Frank X. Gaspar - Poet, Novelist
A Poetics of Disquietude for Gaspar’s Tales of the Soul
By Teresa F. A. Alves, PhD
In an interview to Tamara Kaye Sellman, Frank X Gaspar claims that “it’s the everyday details that lead us, like a trail of popcorn, to the answers to our most profound questions.” This claim sets him along a similar path to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson who teamed up the wagon and the star, or to that of Emily Dickinson who imaged hope as a thing with feathers, showing how deeply American this descendant of Portuguese immigrants may sound. The “trail of popcorn” leading into the “deeper meaning of life” aligns Gaspar’s poetry with the perception that common experience — physical, touchable and useful — is the door to the intimations of the soul by which the poet’s original relationship to the universe is established. In this same interview, the acknowledgement of a native tradition includes a reference to Allen Ginsberg, the poet who, in the Fifties, blurred the boundaries between different levels of discourse drawing poetry towards the translation of the original relationship into a continuous alliance between the common language and the highest spiritual endeavor.(1) And this alliance became a distinctive trend in American poetry, from Emerson, Whitman or Dickinson to this day, their respective discrete poetic styles notwithstanding.
Ginsberg is, in Frank X. Gaspar’ s words, the “wise poet” who taught him to “Write [his]mind” and to whom he is indebted for the “major turnaround” in his own poetry. Most obviously, Ginsberg’s influence is felt on those “chunky block poems that ebb and flow like tides,”(2) blurring the boundaries between the inner and the outer universes of experience, the line controlled by the rhythmic pattern and irregular line length as in the apparently spontaneous flow of free verse, distinctive of the Beat poet. Gaspar’s effortless ebb and flow between the physical world of common perception and the dreamlike sense of experience also connotes his poetry with contemporary Magic Realism. Nonetheless, he considers it a rather universal mode, so labeled as to “give readers a clue as to how to approach these works,” pointing out that a good number of Latin-American writers “credit Faulkner as a great influence.” Frank X. Gaspar, who is also a novelist, moves agilely between the apparently distinct fields of prose and poetic writing, as he moves between William Faulkner’s fusion of discrete perceptions into a literary whole and Allen Ginsberg’s composed-on-the-tongue poetics of shift of voice and mood.
In a sense, Frank X Gaspar’s drift between discrete universes, his way of “processing the world” into lyrical vision – and I wish to emphasize the poet’s admission that his “rational thought always stream[s] away into something like a dream” in Sellman’s interview — adjusts beautifully to his own situation as an American writer who makes the most of his culturally hybridized condition as a third-generation descendent of Azorean immigrants. The relevance of such a legacy accounts, as well, for a good deal of the storytelling that pervades Gaspar’s works, becoming a distinctive feature of his first volume of poems along with the ontological demand described in Mary Oliver’s introduction to The Holyoke as “a young man’s passage from boyhood to maturity, in a small town by the sea,” (1988: xi). The stories in the poems weaved around Catholic Portuguese immigrants and their descendents may have had the ring of magical realism to the average American reader, but as Oliver points out the strength of Gaspar’s collection “arises directly out of humdrum, daily life, with its endless precarious situations” mediated by a “fiercely attentive” voice intent on bringing out of the pervading darkness “some glow, some thrust of light […]” (1988: xii-xiii).(3)
Mary Oliver’s introduction induces us to read the poems in the convergence of the visionary impulse upon the humdrum of daily life, ending however her analysis with some words about Provincetown, the place where the poet was born and raised. His own evaluation of the relationship between his fishing community and the town at large, in the Preface to the second edition of The Holyoke (2007), sheds light on Oliver’s view that a reference to Provincetown was not spurious, as well as on my tentative reading of his poetry at the crossroads of a dominant American tradition and that of an immigrant Azorean culture. The Portuguese community was, in Gaspar’s opinion, “an overwhelming numerical majority” during his childhood and very much part of the native scenario, in contrast with the visitors and artists who arrived every summer and departed as the season closed. Both “Picos” and “Lisbons”, as he would picture the two rival Portuguese groups in the novel Leaving Pico (1999), felt very much at the center of events, entertained no feelings of marginality or “otherness”, being part as they were of a community “that found no need to name or define itself, certainly not in terms of anything from beyond it” (2007: xv). Cultural disruption or ethnic difference is indeed not at the center of Gaspar’s poetic work. Acknowledged nostalgia rather than otherness would instead be the occasion for the magic-like storytelling created from personal memories of community life in some of his poems and in the novels.
