This book is an exploration of life, of all possible lives that could be lived. Each of the poems contained herein have been written by a different person, with his own history, culture, and emotions. True, they are all related, but no more than any of us is related through our genetics, our shared planet, or our yearnings.
Fernando Pessoa wrote poems under four different identities—he called them heteronyms—that were known during his lifetime, though after his death over sixty have been found and catalogued. He called them heteronyms as opposed to pseudonyms because they were much more than names he wrote under. They were truly different writing selves, concerned with different ideas and writing with different styles: Alberto Caeiro wrote pastorals; Ricardo Reis wrote more formal odes; Álvaro de Campos wrote these long, Whitman-esque pieces (one to Whitman himself); and Pessoa’s own name was used for poems that are kind of similar to all the others. It seems as though Pessoa found it inefficient to try and write everything he wanted only in his own self; rather he parceled out the different pieces and developed them into full identities, at the cost of his own: “I subsist as a kind of medium of myself, but I’m less real than the others, less substantial, less personal, and easily influenced by them all.” de Campos said of him at one point, “Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist.”
It’s not just Pessoa—I, strictly speaking, don’t exist, both as the specific me that writes this now and as the concept of selfhood, the ego. Heraclitus famously said that we can’t step into the same river twice, and the fact of the matter is that we can’t occupy the same self twice. It’s constantly changing and adapting to new stimuli from the environment, from other selves, from inside itself, and each time it forms anew into something that’s never existed before. The person I was when beginning a poem is distinct from the person who finished the poem, largely due to the poem itself. In a way, it’s been the waiter that brought the next course into the great meal that is myself.
In the same way, with each poem you read of this, you too could become a different person. Depending on which order you read them in, you could be any number of possible people. If you follow the threads I’ve laid out for you, there are so many possible selves; if you disregard those and go a different way there are quite a few more. However, at the end of the journey there is only one self that you will occupy, the others disappearing from this universe and going maybe somewhere else, maybe nowhere at all.
There is a scene in The Neverending Story where Bastian is trying to find his way out of the desert. He opens a door and finds himself in the Temple of a Thousand Doors, which is never seen from the outside but only once someone enters it. It is a series of rooms with six sides each and three doors: one from the room before and two choices. In life, each of these rooms is a moment, but where Bastian can choose which of only two doors to enter each time, in life there can be any number of doors and we don’t always choose which to go through—in fact, I would argue that most of the time we aren’t allowed the luxury.
What happens to those other doors, those other possibilities? Is there some other version of the self that for whatever complexities of circumstance and will chose a different door at an earlier moment? The answer to this, of course, is that we can never know for sure, though this doesn’t keep us from trying through the process of regret. We go back and try that other door in our mind, extrapolating a possible present from our own past. This is ultimately unsatisfying, not only because whatever world is imagined is not the one currently lived, but because it becomes obvious that the alternate model of reality is not complete: we can only extrapolate from the original room, absolutely without knowledge of any subsequent possible choices. This causes a deep disappointment, a frustration with the inability to know all possible timelines (coupled with the insecurity that this may not be the best of all possible worlds) that we feel as regret.
In this way, every moment we live is an elegy to every possible future that might have stemmed from it. Annie Dillard states this in a biological manner when she says in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “Every glistening egg is a memento mori.” Nature is inefficient—it spends a hundred lifetimes to get one that barely works. The fossil record is littered with the failed experiments of evolution, many of which failed due only to blind chance: an asteroid, a shift in weather patterns, an inefficient copulation method. Each living person today has twenty dead standing behind him, and that only counts the people that actually lived. How many missed opportunities stand behind any of us?
The real problem with all of this is that time is only additive. There’s no way to dial it back and start over, with new choices or new environments. Even when given the chance to do something again, we do it again, with the reality given by our previous action. Thus we are constantly creating and being created by the world. The self is never the same from one moment to the next.
A poem is like a snapshot of a self. If it’s any good, it captures the emotional core of the self at the time of writing for communication with future selves, either within the same person or outside of it. Thus revision is possible, and the new poem created will be yet another snapshot of the future self as changed by the original poem. The page becomes a window into the past, a particular past as experienced by one self. The poem is a remembering of a self that no longer exists, in other words, an elegy.
A snapshot doesn’t capture the entire subject, however. It leaves out the background as it’s obscured by foreground objects; it fails to include anything that isn’t contained in its finite frame. In order to build a working definition of identity, we must include all possible selves over all possible timelines, combined into one person: identity is the combined effect of all possible selves over time. A poem leaves much of this out: it is the one person standing in front of twenty ghosts.
A poem is the place where the selves of the reader and the speaker meet, in their respective times and places. In this way a poem is outside of time or place, because it changes its location each time it’s read. Each time it’s two different people meeting. The problem with a poem is that it’s such a small window—if we met in real life the way we met in poems, we would see nothing of anyone else but a square the size of a postage stamp. It has been argued this is the way we see time and ourselves in it, as well: Vonnegut uses the metaphor of a subject strapped to a railroad car moving at a set pace, with a six-foot-long metal tube placed in front of the subject’s eye; the landscape in the distance is time, and what we see is the only way in which we interact with it. It’s the same with a poem and the self: we can only see and interact with a small kernel. This is why it’s possible to write more than one poem.
Due to this kernel nature of poetry, a good poem should focus itself to extract as much meaning as possible from that one kernel of identity to which it has access. It should be an atom of selfhood, irreducible and resistant to paraphrase, because it tries to somehow echo the large unsayable part of identity outside the frame of the self. It is the kernel that contains a universe, or that speaks around one that’s hidden; if it’s a successful poem then it makes the smallest circuit possible. This is why the commentary on poems is so voluminous: a poem is tightly packed meaning that commentators try to unpack to get at that universality inside it. A fortress of dialectic is constructed that ultimately obstructs the meaning behind the poem; it becomes the foreground in the photograph that disallows us to view the horizon beyond it.
With this in mind, I collect these poems that were written over a period of four years into this book. Where I can, I insert cross-references (like the one above, in the margin) to other pieces in the text where I think the two resonate in some way. You can read this book in any way you’d like: you can go front-to-back, or back-to-front, or you can follow the arrows around, or you can work out a complex mathematical formula with Merseinne primes and logarithms and the 2000 Census information, or you can go completely randomly through like a magazine, or at least the way I flip through magazines. If writing is a communication of the self, then this is the best way to communicate mine in all its multiversity.