I Have More Souls Than One – Fernando Pessoa (Penguin Modern: 19)

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Published 22nd February 2018 by Penguin Classics

Author: Fernando Pessoa

Format: Paperback (130mm x 180mm x 5mm)

Genre: Poetry, philosophy

Pages: 56

Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Opening line:

“I never kept sheep,

But it is as if I did watch over them.”

Synopsis:

‘But no, she’s abstract, is a bird

Of sound in the air of air soaring,

And her soul sings unencumbered

Because the song’s what makes her sing.’

Dramatic, lyrical and ranging over four distinct personae, these poems by one of Portugal’s greatest poets trace a mind shaken by intense suffering and a tireless search for meaning.

My review

This book is one of five that I bought from my trip to London. I was walking in Camden when I came across a Waterstones, so I went in and spotted the Penguin Moderns and chose five I liked the sound of.

The reason I picked this one up was because it’s ‘written in the voices of four different alter egos’, and I love anything to do with alter egos, as it’s something I’m fascinated by. I was also trying to choose books that would help me write my novella which grapples with the idea of human existence and what it means to be a person in the world, and how far can imagination be pushed when it comes to defining the notion of being. This is all relevant, because this book gave me so many ideas and it helped me to explore that area even deeper.

The poems in here explore and question. They are quite modern in style, and seem simple on the surface, but the words are actually very deep and philosophical. Some of them moved me to tears almost, and others made me laugh.

As well as being able to pin some of these ideas to those in my own writing, I’ve found poems in here that speak to me as a person. In the past, my mental health hasn’t just been caught up in anxiety, it’s been caught up in a conflict between me as I am in my head, and me as I am in the world. I sometimes struggle to  see myself as a person in the world, and this also affects my expression of who I am: sometimes I just don’t know how to be. I’ve tried to write poems about this before, but that’s even more difficult…but Fernando Pessoa has found that place and written about it in the way I have been trying, and failing to do.

The four alter egos differ, but I found something in each of them that I loved. My favourite by far was the first: Alberto Caeiro. These poems express a connection between writing and what is real or imagined, and that the gap between them may not be so far as we think.

…Write verses on the paper that is in my thought,

I feel a shepherd’s crook in my hands

And see an outline of myself

There on the hill-crest,

Listening for my flock and seeing my ideas,

Or listening for my ideas and seeing my flock…”

He explores the idea of beauty and what makes beauty exist, and he introduces the idea of Nature and whether that really exists, or if it’s just a lot of individual existing things rather than one whole. This has an element of humour to it, with there being such things as ‘Nature poets’, who treat nature as having some kind of deep meaning that can only be discovered through nature poetry. I am open in the fact that I don’t like nature poetry, and I can’t really bear to read it, so to read Pessoa (or Caeiro’s) thoughts on this is refreshing!

I’ve also found a poem which I can give as an answer whenever anybody asks me, ‘What’s your favourite poem?’, and that’s ‘If, After I Die’. I love the style of it, the things it says, and the fact that it could come under a list of poems to be read at funerals but it’s not morbid, it’s celebratory and funny. The last line is also one of the best lines ever.


I am including a line here to indicate the passage of time in my writing this review. Since writing the above, I have been to a meeting/coffee/tea catch-up at my local coffee shop, The Bean. The author Graham Caveney is a frequent drinker at this cafe, and it happened that he was there. During the conversation, he mentioned Fernando Pessoa. We happened to be discussing Portugal, where Pessoa was born and died, so it was only natural that someone as literary and bookish as Graham should eventually mention him. If I had not bought and read this book in the last few days, this name would have gone over my head, as it was, I perked up and told him that I’d recently read a selection of his poems in the Penguin Modern edition, telling him that I am “currently obsessed with Pessoa”.

I remarked how “he has managed to express ideas that I’ve failed to do in my own poetry”. He recommended his book The Book of Disquiet as being unlike anything else he’s ever read. I got out my copy of I Have More Souls Than One for him to take a look at, telling him: “You know when you really love a book, and you carry it around with you like it’s your new best friend? That’s what I’m doing.”

“I have more souls than one.

There are more ‘I’s than myself.

And still I exist

Indifferent to all.

I silence them: I speak.”

From this conversation I found out that Pessoa used to really inhabit his alter egos, turning up to places pretending to be whichever form of himself he’s adopted. Apparently, there’s also a new edition of  The Book of Disquiet out, and that his writings are still being discovered. I have no doubt that I shall try to get my hands on as much of his work as possible from this point on.

The only thing about this selection that worried me was that the alter egos would differ drastically from one another. After loving the first offering, I wondered how the others would compare. It took a few poems for me to find something worth underlining in the ‘Ricardo Reis’ section, but once I did, I found them just as brilliant. This happened with each alter ego, but although similar themes cropped up, each had something different to offer, and displayed a range of styles.

Interestingly, it was Pessoa as himself that became the only section I didn’t underline anything in, but it was also the shortest. I find it fascinating that his best poetry (in my opinion only) should be that in his own voice. I suppose this offers up the idea that sometimes what we truly feel can be better expressed when adopting a different voice, or applying what we feel to someone else, or an extension of ourselves. It may be easier, strangely, to express our true nature when we distance it from who we are, or simply put it under another name, a pseudonym.

To say I’ve got so much out of a slim selection is incredible…more Pessoa (or whoever he wants to be) please!

Link to the book on Goodreads: I Have More Souls Than One

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