The Book of Disquiet [1]

Bernardo Soares (Fernando Pessoa), in his The Book of Disquiet:

I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others. But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in their parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing – for myself alone – wispy songs I compose while waiting.

Though I will not feign to be quite so isolated as Bernardo Soares, this is a mood I know well. I delight in other people from far away, preferring to hear of their songs those muted strains that drift out to me than to be fully present. Yet this is not mere evasion and inactivity, is not pessimism. It is perhaps difficult to impress the vivacity of this mood on one who does not know it firsthand, though Soares succeeds better than I can.

This passage immediately allies itself, in my mind, with the following poem by Su Tung-p’o, which I give in the original, followed by my own translation and that of Burton Watson:


Spring night, one moment worth a thousand gold coins;
faint scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Flute song from the high tower: sound soft, soft;
Swing in the courtyard, night heavy, heavy.

Spring night–one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs–threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where night is deep and still.

What attracted me to the poem is the narrator’s location: not up in the tower with the song, not out in the heavy night, but somewhere in between. Of course, the narrator is a different person than Soares, is not an ineffectual Epicurean. We do not know what brings him to this strange middle position. But the distance is the same.



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