As I get older, I find I try to capture in memory more fully than ever the passing marvellousness of an ordinary day by writing down what happens in a journal. The attempt to capture everything is, of course, impossible. I once experimented by attempting at noon one Saturday to describe every single thing that I had done and said and thought and that had happened to me in the first two hours after I woke that morning. After more than an hour of writing, I had written about thirty pages and had just got past the dreams I remembered having, showering and doing a few simple exercises, looking out the window at the garden in sunlight and telling my wife how beautiful it looked, a quick look at CNN on the TV, the first glass of orange juice, the ice tinkling in the glass and the taste on my tongue of its sun and gold liquid tang, a conversation on the phone with my friend Roy Dookun and a brief description of one of the sports pages of Stabroek News. Try the experiment of putting down everything you see and hear and taste and say and feel and think in a single hour. Life is too infinitely rich to describe fully. You simply have to live it.
When I think of any attempt to describe the indescribable one-thing-after-the-otherness of life, I think of a poet I was late in discovering.
The work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is hardly known to English-speaking peoples. Most of his life he was a low-level freelance commercial correspondent. The routines of his earning career were completely ordinary. They provided him with only a precarious living but gave him ample time for what really was the only thing that mattered to him: poetry. However, very little of his verse was published in his lifetime. His love of writing overwhelmed him and he lived only for that. The notice and publicity that might come from publishing meant nothing to him.
After Pessoa’s death, vast quantities of unpublished prose and verse were discovered jumbled in a big trunk at his sister’s house. Since then, sifting through the material, publishing it, discussing and interpreting it has become a growth industry in European academic circles.
No label fits him: symbolist, modernist, existentialist, occultist even – he was all of them at different times and sometimes simultaneously. His poetry is controlled, unsentimental, totally removed from unreflecting spontaneity. Central to it are the mystery and terror of everyday existence and the anguished endeavour to make sense of oneself in relation to the universe.
Pessoa is a deeply serious poet. No poem must come easily. Each must be a new raid on the inarticulate, a fresh attempt to capture the uncapturable. He expresses it like this in one stanza of a poem called “Soon As There are Roses”:
“Soon as there are roses, I want no roses
I want them only when there can’t be any.
What should I do with the things, many,
On which, at will, my hand closes?”
A remarkable feature of Pessoa’s work is his invention of three poetic persona through which he expresses himself. Here is an extract from a poem by “Ricardo Reis,” who is Pessoa writing in his neo-pagan persona, an ancient Roman Horace who has wandered into the 20th Century. The poem strikes a chord in me, perhaps in all of us who are old, as we live an “Autumn (which) comes/With its implicit Winter.” How distant the sound seemed once but recent events have brought mortality’s roar much closer.
From “Odes”by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Peter
Destiny, O Lydia, is my dread. Nothing is sure.
At any hour, that may befall us
By which we are entirely changed.
Beyond the known, our every step
Is strange: stern spirits guard
The boundaries of custom.
We are not gods; or blindness bids us fear.
Let us prefer the meager gift of life
To the novelty of the abyss.
Build no Utopia, Lydia, for the time
You fancy yet to be, nor count upon
Tomorrow. Today fulfils, and does not wait.
You are yourself your life.
Contrive no plan, for you are not to be.
Perhaps between the cup you drain
And the same replenished, Fate
Will interpose the void.
When, O Lydia, our Autumn comes
With its implicit Winter, let’s save
A thought, not for that future
Spring, which others will enjoy,
Nor for that Summer whose dead we are,
But for the remnant of what passes on –
The present yellow in the life of leaves,
Making them different.
It is a sad thought that so much we loved, so many we loved, will never come again. But let us not despair. No day is the same, for the old as much as for the young, and what is beautiful and different in all the days which are left must be savoured to the full. Probably we should plan not much further than this day itself. Around the next bend in the river may come great Kaieteur.