In this first volume of poems, the stories are woven around people, as in “Tia Joanna” and “Ernestina the shoemaker’s wife,” or spring up from the neighboring world of nurture and useful tools, as in “Potatoes” and “The Holyoke”. They are the leading motives for storytelling in this Part One of the volume, similar in function to those voices speaking Pico from the kitchen in “Leaving Pico,” to the mother shaking the grate of the big stove and the great uncle with an axe to kindling sticks in “First Snow”, or to the unnamed seeker and instructor in “Beachcombing,” somehow evocative of the mysterious grandfather who, in the novel Leaving Pico, mediates between the legendary past of the Carvalhos and the future of Josie, the young narrator. Even the absent father plays a significant role as propitiator of a newly felt sense of overwhelming sorrow in “For No One,” personifying the feeling that absence may be a powerful catalyst for lyrical emotion. At the core of the stories told in the poems are the initiatory rites into the experience of living, as in “Beachcombing” or in “Answering”, but also death, as in “Deer, Swimming,” or loss, as in “The Harbor in Winter.”
The boy’s quest interweaves the ever present everyday with a more speculative instance in Part Two of the volume, in the inaugural “Catechism,” followed by “How The Soul Leaves The Body And Finds Its Place In The Presence Of God,” and “Amazing Grace.” In this last poem as in the previous ones, the words flow from line to line into an emotional crescendo, the memory of the Catholic upbringing —“And we learned about Jesus,/ how they rolled the stone away/ to find him gone” — questioningly intertwining with the memory of the small weeping mother cradled in the lyric voice’s arms and leading to the final realization that, in this world of separateness, “When you are living completely in one moment,/ you are alive in no other” (2007: 26). There is, however, no separation between the different times of sacred and profane History, which overlap as memories of the lyric “I” with no staccato to punctuate the sway between recalled event and personal musings, only the continuous ebb and flow from the common perception into the dream-like speculative mood so characteristic of Frank X. Gaspar. “Who Is Hans Hofmann and Why Does the World Esteem him?” is a challenging instance of the seamless confluence of such an overlapping as imaged in the outsider who comes to town in the summer, the gang of boys stealthily breaking into his rooms, the translation of the language of dreams in the primary colors used by Hans Hofmann, and the final poetic epiphany: “It was something from another world/ and so we stroked it back to ours—/ribbons and garlands/ and the Jagged, blossoming mouths.” (2007: 29). Perception of the world and speculative flight are tightly interwoven in this volume, just as tightly interwoven are the grouping of lines in an irregular stanza-like composition that only occasionally intersperses with the prevailing “chunky block poems” of Gaspar’s future poetry.
Achieving full swing the quest of memory, in part three, through the different periods of a young life reaching out towards maturity, the poet catches the overtones of the anticipated longing that, like the “huge bird […] on wings long as a man” in “Stealing Seed Clams From The Marsh,” flies onwards, some pages ahead “In the Dunes” to become “[…] this inviolate/ region of light somewhere,” providing a clue to the pervasive restlessness of the poet’s soul. (2007: 31; 37) This is verily the undertow that pulls the lyric “I” across the season of “gray silence” (2007: 45), the drunkenness of some August nights (2007: 47), the “chronic wakefulness” (2007: 49) and the sense of “bereavement” for leaving a dream (2007: 57); and that turns him into a wanderer through imaginary and real old countries (the “old country is any place/ we have to leave” [2007: 52]), through real space and time as in “February, the Moors” or “November, California”; or returns him to the reader as a fumbling spiritual seeker of surreal vision, “when it is no longer necessary to separate sunlight, laughter, water, any one small idea from another” (2007: 59-60). As the author of “The Resting Place” knows, there is no dwelling impervious to decay (2007: 72), transiency is the common lot which a poem like “Passing” features in the shape of somersaulting girls, a flattened lawn and fluttering light (2007: 68-9).
