Fernando Pessoa and me by Derek Suchard
Years and years ago, around 1980 or 1981, I was visiting my beloved in Amsterdam.
For no particular reason, we went one night to a little pizzeria (for the Amsterdam aficionado, it was just off the Leidseplein, but no longer exists) after having visited the Atheneum bookstore and having purchased a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets of the Portuguese.
The book lay on the table, dominating it in fact, given the surface area. During a lull in the action, while she went to visit the facilities, a waiter came by, and without so much as an "excuse me," picked up the book.
"Sonnets of the Portuguese, eh?" he said.
"Yes," said I, always the master of a well-turned phrase.
"These are Portuguese poems?"
"No," said I. "They're by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She's English. Well, she's dead now, of course, but she was English. They called her the Portuguese because she was sick a lot and had to go to Portugal to try and get better."
"I am Portuguese," he informed me.
"Oh," I said.
"You know who is the greatest poet in English language from this century?" he asked.
I was sitting in an Italian restaurant, in a Dutch city, with a Portuguese waiter who was about to tell me - confident as I was, in the arrogance of youth, that I, long a student of English and English - language poetry, ought to know that better than he.
But I couldn't resist.
"Who?" said I, pleased that my linguistic flair had not abandoned me…
I'm sure I must have grinned the same facetious grin shared by professors and teachers the world over when confronted by students whose "little knowledge" has turned dangerous and made them think they actually know something.
"Fernando Pessoa," I repeated.
"Yes," he said, mastering after a fashion my own linguistic leger de main.
"Fernando Pessoa. He's Portuguese."
"So," said I. "A Portuguese poet is the best poet in English from the 20th century?"
"Yes," he replied.
At that moment, Liesbeth returned, and, probably because someone at a nearby table was in urgent need of a re-supply of garlic bread, the waiter, whose name I never did get, more's the pity, left us.
The next day, while walking downtown, we passed near the public library. Still puzzled by the conversation of the night before with the waiter, I insisted we go in and see if we could find anything by this Pessoa fellow.
A Penguin paperback (no longer on their backlist, alas).
I went through it, and found that the waiter was absolutely right.
And not only was he a great poet, but a weird one, too...