Evening Fantasy by Hölderlin (The German Library)

Volume 39 of The German Library is an anthology of poetry from 1750 to 1900 and the table of contents promises translations of poetry from Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, Brentano, Heine, and Nietzsche, just to name a few.  Michael Hamburger, in his Foreword to this edition, writes about the impossibility of stylistically categorizing such a vast scope of literature that encompasses “the most various and contradictory developments.”   Looking through the contents of such a book is intimidating and overwhelming, especially for someone like myself who is in no way an expert on German literature and poetry.  I decided to just dive into the poems to see which ones might capture my fancy without too much analysis and I was not disappointed with the selections.

I had originally bought the volume to get a taste of the writings of Clemens Brentano who had a close relationship with Karoline von Günderrode.  Although I enjoyed Brentano’s poetry, it was actually that of Hölderlin that I found the most pleasing.  I wouldn’t dare try to analyze this author’s poetry, even the few selections in this volume, but I will share one poem that especially resonated with me:

Evening Fantasy

Before his shaded threshold the plowman sits,
Contented; smoke ascends from the warming hearth.
A welcome rings to wanderers from
Evening bells in the peaceful village

The sailors must be coming to port now, too,
In distant cities; gaily the market’s noise
Recedes, is still; in quiet arbors
Friends take their meals in convivial splendor.

And where am I to go? Other mortals live
From pay and labor, alternate work and rest,
And all is joyful; why does only
My heart not rest, with its constant stinging?

A spring-like garden blooms in the evening sky,
The countless roses bloom, and peaceful seems
The golden world; O take me with you,
Lavender clouds, and up there then may in

The light and air my bliss and my grief dissolve!—
But as if frightened off by my foolish plea,
The spell is gone; it’s dark and lonely
Under the heavens I stand, as always.

So come to me, soft slumber; my heart has wished
Too much; but someday, youth, you will lose your glow,
You restless youth, forever dreaming.
Peaceful and cheerful are the aged.

(trans. Kenneth Negus)

 

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The Bookshop and The Beach: My Vacation to Maine

Harding Books on Route 1 in Wells, Maine

My family and I went on our annual summer vacation this year to Kennebunk Beach in Maine. This has been our favored destination for the past few years and I thought I would say a few words about my favorite bookshop in Maine and my recent finds there. Harding’s Rare and Used Books is located one town adjacent to Kennebunk, in Wells, Maine on Route 1.  The staff is kind, friendly and very knowledgeable.  I was told by the employees that they buy books every day and their owner, a very nice gentleman named Douglas, also buys books from auctions and dealers.

One realizes this is a serious bookshop when, upon opening the front door, one encounters two gigantic piles of their newest acquisitions.  It took me a while to sift through these piles, but my patience was greatly rewarded by finding a first edition of I, Claudius by Robert Graves. I also dug out a copy of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and William H. Gass’s Reading Rilke from these piles.

 

The rest of the store is like a maze with rooms of various shapes and sizes piled with books from floor to ceiling.  Harding’s has a wide variety of first editions as well as signed books and they also have  the largest selection of books about New England that I have ever encountered.  I found a first edition copy of Within the Harbor by Sara Ware Bassett, a New England author whose books are set in two Cape Cod villages that she created.  This is an interesting little find that makes visiting this store so much fun.

A view of part of the hard copy fiction books at Harding’s

 

I spent most of my time in the Latin and Ancient Greek, Poetry and Classic Fiction sections.  Among the classic fiction books, I found two titles to add to my ever growing collection of New York Review of Books classics and I also found five Virago Modern Classics to add to my shelves.

My haul from Harding’s

The Latin and Ancient Greek section had a nice selection of Loebs as well as ancient authors in translation.  My favorite find was a dual language edition of Oedipus by Sophocles with an introduction by Thornton Wilder.  The illustrations in this edition are also quite interesting.

I also found in the Ancient Civilization section a copy of Michael Grant’s book on Nero which is in mint condition; not only is it an excellent introduction to this enigmatic and misunderstood emperor (and my favorite), but it also contains some gorgeous color plates to go along with the text.