Frank X. Gaspar has also referred to The Holyoke as a book that “looks ahead as a wellspring for later work,” the poetry he was still engaged in when he wrote his preface to the second edition of the volume (2007: xvi). Effectively, the tripartite structure of this volume is repeated in the subsequent volumes; and so are the recurring themes of the poet, the significant loci in which the convergence of different times and places anchor across memory to the actual moment of writing, from Cape Cod to the shores of California, through peace and war, a sustained poetic inquiry into experience and philosophical speculation. The structural repetition and the distinctive voice that emerges from Gaspar’s poetry expands, to avail myself of Christopher Larkosh’s words in his Introduction to the second edition of the Holyoke, “beyond autobiographical, regional or ethnic particularities to tell a far-reaching story of life, loss and continuity, of meaning fragmented and regained in those faraway, once foreign spaces that have now become an inseparable part of the ongoing poet’s journey.” (2007: xiv)
With the publication of the subsequent three volumes of poetry and of two novels, the ongoing poet’s voyage may, I believe, be described as a spiritual quest driven by the sense that the metaphoric “old country” becomes the “home […] where one starts from” and each poem the momentous “still point” when disquietude is appeased.(4) [footnote clarifying “the old country as any place we have to leave”, loosing the ethnic strings, and acknowledging the reference to Eliot’s influence throughout Gaspar’s poetry , p.191, 203 Collected Poems] But from poem to poem, even in the use of the gerund in the title of his novels, Leaving Pico or in his recent Stealing Fatima (2009), disquietude is a constant of Gaspar’s creative momentum in which the here and now intersect with the then and there, the close at hand with the far beyond, light with darkness, faith with doubt. His fleeting delicate balance between contraries is further intensified by his continuous postponing of definite arguments in favor of the unabated wish to go on questioning, in a constant deferral of limits over the span of poetic endeavor. Gaspar’s initiated voyage in The Holyoke fares into deep seas in the remaining volumes of poems, his interrogations driving his lyrical storytelling into an intensified demand of meaning that, in the case of Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death (1995), foregrounds his poetic concern with the Catholic faith and the cultural legacy of his forefathers.
Inscriptions from the Council of Trent, the Saint Joseph Catechism and Eliot’s Little Gidding introduce and resonate throughout the volume, clustering around the biblical motifs that make Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death conversant with its chosen title. Composed once again of three sections, Chronicle, the first one, evokes the Book of Chronicles not only because of its recording of matters of the common days, but also because it somehow revisits stories and situations which sound familiar to the readers of The Holyoke and which were then set aside in favor of other matters. “Old Stories”, the inaugural poem, goes back to the theme of the poetic act as a legacy from his great-uncle — “This is for you – Remember this…” (1995: 4) — erasing temporal distance between the actual creative act and the remembrance of those who are announced by Henry Vaughan’s epigraph, “They are all gone into the world of light” — the beloved grandfather, “old man Coelho”, the “aunt among the lilies”, the bereft mother. The nostalgic aura that surround the protagonists of the stories, the theme of the light as a path to salvation and a chance to redeem the darkness of the soul, the evocation of the threatening elemental sea along with the cherished domestic tools — the holyoke, the Underwood typewriting machine — act upon the poet’s memory as Proustian remembrance of things past, becoming ever-recurring motifs that look back on the 1988 book of poems as a source for later work.
In subtle ways, however, nostalgia is seasoned by a touch of humor, as when in “My Aunt Among the Lilies” the resonating “lilies” are exposed as poetic artifice by the lyric voice’s evocation of the actual flowers which should attend to the aunt’s portrayal: “There were never lilies: / Irises grew in a bricked row along the front of the house,/ hollyhocks spined up behind/ our hedge, and morning glories/ bruised the fence/ with their bitter mouths.” (1995: 9). Running a scale of different tones, Frank Gaspar achieves undercurrents of meaning that draw each poem towards unexpected turns, well illustrated in the title poem of the volume, “Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death,” on which this first section of the volume is closed as a chronicle about a bunch of boys who might elsewhere be taken by a gang and who asserted their manhood by getting out of their houses in the evening, accomplishing tricks and practical jokes, “bumming cigarettes from one another.” Sometimes the escapade would admit “the solemn story repeated/ from mouth to mouth on the same gloomy steps like a prophecy,/ like when one of the boats went/ Down in December cold, all hands, […]” and a prayer that they would be spared the fate of those wrecked in the sea “— not me, not me, not me — .” (1995: 24-25). Ordinary youthful escapades also lead into stories of wreckage and mortality, thus inviting, even if obliquely, the ritual which like an incantation encapsulates the community. “The Mass for the Grace of a happy Death”, we are told by Frank X. Gaspar himself, “is a specific Mass of supplication, taken from the old Catholic Missal” (1994: 66). In this volume, the poem establishes a poetic transition from the chronicle of common experience to the thematic focus on the human condition in the following two sections in which frailty and grace intertwine in an orchestration of biblical resonance, announced by the titles given each of them. Lamentation, located between the first and the last section, is evocative of the Judaic Lament, and its hymnody of sorrow for the pitiful condition of the living. The epigraph, borrowed from Dostoyevsky, announces the human heart as the battlefield where God and the devil fight for the possession of what is fancied to be one’s own, offering a modern version of the state of grief in which the lament originates. Episodes from rebellious youth (“Codeine”, “Stealing” and “Boston”) or from warfare (“Mission”, “Lookouts, Foul Weather”, “At Sea, Tokin”) take the reader through the prevailing imagery into the recesses of existence lived as the dark night of the soul. They are interspersed with others in which prostitution is pictured in the nightmarish scenes of “R and R”, “[…] past the edges/ of any desire, fierce, dark, rocking/ creatures, working us like furies” (1995: 34) or across the border (any border?) in “South”.
