“Tobacco Shop,” from 1928, is an example of mature Campos, or mature Pessoa. Post-Boom Pessoa. The Boom was the invention, in 1914, of Alberto Caeiro and the writing of the poems The Keeper of Sheep, and the creation of the Campos and Reis heteronyms and the accompanying poems, especially two long Whitman-inspired poems by Campos, “Maritime Ode” and “Salutation to Walt Whitman.”
Along with the Caeiro poems, Pessoa’s blending of Whitman into his own thought is his most impressive achievement. By impressive, I mean ambitious, or of large scope. Pessoa wrote plenty of interesting short poems, and another impressive long one before he died. I have barely brushed against “Maritime Ode,” and do not plan to interpret it today, so much as to poke at it.
Campos is “Alone, on the deserted dock,” looking “out toward Indefinitude” (?), watching a little steamer approach. “Maritime Ode” is explicitly a descendant of Whitman’s great seashore poems. Pessoa has made Campos a naval engineer by trade, perhaps only because he wanted the writer of this poem to have a direct connection with seafaring. He asks “all you seafaring things” to
Give me metaphors, images, literature,
Because in actual fact, seriously, literally,
My sensations are a ship with its keel in the wind,
My imagination a half-sunken anchor,
My anxiety a broken oar,
And the weave of my nerves a net to dry on the beach.
“[I]n me a flywheel starts spinning lightly,” and the poet launches into an elaborate nautical visionary fantasy, much of which involves pirates (“The Pirate Chief! King of the pirates! \ I pillage, I kill, I tear, I cut everything up!”). Some of this is pretty ridiculous, but the violence and crime becomes more cruel and less cartoonish, until the poet makes a surprising masochistic flip and becomes the willing victim of the violence of the pirates. “Subdue me like a dog you kick to death!” etc. etc. It goes on for a while. I cannot remember a Whitman poem that works itself into such a frenzy, that shrieks like “Maritime Ode.”
The intensity and pain are, fortunately, unsustainable; the flywheel slows, and Campos drops out of the vision:
Ah, how could I have thought and dreamt of such things?
How removed I am now from what I was a few minutes ago!
The hysteria of one’s sensations – first one thing, then the opposite!
The poem continues placidly, even gently, with a visit to a childhood aunt, some marveling at naval machinery and shipping. This is “the age of the rubber stamp,” which does not sound so poetic, but Campos insists, with Whitman’s example behind him, that “Poetry hasn’t lost out a bit!” The poet ends the poem still open to all sensations: “God knows what emotion” might be inspired by a “slow-moving crane” or the glitter of sunlight on the Lisbon buildings.
I have not even gotten to the “real and metaphysical gibberish” – now this is the poet for me! – of “Salutation to Walt Whitman,” which is punchier line for line – “Maritime Ode” is 34 pages in the Honig and Brown collection, “Salutation” nine pages, “Tobacco Shop” six. Richard Zenith’s book omits both “Maritime Ode” and “Salutation to Walt Whitman,” possibly because they are ably translated elsewhere. The two collections work well together. Taking a run at Pessoa without sampling “Maritime Ode” would be a shame.