Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I tell with my thought - sad, cold Ricardo Reis

Ricardo Reis is the narrowest, most theoretical of Pessoa’s heteronyms.  His thinking is pinched; his poems are repetitive.  Not only does he only have a few themes or ideas to work with, he could go on at length about why he should be as narrow as he is.  “The colder the poetry, the truer it is,” he told Álvaro de Campos (H&B, Poems, p. 126).  Roughly speaking, Reis is a gloomy intellectual pagan, Epicurean and neoclassicist who in most of his poems imitates Horace’s odes.  He is the kind of guy who talks a lot about hedonism and freedom but never seems to have any fun himself.

I find Reis minor compared to the expansive Campos or the narrow but deeper Caeiro.  My judgment is conventional.  All three Pessoa collections I have read give the least space to Reis.  Two caveats, though.  First, perhaps because of his thinness, because he is so easy to define along certain dimensions but otherwise shadowy, later writers have made all kinds of curious uses of him.  I should read José Saramago’s 1986 novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, shouldn’t I?  And at least one major Portuguese poet, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, has clearly gotten far more out of Reis than I can see.  I have just begun to read her – perhaps she will help me read Reis differently.

The second caveat is that minor poets write good poems.  Pessoa, as Reis, wrote many.

Lips red from wine,
White foreheads under roses,
Naked white forearms
Lying on the table:

May this be the picture
Wherein speechless, Lydia,
We’ll forever be inscribed
In the minds of the gods.

Rather than this life
As earthly men live it,
Full of the black dust
They raise from the roads.

The gods, by their example,
Help only those
Who seek to go nowhere
But in the river of things. (Zenith)

The last few lines of this 1915 poem reveal the influence of Alberto Caeiro, who helped Reis channel his paganism into poetry.  The first verse summarizes the paradox of Reis.  The scene at first sounds sensual, even lush, but is revealed to be frozen, lifeless.  Campos, an “earthly man,” would not be bothered by some black dust on his forehead.  Reis always uses his poems for abstract, ideal purposes.

Some of them are little more than statements of purpose or verse manifestos, like this early one, presumably used by Pessoa to clarify his concept of Reis:

Others narrate with lyres or harps
  I tell with my thought.
For he finds nothing, who through music
  Finds only what he feels.
Words weigh more which, carefully measured,
  Say that the world exists. (Zenith)

Many people would see this as an argument against poetry, however much Reis insists on the importance of form.  I am more curious about the early use of “nothing,” a favorite concept (“nowhere” in the first poem) of Reis:

Nothing comes of nothing.  We are nothing.
Briefly in sun, in air, we postpone
The unbreathable darkness that weighs us down
And humble earth imposes,
Delayed corpses that breed.
We’re stories telling stories, nothing. (Honig and Brown)

“Delayed corpses that breed” is the sort of line that makes me laugh, not cry or sigh or whatever I am supposed to feel, or since this is Reis, think.  I laugh with the vivacious Campos.

The Zenith book has minimal overlap with Honig and Brown.  Credit to the translators – in both books, Reis sounds like Reis.

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