The last poems in Part II, although nocturnal in mood, are also poems that achieve a transition to the final meditation set in a theological landscape, “In the oldest stories/ God gave up the World as a rod/ according to which we might perfect ourselves/ and move from his silence into his light/ […].” (1995: 45). The scenario is symbolic and appropriate to the lyric voice’s final “lament” and questioning glance at a picture of desolation, the eyes finally resting on two silhouetted women, the wife and her mother, who “reach their arms into the trees […] in a season that will bring no fruit” (1995:46). “Psalm” opens Part III to which it gives the title, the questioning glance, the legacy of the loving and loved ones caught in a celebratory frame announced by the epigraph from the Sanctus, “Pleni sunt coeli and terra Gloria tua.” A poem or song of praise for God, the biblical psalm as re-visited by Gaspar in “Hymn”, “The Wine at Cana”, “Offering” appropriates biblical words, titles and episodes, the appropriation also entitling the reversal of meaning, or the literalization of the founding spirit of charity as in “Curandera” and in “Mexican Woman, Hair in Braids, Caught in Barbed Wire on the Side of I-5”. Frank X Gaspar comes to the religious landscape of his upbringing in the same inquiring spirit that is distinctive of his lyric digressions in the world of his experience and memories. Significantly he shapes reversal and appropriation by the lens of poetry as when composing his psalm in memory of his Great Uncle and Grandfather he writes, “[…] and if remembering them/ I say, stay with us, for it is toward evening/ and the day is far from spent, it will not matter,/for a spirit has not flesh and bones,/ and the dead are not mindful of our intentions,/ and it is not by signs or figures/ or their manipulation, but only by another’s breath/ that these dead are raised for the small moment/ to walk so tenuously among the tenuous living.” (1995: 50)
If the Catholic devotional ritual bespeak of the ingrained influence to the native tradition of the Azorean forefathers and the Provincetown community, other instances, however, invite a diversity of cultural traditions into Gaspar’s poetry, as for instance, when, in his final notes to Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death, he reports epigraphs or poem titles to their source: Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw or Teilhard de Chardin might also belong into the company of those that went into a “world of light” which is being revisited by Frank X. Gaspar. In “Love is the Power Which Impels One to Seek the Beautiful”, the title of the poem is taken from philosophical work Commentary on Plato’s Symposium by Marsilio Ficino and the prose poem itself is a singular instance of the characteristically poetic process in Gaspar, associating memories of two Navy comrades in post-Vietnam California with metapoetic musings evocative of Charles Olson’s Projective Verse: “Now after all these years of reading poems, I may finally understand certain questions of form. There is the line with its heartbeat, and there is language with its catalogue of figures, and there is symmetry and breath.” (1995: 39-40)(5)
Frank X. Gaspar’s “North-American Time”, to borrow from Adrienne Rich’s poem of the same title, is not only patterned upon theme, line and rhythm, but also invites a multitude of voices either by allusion or explicit quotation, producing a textual polyphony that is a distinctive, even if not exclusive, feature of the literature of the United States and which the Postmodern age heightened to an unprecedented scale. Some of those voices are explicitly addressed in the epigraphs at the opening of the three different sections that compose Field Guide to the Heavens(1999) which, like the 1995 volume of poems, interweaves passages from different realms of literature, religion and philosophy, the volume opening with an excerpt from The Koran about the perfection of the Merciful’s creation and another from Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquietude about the anguishes of the soul that come upon the self as cosmic cataclysms. Metropolis, the first section of the volume, is headed by an epigraph from Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts which articulates a dialogue of pious devotion but, in the context of West’s novel, supports the previous contradiction between flawless creation and cosmic cataclysm. No resolution is offered by Simone Weil’s acknowledgement of the infinite symbolism of the universe in juxtaposition with Martin Heidegger’s evaluation of the age as a time of crepuscular destitution barely rescued by the singing poet at the opening of Jailhouse Tattoos, the second section of the volume. The two epigraphs play upon each other and upon the preceding ones increasing the opposition between the ideal of perfection and the feeling of destitution that in This Book of Small Days, the third section, takes a curious turn towards the shared average condition of being as it is announced by excerpts from the down-to-earth epopee of Don Marquis´s Archy and Mehitabel, and the lofty heights of Saint Augustine’s Confessions.
