In Plane Sight

“I’VE NEVER KEPT SHEEP / But it’s as if I did.” How did these two lines of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry irritate a person like me, often considered a novelist, enough to write a multigenre book full of short pieces and images called Pilot Impostor? The short answer is that the couplet collided with a swarm of issues all at once in an airplane above the Atlantic Ocean.

My husband and I visited Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa, in December 2016. Most TAP Air Portugal routes there require a transfer in Lisbon, so we decided to stop there for a few days on the way back. Whenever I go to a new country, I bring a book by a local author that I hope will give me insight into the people and culture of the place. This time I brought Cape Verdean author Germano Almeida’s satire The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, and Fernando Pessoa & Co., a definitive Pessoa anthology translated by Richard Zenith.

The Almeida was funny and short. I finished it before we left Cape Verde, so I cracked open the Pessoa book on the plane, and immediately, trouble arose in the cabin. The first poem in Zenith’s anthology, “The Keeper of Sheep,” begins with the lines above. This was the month after the 2016 election. Like many people, I was horrified that the United States now had a leader who, to start with, had no record of public service. Several comedians had already joked that this was not how anyone in their right mind would choose a plumber, let alone a president. Pessoa’s lines, affirming unearned authority, were written in 1914, but somehow summed up the mood of 2016, in which the poison cocktail of faked experience plus confidence had become superior to competence. The USA was not unique in that regard, either. The danger in electing inexperienced leaders reminded me of how, when you get on a plane, you put your life in the hands of a pilot you usually have not and may never meet. (For a while I had been obsessed with a television show called Air Disasters, a nonfiction procedural in which each episode recounts a historical aviation mishap.) You have to trust that the captain shares basic values with you—specifically, respect for airmanship and the desire to remain alive. When either are absent, people can die.

I knew little about Pessoa, but what I did know fascinated me. Born in Lisbon in 1888, he became dismayed that Portugal did not have enough of a poetry community, so he created an imaginary one, inventing nearly seventy-five poetic alter egos. He called them “heteronyms” to raise them above the level of imaginary friends; each had their own history and style, they were friends and rivals, they edited each other, they had relationships. He credited one of the major ones, Alberto Caeiro, a faux-naive Sensationist, with having written “The Keeper of Sheep.” Caeiro, a blond, blue-eyed orphan whom Pessoa’s major heteronyms often called their “master,” insisted on perception as the most mystical level of reality: “The world wasn’t made for us to think about it,” “The Keeper of Sheep” continues, “But to look at it and be in agreement.” It irked me that this unreal character, the mask of a Portuguese writer in his nation’s colonial heyday, had essentially lied on his résumé. The implied privilege appalled me, especially since it co-opted the low social status of a shepherd to suggest some kind of Chance the Gardener mysticism. This as I traveled from a former colony created from scratch—Cape Verde had no population before the Atlantic slave trade. The Portuguese took over Cape Verde to serve the slave trade, which they also largely invented. The country has been independent only since 1975, just forty years after Pessoa’s death.

Subsequent lines of Caeiro’s poem challenged my basic values: “Thinking is a discomfort,” “To think is to not understand,” “To love is eternal innocence / And the only innocence is not to think.” Could any married person read those last two lines without laughing derisively? I got angry. But at whom? Did Caeiro’s words—which, like most of Pessoa’s work, had sat inside a trunk containing tens of thousands of scraps of paper for years before any were published—represent some version of Pessoa’s beliefs, or was the sham shepherd just a character? Could he have been Pessoa’s way of lampooning poetic presumptions, like the idea that poets had to interpret their environment? At this point, was Pessoa himself more than a cipher? Did that matter?

