#127: A DREAMER OF SHIPWRECKS. The first thing you’re likely to notice in reading the poetry of Umberto Saba is its utter plainness: its want of flourishes, its speaking voice, so much like that of Cavafy; its evenness of tone. I wonder if in all of Saba’s poems there are more than a handful of exclamation points, or sentences that would warrant them. This is not the enigmatic terseness of Celan or Robert Creeley, or even the windblown, clipped candor of the early R.S. Thomas: it is as near to conversational plainness as poetry can get. Saba is telling you a sad or a terrible story, which it would be a betrayal to exaggerate; he refuses to force himself on you. His poetic lifework, Canzoniere, begins with poems of his adolescence, from 1900, and ends with his final verses, written in 1953 and ’54; and you come to realize, reading through it, that the voice is that of a lifetime fighting down a corrosive, nearly debilitating depression. The simplicity and softness of the voice—the absence of ‘stilts,’ Saba called it—is his way of keeping the terrors of that depression at bay.
Saba’s native city was Trieste, a city of mixed cultural identity and commercial success; one Triestine writer, Scipio Slapater, wrote “Everything in Trieste is double and triple, beginning with its flora and ending with its ethnicity.” Susan Stewart summed up the corresponding ambiguities of Saba’s identity: “A Jewish subject of the Habsburgs by birth, a Roman Catholic Slovene by nurture, an Italian by virtue of his absent father’s Venetian origins and a bisexual made anomalous by a heterosexual society.” During the worst of the outbreaks of anti-Semitism, Saba was forced to sell his antiquarian bookshop and keep on the move. He retained a lifelong affection for his wet-nurse, Gioseffa Schobar (the “Peppa” of the poems), who basically raised him; their separation was one source of his enormous sense of loss. His wife Lina was unfaithful, though they reconciled. But one senses that the melancholia was always with him: during his early military service he was treated for depression, and at the end of his life was hospitalized for addiction to anti-depressants.
What marks the courage of Saba’s verse is not just its refusal to make drama, but that his melancholia pushed him outward to a sympathy with others. In the poem “The Goat,” he writes: “That monotonous bleating was brother / to my sorrow. And I answered, first / in jest, then because sorrow is eternal, / has one voice and never changes.” “I heard all other pain lamenting, / all other lives.” And he refuses, as best he can, to let it become the only thing: in his extraordinary fugue poems for two voices, he rocks back and forth between sorrow and joy: “Black / as the shed is it in my heart; the heart / of man is a cavern of punishment. Beautiful / is the sky at midmorning, and beautiful / that reflects it, and beautiful, too, / is my heart, a mirror of all living / hearts." Less or more severely, this is, I suspect, where many of us live, and Saba’s poetic voice gives us all expression. “And it’s the thought / of death, after all, that helps one live.”
George Hochfield and the late Leonard Nathan have translated a large selection from the Canzoniere as Songbook, published by Yale in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series; the versions are exact, natural and convincing.