Intertextuality is intensified throughout the three sections of the A field Guide to the Heavens, in different ways. Most obviously, when a poem is headed by an epigraph from
another poet which, as in the case of Milton’s line from “Il Penseroso” hailing melancholy as the proper mood for speculative wanderings, sets the reader into the adequate frame of mind to enjoy Gaspar’s stylistic exercise around the same theme in “Last Hymn to Night”; or when the excerpt from the Book of Job announces the lack of compassion for the destitute beings of this world, upon which “Small Prayer for the World Without Mercy” is obliquely centered. Occasionally, intertextuality is addressed by the titling name of a poet and the focus on poetic activity, as in “George Herbert,” whose mind “runs perpendicular” to that of the lyric voice, mentioning “[…] stars too many/ too many times to count, and moons and spheres and the fleet astronomer […] whose, / lines are too beautiful for the intellect, who will never / leave your mind at rest / once you’ve let him in. […]” (1999: 17). The intertextual dialogue proceeds, by the choice of an allusive title which evokes other poems either by the use of central motifs or by partial explicit borrowings from other poets’ titles. Such is the case of “ When Lilacs”, an elegy in memory of the poet’s mother, built around the same flower symbol as, perhaps, the most celebrated poem of the genre, Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”; or of “Lines Written Against the Day This Hand will Tremble,” which evokes William Wordsworth’s frequent use of the word “lines” in his titles and shares with, probably, the most celebrated of them, “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey,” the reverence for symbols from the natural world as a remedy for the arrow of time upon our transiency.
The Bible as a founding cultural text, or Dante, Milton and Blake, as significant readers of the biblical source, recurrently radiate in literal and figurative appropriations that substantiate Gaspar’s thematic concerns. Indeed, these other voices foster a true dialogic situation, adding to the increasing heteroglossia that, from The Holyoke to A Field Guide to the Heavens, signals Gaspar’s original handling of themes and motifs that go back to the biblical source and, crossing temporal and spatial borders, were revisited by those poets in their own original fashion and offer an enduring testimonial of the literary wrestling with questions of spiritual import. They become a unifying undercurrent in the three sections of A Field Guide to the Heavens, which is enforced by the dialogue with other creative minds that, across time and place, were driven by the same compulsion to go on questioning. The title poem which opens the volume illustrates the cross-fertilization between the literal excursion in the physical universe of “stars with names as old as Mesopotamia” (1999: 3) and Milton’s Paradise Lost, the paradigmatic epopee about the Fall of Man. In it, heaven figures as the abode of God but it is pictured with much in common with the human universe, a universe familiar with warfare — “Are not the towers of heaven filled with armed watch?” —, ornamented with stars and galaxies —“Aloof the vulgar constellations thick,”— and from which Gaspar borrows the address to Urania, muse of astronomy — “Sing heavenly Muse” — for his own excursion into the 1999 field guide to the heavens (Ibidem).
Dialogized heteroglossia between A Field Guide to the Heavens and Paradise Lost changes the would-be innocent roving of the eye exercising his hobby by means of a telescope into an “argument” in which the contemporary poet’s signature is also left upon the borrowed text in subtle deviations from the original one, as in the case of the question mark added to Milton’s first quotation or in the aggrandizement of the “vulgar constellations” by names “as old as Mesopatamia.” The use of everyday things to mirror the sublime may be the backbone of the contemporary Gaspar throughout A Field Guide to the Heavens but as I pointed out, above, Milton’s celestial and infernal realms have much in common with earthly topographies. More relevantly, perhaps, both poets attempt, in their own discrete ways, to deal with what sits beyond human comprehension, diverging necessarily where cultural, spatial and temporal circumstance are concerned, as when irony displaces the epic vein. As a result, incomprehension of God’s ways is central to the seventeenth-century poet’s avowed purpose of justifying them to his fellow human beings in Paradise Lost, whereas, in this age of high-tech mysteries, justification is replaced by the naked sense that God’s ways lie beyond understanding, as so well illustrated by Frank Gaspar’s arbitrary God in “The Tree” or by his appropriation of Blake — “It’s not if God, but what does all the silence mean?” — in “I Work Late at My Table in Summer.” (1999: 11)
The dramatization of this silent, unapproachable Godhead is sharpened when, in “Confessions”, the dramatic poem that closes A Field Guide to the Heavens, the reader is invited to approach the theme in the light of Saint Augustine’s original Confessions (ca. 397 AD) – “And what is this God? I asked the earth and it answered: ‘I am not he,’ and all things that are on the earth confessed the same thing” (1999: 75)— only to follow up with a “voice over”, who, instead, utters Eliot’s appropriation of the original autobiographic text, at the end of “The Fire Sermon” in the Waste Land (1922) — “To Chartage then I came” —(1963: 74). Eliot’s appropriation necessarily truncates Augustine’s prose description (2000: III, 1, 82), but in F. X Gaspar’s lyric “I” naked line and autobiography are reconciled by the use of language that is evocative of Augustine’s metaphoric description of memory in Book X: “Then to Carthage I came / Shadows on the flat water/ and towers majestic in their / darkened shoulders which / slouched coldly from the light.” (1999:75)
Both Carthage and the “Unreal City” frame Gaspar’s urbanscape in his “Confessions” peopled as they are by frail humanity (drug dealers and addicts, a drunken beggar, a gang of boys, prostitutes), unable to reach out for the saving grace or even to hold on to “[…] an ANGEL in standard form, / which is to say human form […].” (1999: 76) Dramatic tension, in this poem, is mostly built out of the juxtaposition of Gaspar’s “conversational style” with excerpts from other literary voices, Augustine’s standing out for his intense lyricism, as when the “first voice” in the poem evokes a passage in Confessions (Book 1: 1-2) merely conforming it to poetic form: — “And How shall I pray to my God? / When I pray to him, I call / Him into myself. And in me / what palace or room is there?” The anguished cry will be repeated in part VIII of the dramatic poem, clustering around the first line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s First Duino Elegy “And If I Cried, Who’d listen to me?” , the repeated questioning framing “The Confessions” by two different forms of mysticism that converge in their exalted quest for God and in their compassionate regard towards the humankind.
