Reflection: I Have More Souls Than One by Fernando Pessoa

One hundred years ago, during the early months of 2018, I was out for dinner with friends on Lygon St. They’re two of my favourite people, she a bioethicist, he a rare-books librarian, all three of us spec lit and SF nerds. After he and I finished off a bottle of red between us we wandered into Readings for dessert. It was on the new release shelves that we came across the teeny tiny Penguin Modern imprints. At $2.50 each we all found a few that might be useful. For me it was Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism, Stanislaw Lem’s The Three Electroknights and Fernando Pessoa’s I Have More Souls Than One. As expected, these writers have helped me to see the world, all fresh and shaken, but it was Pessoa who left me shook last night.

I know it’s becoming a bit of a theme, but I like to read in the bath. I can’t do anything else when I’m in there, I can’t get distracted by cleaning, or lists or work. Sitting in water brings me to stillness. It is the only thing that even slightly pulls me back into myself, that sinks my mind into my body. So, I was sat in the tub and reading Pessoa and thankful that the hot water was making my face more red and blotchy than my crying was. Pessoa, writing across a series of personas — Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caiero, Alvaro de Campos, and himself — explores his position in the universe, and muses on the excesses and limitations of both life and death. Jonathan Griffin’s translation of Pessoa’s writing captures the by turns extravagant and mundane themes in Pessoa’s work. 

Again and again, I found myself dog-earring pages, finding myself mirrored in a line, or snagged in a stanza. One particular poem, “To Be Great, Be Entire”, spoke deeply to a process of self-reckoning that I have been living through over the last 18 months.

To be great, be entire: of what’s yours nothing

Exaggerate or exclude.

Be whole in each thing. Put all that you are 

Into the least you do.

Like on each place the whole moon

Shines, for she lives aloft.

Fernando Pessoa, Trans. JOnathan Griffin. (14.2.33)

This poem calls me to account, for both my light and my shadows. It doesn’t just, reminding me that my dark side — flaws, foibles, follies — are as much a part of my glory as the light I reflect on to others is. I found Pessoa’s writing as Reis and Campos particularly striking. Two of Campos’ poems, “I Have a Terrible Cold” and “I am Tired”, provided a gleeful shock of recognition: “I need truth and the aspirin” laments the flu-ridden narrator, and as the End of Semester Zombieplagueflu makes its way through my colleagues and students, nothing could be more immediate. 

This poetry is a stillness that is needed in our fast world. A reminder that small and humble moments can bring the fullness of a waxing moon.

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