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PN Review 276
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This poem is taken from PN Review 11, Volume 6 Number 3, January - February 1980.

Selected Poems (translated by Felix Stephanile) Umberto Saba

Translated by Felix Stefanile

The poems that follow cover, in publication, the years 1908 to 1943. They are selected from nine books. The fugues, of which Saba wrote twelve in all, are central to the poet's canon. They reflect his steady preoccupation with human character as a constant process of struggle, of discords to be resolved, of voices to be blended into a harmony, of warring desires yearning for peace. There are Freudian overtones, but in Saba's panoramic vision of existence the whole universe enacts the sad epic of yearning, not only man. This process of struggle often results, in Saba, in a picture of the "invented life", as in "Simple Kitchen". Closely related in theme is the poet's meticulous use, like Wordsworth's, of memory, and the acute study of the past. In this gathering a poem like "There Was" clearly indicates this. (Saba should also remind us of some of our own poets for the love poems, and the poems on youthful beauty he wrote in old age.)

In the modernist context Saba is interesting for the way he made for himself a base out of Italian tradition at a time when his Italian contemporaries across the border were attempting to abandon that tradition. Perhaps his sense of exclusion during his journeyman years, when his native city of Trieste was part of Austria, brought him the passion of loyalty. One sees in this group of poems, covering thirty-five years, a sonnet, careful attention to the stanza, rhyme abounding, and-despite many changes in modalities-the retention of the Italian "blank verse" line.

The themes, of course, the conventions, are classical. Pasolini called Saba a sentimental realist. Sergio Solmi referred to him as the Ecclesiastes of Italian poetry. I think both remarks are just. I also sense a certain Virgilian cast of mind, a sense of "the tears of things", the melancholy destiny of the reluctant hero, much reduced, getting on with the job of living. One catches glimpses of this in many Saba poems, though with a bit of humor now and then. In some respects "Goal", by no means Saba's greatest poem, is a paradigm of what he does: careful observation of circumstances, often lowly; a figural imagination (perhaps Pasolini's "sentimental realism") that seizes with easy symbolic fervor on a soccer game as the game of life, life "feeding on other lives", losers and winners, and all of this taking place in an everyday situation that suddenly becomes momentous.


The evening lengthens. Gathered in the square
the buglers are now sounding the retreat.
Although on duty, almost I forget
my watch; my thoughts are off elsewhere.

And to the solitary sea, to where
the sun had foundered in its golden plate,
kindling all the watery track with light,
they wander, in the long, gray billows' care.

How long I marvelled, though a soldier finds it sweet
to doze, when eyes are heavy and down-cast,

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