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Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Yale University Press, 2009
592 pp., $35.00
Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini (Facing Pages)
Princeton University Press, 2009
144 pp., $19.95
Darkness and Light
Italian poets whose careers spanned a large swath of the 20th century are inevitably measured, especially in America, by a political yardstick and a poetic one. Were they Fascists in the 1930s, victims of Fascism, or somewhere in between? And how do they compare with Eugenio Montale, the great modernist poet who won the Nobel Prize in 1975? Even by Italian standards, few poets were as indelibly stamped by the threat of Fascism and by the presence of Montale as Umberto Saba and Alda Merini.
Born in Trieste in 1883, when it was under Austro-Hungarian rule, Saba was a near contemporary of Montale and has long been identified with him and Giuseppe Ungaretti as one of the three tenors of Italian modernism. Saba's father converted to Judaism to marry Saba's mother (lured to marriage and his bride's religion by the promise of 4,000 florins, according to some accounts). After fathering Umberto, he promptly disappeared for the next twenty years. (The speaker of a Saba poem says his father was "'the assassin' to me" but also "a child, / and the gift that I have I had from him.") With his mother mired in a long depression after his father's departure, Saba was raised until he was four by a Slovenian wet nurse, "Bertie," who would figure as an image of motherhood and longing in many of his poems. From the end of World War I to 1938, Saba operated an antiquarian bookstore in Trieste. The Fascist race laws cost him the bookstore and trapped him in Trieste for the next five years. When the Nazis arrived in September 1943, Saba escaped with his wife and adult daughter to Florence, where they were shuttled from house to house for the duration of the war. Montale, himself persona non grata for refusing to join the Fascist party, slipped out every day to visit Saba, cementing a lifelong friendship.
As exemplified by Montale, most Italian modernists resisted traditional poetic language and favored arresting but often undecipherable imagery. Saba, by contrast, stubbornly clung to the inherited ...