Compassion is one of the central motifs in Gaspar’s poetry and, in this third volume of his poems it is spelt in many ways, often by a title that induces the reader to recall texts in which it is extolled and which are revisited in “First Epistle in June” and in “The Apostle Paul Disappears into a Crowd in Corinth, or in “Among the Quadi, on the River Gran,” the title of the poem taken from Marcus Aurelius exemplary handbook on the matter. Choosing to end his field guide to the heavens with a dramatic poem where compassion and memory intertwine in a truly Augustinian way, Frank X Gaspar availed himself of a wide-reaching “telescope” which allowed his appropriation of the past into the present of a poetic achievement that is intended as a sort of gateway to the future. Under Rilke’s inspiration, his own elegy to his beloved departed ones —“(and you think, as on nights like this, / crowded with the dead faces / from a gone world, about those others: / those ghosts that come in out of the weariness, / whatever became of them, and what angel / ever touched their lives, whether they / flourished or perished, having nothing / to do with you and your comfortable inventions, which save ultimately nothing).” — may, as in many other instances, betray the poet’s doubts and anguishes, but it also shows that, out of these feelings, he has been able to create a surrogate for his nihilistic vision as the elegiac “I” ends up the dramatic poem on a hopeful note: “ […] something beyond these walls of firmament, /a thing between memory and invention, / seems implacable, / seems to shine.”
Memory and invention are not exclusively the path to the Augustinian God or to the God fashioned by Rilke as “a continuous discovery of man who, in turn, is His creator and His reason to be.” (6) They are also the path to “dead faces from a gone world” that throughout his poems and novels become the footprints of his poetic autobiography. The autobiographical reference would, however, be pointless without recalling Gaspar’s indebtedness to his Portuguese heritage, not only represented by the Catholic Azorean immigrant culture of his forefathers as in the previous two volumes of poems, but also significantly linked to Fernando Pessoa, whose epigraph, at the beginning of Guide Field to the Heavens is both an invitation to enter the intertextual dialogue and the manifest acceptance of a particular cultural legacy of which he is one of the commanding voices. In this connection, the use of Pessoa’s epigraph as a key to enter a Field Guide to the Heavens and its poetic universe mapped by the stars of the heavens and the anguishes of the human soul becomes doubly meaningful: “The great anguishes of the soul always come upon us like cosmic cataclysms. When they do, the sun errs from its course and all the stars are troubled.” (7)
The excerpt from The Book of Disquietude has, as Frank X. Gaspar well knows, the pseudo-autobiographical signature of Bernardo Soares, a character so close to Pessoa that, speaking of him, the Portuguese modernist poet calls Soares a semiheteronym, thus establishing a difference in degree to Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis who, Pessoa claims, are autonomous entities, with an independent existence, a situation that has substantiated a good deal of the critical insightful approaches to Pessoa’s poetry. Gaspar’s poem “A Witness Gives his Version” is, I believe, an intertextual ironic exercise on Pessoa’s modernist identity games, which the signed epigraph to the poem introduces: “I am someone other than an “I” of whom I do not know if he exists….” (1999: 57). In contemporary Gaspar, a disembodied voice – “I don’t know how I know this, / but if simple presence could hover / in a room unseen, then I was / the one who watched […]” – describes for the reader the “tenderest labor” of a corpse being prepared for burial under the compassionate regard of some neighbors, interrupts the imaged digression of the witnessing act by a speculative in-between bracketed brief interlude on the hypothesized relationship of life and literature, only to go back to the disincarnated memories of other times and other places as angel or ghost (a telescopic foreshadowing of “Confessions”?) and, finally, return in the closing lines of the poem to “this convenient place of forgetting, / before they might have imputed something / untoward to me, wisdom or power / or the smallest ability to intervene.” (1999: 57-58)