Among the poetry books I found a hard copy edition of the Collected Poems of W.H. Auden that was only $5.00.  I have to say that all of the books at Harding’s are very reasonably priced, including the first editions and signed books.

But I didn’t spend all of my time in the bookshop.  I also enjoyed the beach very much, worked on my tan and did a little swimming even though the water was quite chilly.  My daughter did some surfing (I only watched and took some pictures.)  My beach reads were Henry Green’s Party Going and Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva—more thoughts on those to come.

Surfing at Kennebunk Beach

Finally, we had some truly fabulous meals in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.  One of our favorites is David’s KPT in Dock Square whose selection of raw oysters is spectacular and decadent.  It is no surprise that the seafood dishes, in particular, are wonderful no matter the restaurant.  I will spare everyone pictures of my food as well as a picture of myself wearing one of those goofy lobster bibs.  The picture below is a view we had during Sunday Brunch.

Where have you spent your holidays this summer?  Have you found any interesting books or bookshops?

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Love is War: Penthesilea by Heinrich von Kleist

As I was reading Klest’s tragic play, I kept thinking about Ovid’s imagery in Amores IX in which poem he portrays love as warfare.  The Latin poet writes:

Militat omnis amans, et habet sua castra Cupido;
Attice, crede mihi, militat onmis amans.

Every lover is a soldier, and Cupid has his own camp;
Atticus, believe me, every lover is a soldier.

Ovid proceeds, in the rest of his poem, to lay out the similarities between soldiers and lovers: both must keep up a constant vigil, pass through companies of guards and be willing to fight against challenging obstacles.  Kleist weaves this theme of soldier-as-lover throughout his tragedy, but what is unique to the German writer’s use of this motif is that he applies it to both male and female.

Odysseus and other Greek warriors are the first to appear on stage in the drama.  They describe Penthesilea, this strange Amazon warrior, as a crazed woman who can’t settle on an alliance; she fights both Greeks and Trojans alike.  As the Greeks approach her to make an attempt at an alliance with her Amazon forces, she sees Achilles and can’t take her eyes off of him.  From that moment forward, her greatest desire is to take him as her captive.  But, as the customs of her all-female society are gradually revealed in the play, we understand that her motives for overtaking the Greek hero in battle are unusual—warfare for her is a means to achieving love.

Kleist, in an attempt to build classic dramatic suspense, doesn’t give his main characters any dialogue until the fourth scene of the play during which Achilles finally makes an appearance.  We have been told by the other characters that Achilles has narrowly escaped being overcome by Penthesilea and he is very angry that a woman almost got the better of him.  At this point he has no romantic feelings for this woman, but her attack causes him to go into a rage and he refuses to go back to the Greek camp until he engages her in battle.  Kleist’s speech is a brilliant and emotional inversion of Ovid’s image of lover acting as soldier.  In Achilles speech it is the soldier whose actions resemble that of a lover:

A man I feel myself and to these women,
Though alone of all the host, I’ll stand my ground.
Whether you all here, under cooling pines
Range round them from afar,
Full of impotent lust,
Shunning the bed of battle in which they sport
All’s one to me; by heav’n you have my blessing,
If you would creep away to Troy again.
What that divine maid wants of me, I know it;
Love’s messengers she sends , wings tipp’d with steel,
That bear me all her wishes through the air
And whisper in my ear with death’s soft voice.
I never yet was coy with any girl.

Warfare is described with terms normally associated with love—the bed of battle, for instance—which not only lends emotion to Achilles’s speech, but also foreshadows what will develop between him and Penthesilea.  Later, when he meets her in battle he can’t believe that a woman who can fight with such ferocity and skill exists; it is her prowess as a warrior that causes him to fall in love immediately.  When he wounds Penthesilea in their skirmish, he puts aside his weapons and professes his feelings for her.   He sees in this fierce woman, a soul that is equally as intense and misunderstood as himself.  One of the most shocking declarations Achilles makes in the entire play is to Penthesilea: “Say to her that I love her.” Kleist’s Achilles is just as passionate and emotional as that of Homer’s; what is shocking about this version of Achilles is his declaration of the emotion of love, and for a woman who is not his captive or his prize.

