A review of Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Letter to Pessoa
By Michelle Cahill
Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-925336-14-6, Sept 2016, pp 216

It’s possible to read Letter to Pessoa as a series of journeys: in time, in space, inward and outward. The twenty four pieces that make up the book weave together, linking character, location, and blurring boundaries between the narratives, genre, gender, past and present, story-time and discourse-time, life and death, and between the real and the imagined. Each of the pieces draws from and builds on the others in subtle ways. The stories are interspersed by the literary letters, including the title piece that opens the book and provides an introduction upon which the rest builds. The book begins in Pessoa’s hometown of Portugal, where the narrator attempts to invoke Pessoa’s ghost, while taking in the atmosphere of Lisbon, walking the same streets and drinking in the same bars that Pessoa was known to inhabit. Other letters have a similar effect, enriching the stories and the narratives that follow with a subtext that engages with the subject of the letter and his or her body of work. The result is at once unsettling and expansive in the way each story is infused with a literary, philosophical and historical pretext. The more you know, the more exciting it is, but it’s not necessary to know anything–the context provides enough. The writing is consistently beautiful, combining immediacy and intimacy with the double distance of epistolary:

Flâneur, you’ve made me dream of Lisboa, as if I had roamed its streets with nostalgia, becoming the dramatist or the character of a book in progress. Speechlessly, the city has its way with me, in dreams of theosophy, of black and white mosaic tiles, of slaves and cool Atlantic breezes. Of Afro jazz, pastel facades and Alfonso Pereira. Or perhaps it is in the poems of Alvaro de Campos. I wonder if they were fabrications or if he lived in you? What ships left the rat-infested harbours transporting poets? What ships are docked within us? (“Letter to Pessoa”, 3)

In some way the whole book is a kind of letter to Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa and his work is part of every story. Heteronyms or alter-ego style characters, and flâneurism including literary flâneurism, becomes a conversation with Pessoa and other authors in ways that function as both homage and disruption. There are many characters in these stories but the key ones appear to be personae rather than separate individuals, or as Cahill puts it, “the ghosting of a single voice”. This ever changing voice becomes a shapeshifter, moving between lives/rebirths, between genders, and even between species. Some of these include a cat, several literary characters (Coetzee’s Melanie Isaacs from Disgrace and Nabakov’s Lolita), a refugee in danger, an HIV positive male, a time traveller, and an older person having a conversation with a long missing friend from childhood. There are plenty of real names amidst the fictional, and the stories contain a common theme around subordination and power—who gets to decide who lives and who dies, what gets recorded and what doesn’t, what is and isn’t real.  Above all, we get the strong sense that these distinctions are determined by power structures and language, rather than some inherent reality – that identity and truth, like time, are malleable:

My irises are green, the pupils wide I am sitting on a velvet-covered settee, which one day, in another life, might be a therapist’s couch or even a novelist’s embroidered, daydreaming cushion. (“Biscuit”, 15)

The narratives aren’t difficult to read. Though sophisticated and intelligent, the stories work in mostly linear ways. In each story, there is some kind of realisation and often an unresolved moral dilemma. Many of the stories are about displacement and homelessness both forced and voluntarily, about the power plays between people, and about the way meaning shifts, and about what is revealed in these brief moments of connection. The settings are broad, and richly described, including India, London, Portugal, a range of US states, Nepal, Spain, and Poland to name just a few, though Australia seems to be the reference point in the centre of the travel. Australia is not home, because there is no home possible in this diaspora, but it does function as the base point. The settings become objects of love, like unsatisfying affairs that simultaneously draw the characters back and repel them, as a way of identifying the self that cannot be translated, and won’t assimilate.

There is a strong play throughout the book between the stories and the letters, which are sent to Virginia Woolf, Derrida, Coetzee, Borges, Neil Young, Jean Genet, Philip Larkin, and Tadeuz Rozewicz. Each of these letters functions as a story in itself, but also includes many literary references that blur the boundaries between fiction, politics, and history, so that we begin to see a multiplicity of possibilities emerge here, rhythmic, repetitive, and playful as poetry:

On sparks and indeterminate traces, do all my worlds depend. My aspects are haunted, fragile, playful, subtle, obstinate, and because of you, impossible. Like vibrations, you touch them and your boundaries slip away. In preserving them I am guessing. Because of you I am living with the speculative. Because of you I am swept in to the currents of an imagined past through the appearances of what is present to a space which I depend on for recovery. (“Letter to Derrida”, 40).

The stories in Letter to Pessoa are densely packed and rich with a range of possibilities that continue to unfold through multiple readings, dipping back in and exploring the alignments, connections and referents. Though each of the pieces works well individually, taken collectively, Letter to Pessoa presents a multifaceted world that builds new linguistic spaces through correspondence and conjunction. By blurring the distinctions between author and narrator/narration, reader/writer/voyeur, past/present, and even life/death, Cahill has created an exciting and powerful collection that continues to shift, change and reveal new insight with each re-reading.