Differently from the heteronymic poets, Bernardo Soares, “writes” The Book of Disquietude in fragmentary prose and the work is prefaced by Fernando Pessoa who refers to himself as a character who could be of use to the pseudo-author of this book acknowledging, in a typical Pessoan fashion, the imaginative alterity between author and character, another identity game which allows for the double authorship of Bernardo Soares / Fernando Pessoa, as it has been argued by critics in general. (1991: 6) The identification is enforced throughout the “confessions” or the “factless autobiography” (as the narrative “I” also calls his book) by the recurring similitude between Soares and Pessoa as both sit at the same metaphoric “table” or become the never-tiring travelers in the realms of the spirit and of spiritual life, the explorers of untraveled routes, which converge and interconnect with Frank X. Gaspar’s own routes in A Field Guide to the Heavens. Effectively, in the Book of Disquietude, the reference to stars is unending, the night is presented as the abode not only of stars but also of anguish and disquietude, the material world and the psychic one frequently conjoined, as they were in the epigraph and are, for instance, in the following passage: “One day, at the end of the knowledge of things, the back door will be opened and all that we were — rubbish of stars and souls — will be swept outside the house, so that what exists can begin again” (1991: 119).
There is also another important aspect regarding Pessoa’s epigraph to the volume of poems under analysis that strengthens the across-the-Atlantic dialogue between the Portuguese American Gaspar and the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa. In the wake of a distinguished study by Irene Ramalho Santos, Atlantic Poets. Fernando Pessoa’s Turn in Anglo-American Modernism, in which she argues most convincingly about the metapoetic nature of The Book of Disquietude, claiming that it “contains also the theory and practice of modern (or Pessoan) lyricality,” (8) I would make a similar claim for A Field Guide to the Heavens arguing that at the core of Gaspar’s third volume of poetry runs an analogous metapoetic tension that, through the different sections and poems, allows the reader an effective appreciation of the poet’s theoretical approach to the art of poetry.
Frequently, Gaspar “sits at his table” and literal or allusively invites other writers to share in his speculations over the thematic matter of his poems in similar fashion to Pessoa’s numberless digressions through literature, philosophy or religion, and explicit mention of author’s names in The Book of Disquietude. Postmodern Gaspar addressing the Book of Genesis, Saint Paul’s Epistles or Saint Augustine’s Confessions, reading Dante accompanied by Virgil in his visit to the Inferno in The Divine Comedy as “a spell against ruin”, or winking at Shakespeare in “This small Book of Days”, an account of the Creation as narrated from the point of view of Caliban, exercises a similar authorial privilege as the Modernist Pessoa when he invites into his text, among others, António Vieira for the style, Cesário Verde for his vision of the world, Verlaine, the dreamer in the body of Horace, and Homer in the moonlight, among many others, in which stand out the host of authors with whom Fernando Pessoa entertains a kindred relationship on account of his English education in South Africa.(9)
The Book of Disquietude is, in the other hand, full of episodic storytelling about dreams, “the art of effective dreaming” replacing the banality of an active life and becoming the condition of visionary states, like the one described in “In the Forest of Estrangement”, as well as of imaginary traveling that only tangentially anchors to the surrounding world, more often than not keeping it at bay. Dreams, mental traveling and the resulting reverie are, in The Book of Disquietude, usually associated with the creative process itself as in the passage below:
“I’ve created various personalities within. I constantly create personalities. Each of my dreams, as soon as it begins to be dreamed, is immediately incarnated in another person, who is then the one dreaming it, and not I.
To create, I’ve destroyed myself; I’ve so externalized myself on the inside that I don’t exist on the inside except externally, I’m the living stage where various actors act out various plays.” (181)
In this passage as practically throughout most of the book, Bernardo Soares is utterly overshadowed by Fernando Pessoa, the acknowledged theorist of his own creative act. This is necessarily associated with “Disquietude”, a word he chose to include in the title of his “Book” and which has, for good reasons, been interpreted in different ways by eminent Pessoan scholarship. In this particular argument, I will use it in connection with self-reflexive poetic creativity and with Pessoa’s negotiation of transient moods and sensations, the longing for what is intuited to be forever out of reach and, yet, keeps the narrative “I” questioning, doubting, occasionally hoping, and forever deferring conclusion:
So many times, so many as now, it has oppressed me to feel myself feel — to feel anguish just for feeling, to feel the restlessness of being here, the nostalgia of something I’ve never known, the sunset of all emotions, myself yellowing, subdued to grey sadness in my external self-awareness.” (1991: 133. My italics)
All along, the compulsion of the creative mind found an outlet in the fragmentary prose pieces that Pessoa will keep as indefinite as the “indefinite disquietude” which he mentions in one of the last fragments included in this English version of Livro do Desassossego.
