100 Poems by Umberto Saba, edited and translated by Patrick Worsnip – review

In his introduction to the FSG Book of Twentieth Century Italian Poetry, Geoffrey Brock describes Umberto Saba as one of the three poets who were to leave the deepest imprint on twentieth century Italian poetry, the other two being Ungaretti and Montale. His reputation in Italy was apparently much slower to emerge than theirs and my impression is that he’s still much less well known in England. This is partly because of the nature of his writing. Like Ungaretti and Montale, he moved away from the highly rhetorical style that had dominated the work of the previous generation of Italian poets. However, from a formal point of view his writing was generally traditional, not aligned like theirs with the Modernist revolution in poetic technique. Moreover, and most crucially, his approach to poetry was highly circumstantial. Where they embraced Modernist ideas of impersonality in art, burning their poems down to concentrated lyrical essences of a kind one might loosely call symbolic, his writing gives weight to the life and mundane particulars out of which the reflections and writing emerge. As Joseph Cary puts it in his book Three Modern Italian Poets, ‘Saba is a personal artist if ever there were one, whose poetry, in the phrase of Giuseppe Ravegnani, “follows his biography like a shadow.”’ Such a statement implies that his poems only achieve their full resonance when they’re read all together, or at least in bulk. I’ve only read the poems in the present volume and a few others, but do very much feel that they gain by being taken together, as moments in an unfolding story. From this point of view 100 Poems is an ideal starting point.

The life that emerges revolves around small things, memories of the poet’s own childhood, his wife and daughter, street scenes, personal acquaintances, animals, his own career. He lived on the margins of great events – the First World War, the rise of Fascism – but they hardly register in the poetry, even though Saba himself was half Jewish and spent most of his life in Trieste, which was in the Habsburg empire when he was born and was only annexed to Italy in 1918. In her Preface to 100 Poems, Angela Leighton calls Saba’s poetry ‘an art of the commonplace, but the commonplace become new and uncommon by being put into verse.’

Gloom is recurrent; Saba was born into poverty in the Jewish ghetto, where his father abandoned his mother when the boy was still an infant, and he remained poor, as well as being frustrated in his hopes of poetic glory. The beginning of ‘Finale’ suggests almost Leopardian depths of pessimism as it evokes the remorseless progress of time:

Human life is dark and painful,
Nothing in it ever stands still.

In that poem, the poet says that he can only just find release in the art that lets him ‘make in myself out of many scattered / things just one beautiful thing’. Although he’s good at evoking others’ careless joy,   he often makes it seem poignantly out of his own reach, as he does in the early ‘Glauco’:

Glauco, a boy with a shock of fair hair,
a smart sailor suit and an untroubled eye,
said to me, in the vernacular
of his birthplace, cheerfully:

Umberto, why do you waste your life away
without one pleasure, and seem to hide pain or
some mystery in everything you say?
Why don’t you come with me to the seashore? –

it’s inviting us to its blue waves.
What’s the unspoken thought that you conceal,
stealing you from us so suddenly?

You’ve no idea how sweet are the lives
of the friends you avoid, and how time flees
away from me, happy and  fanciful.

It’s too long to quote in full here, but in ‘Morning Song’ a similar contrast is developed in a subtler, more richly ambiguous way, with clearly homoerotic undertones. In it, Saba watches and listens to a handsome young sailor singing on a beautiful, peaceful morning and wonders if his own sadness is a sin – presumably meaning a sin against the goodness of life. It ends not, as ‘Glauco’ does, with a sheer contrast between the sad poet and the unreflectingly happy person he watches but with the sight of another person’s spontaneous joy bringing the poet the more intellectual pleasure that’s appropriate to his own nature:

Still singing, the deck hand was in a rush
as he set off; and I thought: Is he just
a rough seaman? Or perhaps a demigod?

He suddenly went quiet, jumped in the boat;
a bright, sweet-tasting memory in my head.

The direct enjoyment of happiness, rather than its rueful contemplation in others, doesn’t seem to have befallen Saba very often. It can be felt in the poems he wrote about his wife Lina and his daughter in the early stages of his marriage. In the beautiful ‘To My Wife’, he compares his wife to a number of tenderly observed female animals. The first of these is the pullet, of which he says

She’s better than the male.
She is like all
females of all
the serene animals
close to God’s presence.

The poem vividly evokes the movements and physical presence of these animals as embodiments of different kinds or aspects of love, the love Saba attributes to Lina and the loving response she, like the animals, creates in him and us. It’s perhaps striking that this love seems quite asexual, maternal and protective rather than erotic (just as in ‘The Sapling’ he finds her ‘vast / maternity’ reflected in the sadness she feels at the way a sapling is battered by wind).

Protective. Battered by wind. Suffering is ever-present in Saba’s world, at least in the background. ‘The Nanny Goat’ is a famous poem in which he describes himself as speaking to a goat that bleats in the rain:

That steady bleating chimed
with my sorrow. And I answered , first in jest,
then because sorrow lingers for all time,
has one voice, does not change. The moan
of this voice I heard then
in a nanny goat left on her own.

And I heard lamenting
in a goat with a Semitic face
every other wrong, every other living thing.

Complementing poems like ‘Glauco’, ‘Morning Song’ and others in which his awareness of suffering separates him from young people beautifully absorbed in the happiness of the moment are many others in which shared subjection to suffering creates a sense of community or commonality. Feeling the fluctuation between the two ways of relating to others is one of the pleasures of reading the poems continuously.

Worsnip’s translations are as carefully faithful to the Italian as they can be while remaining sensitive to the fundamental difficulty of transferring formal structures from Italian, in which rhyming is so easy, to English, in which it is so much more difficult. Admittedly I didn’t often find his phrasing haunting or even particularly memorable in itself but it didn’t jar with my response to the content in the way a more determined search for formal equivalence might have done. Its virtues are plain transparency. Other translations of individual poems that I’ve seen – like several by Brock – produce more colourful effects, but at the cost of greater freedom and of seeming to move what they describe further from the randomness of life into the idealization of art.

Physically, the book is well produced, with generous white space around words and whole poems. Regrettably, proof reading let Worsnip down in two titles: the famous ‘Campionessa di nuoto’ (‘Women’s Swimming Champion’) becomes ‘Men’s Swimming Champion’ and ‘Autobiography (10)’ becomes ‘Tobiography (10)’.

100 Poems by Umberto Saba, edited and translated by Patrick Worsnip. £14.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 80017 193 0

I would like to thank David Cooke for posting this review on The High Window, and for his permission to repost it here.

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