffy poems. But Caeiro was a poet, too, a narrow one, but real. Here’s my favorite poem of his:
The soap-bubbles which this child
Blows from a straw for amusement
Are transparently a philosophy in themselves.
Shiny, useless and transient as Nature,
Pleasing the eye as things do,
They are what they are
In a precisely spherical and airy way,
And no one, not even the child who launches them
Claims they are more than they seem.
There are some you can scarcely see in the clear air.
They’re like the passing breeze which scarcely stirs the flowers,
Its passing known to us only
Because something quickens within us
And accepts all things with clear insight. (XXV, PR)
Caeiro takes a step or two outside of himself in this poem, which does not hurt. “Transparently” is a pun, an actual joke, as is, I suspect, “precisely,” a word that is often invoked to conceal imprecision.
The soap-bubbles are an effective metaphor for Nature, Caeiro’s idea of Nature, exactly because they are created by a person. In Caeiro’s poems, Nature is often a setting for the human – a river has meaning (or no meaning) because it flows through his village; in one poem a ticking watch beside his bed somehow becomes Nature (XLIV); and, even if the physical objects are just trees and plants, there is always the observer, the poet, “a human animal produced by Nature” (XLVI).
The bubbles are also poems, of course, Caeiro’s poems, inspired by “something,” shiny, useless, and transient. Can they really be no more than what they seem? A bluff, a gag, a writer’s false arrogance.
Maybe I’ll get this little Portuguese project going and see how Caeiro’s poems look a few months from now.
PR is Peter Rickard’s translation of Caeiro; HB is Honig and Brown, whose translation I also used yesterday but forgot to mention.