Gaspar’s title, A Field Guide To the Heavens, offers, as before argued, as many clues as Pessoa’s in terms of self-reflexive creativity. His stars “with names as old as Mesopotamia: Rukbat, Arkab, Nunki; Lesath […] Dschuba, Antares, Acrab […] Geid, Nashira, Dabih”, and many others throughout the volume, constellate around mythic stories that from those old days to the present age are linked to heroes and heroines, changes of fortune in human life, Elysian pastures of delight and Infernal abysses of doom. At the telescope (as at “his table”), the lyric “I” weaves stories, intertextual dialogue, speculative flashes, bringing the common word to the lofty heights of poetry and fashioning a highly energized discourse that, like those “running lights on the liners/vectoring into LAX” — an inverted image of the metaphoric tool by means of which he exercises creative imagination — insistently invites the reader to join in the poetic enterprise. (1999: 6).
For all the convergences – and there are many more that the limits of this essay do not allow to develop –, involvement with the theorization of Frank X.Gaspar’s poetic process evinces other influences besides that of Pessoa, which obviously reflects his own situation as an American poet at the crossroads of different cultures. He can hardly claim, like Pessoa did (even if exerting his authorial right to be “a faker”(10)) a particular language for his native country, least of all a particular culture. As the postmodern Portuguese American Gaspar has recently admitted speaking of his preferences in literature, “it all seems like a great conversation to me, all the voices and worlds colliding in the big world of literature.” (11) On a concluding note, I would add that the United States harbor, in cultural terms, co-existing centripetal and centrifugal tensions which foster the particular territorial constellations of writers like Frank X. Gaspar. True to his heritage, he succeeded in drawing not only A Field Guide To the Heavens but also in hitching his previous literary production to an expansive firmament that extends over his native American country and, beyond the horizon, into the skies of his ancestors.
3. The Holyoke was first published in 1988 with an Introduction by Mary Oliver. A second edition of the book appeared in 2007 with an Author’s Preface and a new Introduction by Christopher Larkosh. Poem quotations in my essay are from this second edition.
4. My use of Eliot’s line in East Coker, 1940 (1963: 203) and his imagery of the “still point” in Burnt Norton , 1935 (1963:191) is, I believe, justified by the influential role played by this poet in Gaspar’s subsequent poetry.
5. Gaspar’s implicit borrowing from Olson’s Projective Verse illustrates his response to the diversity of movements that from the fifties onwards changed the face of American poetry, his acknowledgement of Ginsberg as a major influence representing the adoption of the experimental vein that, with Whitman and Dickinson, through the Modernist poets, the Beat Generation, the Confessional poetry, the Black Mountain College poets and the New York School of poets to this day has characterized the poetry of his native country.
6. This conception of God makes the difference between Rilke’s intense religiosity and forms of institutionalized religious devotion as, for instance, Catholicism, according to Professor Paulo Quintela, who authors the Preface to The Duino Elegies in his translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s works.
7. Throughout my essay I quote from Richard Zenith’s translation of Fernando Pessoa’s Livro do Desassossego because this was the version read by Gaspar. I did, however, compare with the original whenever I had doubts which were always dispelled and assured me of the faithfulness of Zenith’s version..
8. Irene Ramalho Santos’s book, centered on the study of Pessoa and the inter-connection with Anglo-American Modernism is, I believe, very relevant for the study of the Portuguese American literature characterized as, in most cases, it is by a cultural legacy that can only be examined across the Atlantic “territory”.
9. As a few Pessoan scholars have pointed out, the poet’s South African youth has been crucial in his formative years and his familiarity with the Anglo American literature is not restrained to his own English poetry but crops up throughout his literary work, to the point of determining the identity of one of his heteronyms as is well known, and, on and off, surfacing in the unfinished Book of Disquietude that was “on the making” most of his life. On the American side, he knew the “classic authors”, some of them mentioned in this Book, besides Whitman, Poe whom he translated, and Emerson for sure.
10. I have, of course in mind, the much quoted first line of “Autopsicografia”, “O poeta é um fingidor/ The poet is a faker”, a poem which, according to Irene Ramalho Santos concentrates “ the basic dialectics of Pessoa’s theory and practice of poetry […].” Faking as a poetic strategy is, however, at odds with Gaspar’s reliance on the opposite autobiographical semblance of his own poetry.
back to Articles