The image of lover-as-soldier and soldier-as-lover also pervade Penthesilea’s speeches and actions.   The very reason she is on the battlefield in the first place is to find a man as a partner.  She explains the savage founding of her female city where men are not allowed to live or fight.  A warlike tribe of Scythians invaded their city, Penthesilea explains, killing all of the men and taking the women as their captives.  After suffering horrible abuse, the women fought off their subjugators and banned all men from the city as the women themselves became fierce warriors.  The Amazons continue the lineage of their city by conquering men in battle, bringing them back to the Temple of Diana  where they mate with the fertile Amazons in what is called the “Feast of the Flowering Virgin.”

Penthesilea by Arturo Michelena, 1891.

 

The war at Troy with the Greeks was the Amazon’s perfect opportunity for subduing soldiers for the annual mating ritual.  Penthesilea doesn’t expect, however, to find such a spectacular hero and mate as Achilles and she is overcome with passion for him to the point of madness.  In an even stranger inversion of Ovid’s poem, the female becomes the soldier of love:

Do I not feel—ah! too accursed I—
While all around the Argive army flees,
When I look on this man, on him alone,
That I am smitten, lamed in my inmost being,
Conquered and overcome—I Only I!
Where can this passion which thus tramples me,
harbor in me, who have no breast for love?
Into the battle will I fling myself;
There with his haughty smile he waits me, there
I’ll see him at my feet or no more live!

Once Achilles and Penthesilea finally meet they confess their deeply intense love for one another.  But an issue as to where they would reside—among the Amazons or back in Greece—causes a misunderstanding that leads to tragedy.  Kleist’s ending for both of these characters varies greatly from that of Homer and the Greek tradition in epic.  I usually find it hard to read sources that alter the Greek tradition, but Kleist’s play preserves the spirit of these fierce warriors and lovers, so I was able to get beyond his changes to their story.  I will end with a line from Ovid’s Amores that sums up what happens to both of these soldiers/lovers:

quosque neges umquam posse iacere, cadunt

Those whom you would never have thought possible to be brought down, they fall.

As a side note, I read the translation by Humphrey Trevelyan that is included in the German Library’s edition of  Kleist’s plays.  I found the archaic language and verse distracting at times.  I just ordered the translation by Joel Agee and published by Harper which is a prose translation with illustrations.  I am very interested in comparing the translations.  Has anyone else read either of these?

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Kissing Circe and Living to Tell It: Essays by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

In an essay entitled “And of My Cuba, What?” author Guillermo Cabrera Infante describes his escape from his island homeland and the Castro regime as “kissing Circe and living to tell it.”  He was born in Gibara, Cuba’s former Oriente Province in 1929 and moved with his parents to the capital city when he was twelve-years old.  Cabrera Infante’s parents were founding members of Cuba’s communist party and the author himself, as a socialist, opposed the Batista regime and supported the Revolution of 1959.

The author, however, quickly becomes disillusioned with the Castro’s increasingly totalitarian regime.   Cabrera Infante was head of the literary magazine Lunes de Revolución, a supplement to the Communist newspaper Revolución, which was shut down by Castro in 1961.  Having fallen out of favor with the Communist government, he was sent off as a sort of minor exile to Belgium to serve as the cultural attaché  in the Cuban embassy there.  When his mother dies in 1965, he travels back to Cuba for the funeral and thinks he will only be there for a few weeks.  But when he attempts to board the plane back to Belgium, he is pulled off his flight by the Cuban authorities who, for reasons never known to Cabrera Infante, will not let him out of the country.  The author is trapped in his homeland, a rapidly decaying and depressing place, that he no longer recognizes.

In August, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Map Drawn by a Spy which is Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical account of the frightening four months he spent in 1965 trying to escape from Cuba.  I highly recommend this fascinating book which portrays his harrowing escape to Madrid and eventually to London where he spends the rest of his life.   After his voluntary exile from Cuba,  he becomes a staunch and frequent critic of Castro and his government.  His essay “And of My Cuba, What?”, written in exile in January of 1992,  and “Answers and Questions,” written in July of 1986, are both included in his collected volume of non-fiction writing entitled Mea Cuba translated into English by Kenneth Hall and published in 1994 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.  Cabrera Infante’s essays are consumed with the nostalgia and longing that one would expect from an exile, a man that never expects to see his birthplace, his family or his friends again.  I chose to write about “And of My Cuba, What?” and “Answers and Questions” because they are two of the angriest, most chilling pieces in the collection and have an important message about corruption and greed in government and leadership.

