I’m going to wander through a long Pessoa poem, “Tobacco Shop” (1928), written under the guise of Álvaro de Campos. The translation is Honig and Brown’s, from the City Lights Poems of Fernando Pessoa. Richard Zenith’s version is just as good.
“Tobacco Shop” begins with a typical paradox of Pessoan identity:
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t even wish to be something.
Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.
Campos is sitting across the street from a tobacco shop, which is symbolically serving as “reality,” or an anchor to the real, while the poet has some sort of epistemological crisis. Campos was a naval engineer by profession, so I should artfully scatter metaphors like “anchor” throughout my post.
Today I’m mixed up, like someone who thought something and grasped it, then lost it.
Today I’m torn between the allegiance I owe
Something real outside me – the Tobacco Shop across the street,
And something real inside me – the feeling that it’s all a dream.
If the long, prosy lines remind you of Walt Whitman: yes, correct.
The poet has lost confidence in himself, in his art. “I’ve secretly thought up more philosophies than Kant ever wrote down,” but to what purpose? “[W]e wake and the world is opaque.”
I take the poem as a train of thought (cross out “train,” insert, um, “steamboat”) which is intermittently interrupted by an ordinary event on the street, like a girl eating a chocolate: “Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth but chocolates.” For some reason, though, Campos finds even the philosophy of chocolates unsatisfying, failing to provide reassurance. He will die, as will his poems, and even his language, and so on to, in an adolescent touch, the entropic heat death of the universe.
At this point:
a man’s gone into the Tobacco Shop (to buy tobacco?)
And the plausible reality of it all suddenly hits me.
I’m getting up, full of energy, convinced, human,
And about to try writing these lines, which say the opposite.
Campos, of all the Pessoan poets, is the funniest, or at least the one most evidently amused by his own contradictions.
The poet has not quite left his reverie, narcotized by his own cigarettes (“As long as fate permits, I’ll go on smoking”). But he is almost ready to return to ordinary concerns. The man he saw before leaves the shop:
Ah, I know him; it’s nonmetaphysical Stevens.
(The Tobacco Shop Owner comes back to the door.)
As if by divine instinct, Stevens turns around and sees me.
He waves me a hello, I shout back Hello Stevens! and the universe
Reorganizes itself for me, without hopes or ideals, and the Tobacco Shop Owner smiles.
And that’s the end of “Tobacco Shop.”
I find Campos to be the “biggest” of Pessoa’s personae, the one with the most energy, the one who, like Whitman, is unafraid of contradiction. He is a true follower of Alberto Caeiro (“I went off to the country with great plans \ But found only grass and trees there”), allowing things to be themselves, but also a dreamer, imaging things to be other than what they are, at least until nonmetaphysical Stevens brings him back to earth (strike that – drags him back to shore).