Tom Judd, Arrival, 2017, oil on canvas, 38 x 36". Courtesy Robischon Gallery and Clark Gallery, Lincoln, MA
Tom Judd, Arrival, 2017, oil on canvas, 38 x 36". Courtesy Robischon Gallery and Clark Gallery, Lincoln, MA

I’m often motivated to write by what makes me mad; in this case I felt compelled to pen a rebuttal to every last poem in Fernando Pessoa & Co. I knew that directing outrage toward Caeiro’s emphatically superficial spirituality would be like shadowboxing, but to me that made the prospect more attractive. I would wrestle with ideas instead of venting against some real human and accusing him of various reprehensible isms. Everyone else seemed to be doing that, anyway. People are more ephemeral than ideas; any long-term good probably arises from paying greater attention to changing the latter. This, perhaps, is what I found most attractive about Pessoa’s genius. He had created writers who existed only as ideas, many decades before the internet turned even ordinary people into avatars. In his life and work, he aspired to the same nonexistence as his heteronyms. “I’m beginning to know myself,” he wrote in The Book of Disquiet, a collection of writings published after his death. “I don’t exist.”

We landed in Portugal and went to pick up a rental car. The woman behind the counter had on a nameplate that read pessoa. I figured everyone in Lisbon was named Pessoa. “Is that a common last name?” I asked. “No,” she said flatly. I told her I’d been reading Pessoa, and took the book out of my bag to prove it. “I don’t know if I’m related to him,” she said. “But I love his work.” This serendipity seemed like cosmic encouragement to start the project that became Pilot Impostor.

Reacting to the poems in Pessoa & Co. became a daily practice, with many rules. As a way of responding in kind without creating my own heteronyms, for example, I hit on the idea that I should write in any voice or genre that felt appropriate rather than trying to fit the entire book into one category. This was an element of my own work long before I encountered Pessoa, so the connection came easily. The result is that I have no idea what kind of book Pilot Impostor is. “Multigenre” is the best I can come up with. Every time I removed a piece during the revision process, I replaced it with an image—a fully designed page from an earlier draft, a picture I took in Lisbon, a photograph of an air crash site, a drawing, or something else. (The contents of Pilot Impostor still mostly correspond with the order of the poems in Pessoa & Co., so if you have both, you can follow along.) The book I ended up writing refers to the disorganization of Pessoa’s archive and his multivalent selves without copying or glorifying the poet.

Somewhere midway into the writing, the comparison between bad or deceptive pilots and incompetent leadership shifted, perhaps because of the viewpoints of Pessoa’s heteronyms, to more personal questions about identity. The self, it turns out, is also a make-believe pilot. Pessoa’s sexuality, according to Zenith’s new biography, Pessoa, ranges from virginity to repressed homosexuality. “Self-fertilization” is the term he uses to describe Pessoa’s avoidance of sexuality and his abundant creativity.

Pessoa’s feelings about his country’s involvement in the world seem distant from any self-consciousness about colonialism. But how would anyone know? He spent a decade of his youth in South Africa, living in Durban through the Second Boer War, and during this time his first poems (which were in English) and first heteronyms appeared, among them a British poet named Alexander Search, who had tough criticism for England’s colonial rule in Ireland and Transvaal. The extent to which any heteronym shared Pessoa’s personal views is unclear, assuming he had personal views. Still, Mensagem—the only volume he ever published in Portuguese under his own name, just a year before his death—consisted of what seem to be unselfconscious paeans to Portuguese explorers. It was nominated for the Antero de Quental Poetry Prize by the Secretariat of National Propaganda of the Estado Novo (initially Salazar’s dictatorship), a dubious distinction if ever there was one.

Peter Conrad, in The Guardian, writes that Pessoa “propounded a ‘mystic nationalism’ close to that of Hitler and Mussolini,” in the course of praising Zenith’s biography for treating the poet as “a tragicomic oddity,” and circumventing the issue of how seriously to consider the effect of politics on his work. (Of course, creating a plethora of surrogate personalities is a good way to indulge multiple points of view without implicating oneself.) In 2015, a statue of Pessoa in Durban was defaced with red paint, but the incident seems vague; activists who failed to look beyond appearances may have considered Pessoa’s image alone—his buttoned-up suit, little round glasses, and fedora—a “reminder of apartheid oppression,” without making a solid connection. For some people it’s enough to presume an association with evil based on circumstantial evidence, but paradoxically, this puts them on the same level with their oppressors. My intention was to find a different way to respond—to unlock the cockpit door and take control from all of the suicidal pilots crashing our world.

James Hannaham is a writer, an artist, or both. His next two books are Pilot Impostor (Soft Skull Press, 2021), described above, and a novel, Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta(Little, Brown, 2022).