In “And of my Cuba, What?”, Cabrera Infante directs his fury towards Fidel Castro whom he blames for economically, socially and spiritually ruining Cuba and plunging it back into a primitive time.  He writes:

Now, because of the deterioration of the economy, of capital and of the capital, of the whole country that has ceased to be Cuba to become the Albania of the Caribbean (a phrase with which I portrayed the whole island then), the nation has been demolished, ruined and brought finally to a fate worse than death: to take corruption in life.  Havana is as destroyed physically as Beirut, in a civil war made by one man.  Fidel Castro lives out his last days in his palace (read bunker) surrounded by physical and moral ruins.

Cuba’s history as well as her geography, Cabrera Infante argues, have helped to keep Castro in power for decades.  “All Cuba, as Berlin once was, is surrounded by a wall” he states.  As an island, Cuba’s natural wall, or barrier, is water.  Not even the Americans could successfully breach this “wall” in the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Cubans looked to Castro to free them from the oppression of the Batista regime, but no one expected him to stay in power, through force and violence, for decades.  Cabrera Infante’s anger towards Castro is palpable throughout this essay and he uses multiple, horrifying examples of Castro’s tyrannical leadership to justify his ire.  When  he visits Havana in 1965, he realizes that Castro has “made life regress to infrahuman levels…”  One of the most shocking revelations in this essay is the new form of racism that Cabrera Infante accuses Castro of creating.  Cubans are refused entrance to hotels, restaurants, beaches, night clubs and resorts unless they are accompanied by foreigners and can pay cash with American dollars.  But American dollars are also illegal and the punishment for possessing them is severe.  The author calls this an “indecent apartheid.” In addition to this racism, Cabrera Infante describes the shoot-to-kill policy used against those trying to escape the island, the concentration camps created for homosexuals and the Cuban version of the Nazi Blockwarts whereby every Cuban is forced to spy on his neighbor.

“Answers and Questions” portrays the dilapidation of what was a once prosperous and beautiful Havana and the effect this has on the every day lives of Cubans.   During his last visit to the island, he is horrified that he no longer recognizes his birth place:

Cuba now was not Cuba.  It was another thing—the double in the mirror, its doppelganger, a living robot from which an accident by its maker had provoked a mutation, a genetic change, a switch of chromosomes.  Nothing was in its place,  The features were recognizable, but even in Havana the buildings showed a new leprosy.

What was most striking in this essay is the author’s description of the lack of basic supplies that we take for granted.  Food, coffee, clothing and medicine are all scare in Castro’s Cuba unless one is lucky enough to have access to the stores reserved for diplomats or wealthy enough to afford items from the black market.  Cabrera Infante writes one of the most thought-provoking quotes which I keep playing over in my mind: “In theory, socialism nationalize wealth.  In Cuba, by a strange perversion of the practice, they had socialized poverty.”

Guillermo Cabrera Infante

One of the saddest stories included in Cabrera Infante’s essay is the death of his mother who suffers and passes away from a basic ear infection because she is not given appropriate and timely medical treatment.  I would argue that such a socialization of poverty is not unique to Cuba.  As I have read quite a bit of post-Soviet literature in the past few years, one of the themes that comes up in all of this writing about totalitarian regimes is a dearth of supplies, food, medicine and other items that are necessary to live an anxiety free and dignified life. Today, as I watched the American president call for the repeal of Obamacare without any viable plan for millions of Americans who will otherwise have no access to health services I kept thinking about Cabrera Infante’s essays.  It’s sickening that The President and the other Senators who are promoting this horrible agenda have access to the best health care in the world while expecting everyone else to go into bankruptcy or die due to the absence of appropriate care.  If we aren’t careful then Cabrera Infante’s nightmare might become our own reality.

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Ernesto: The Unfinished Novella of Umberto Saba

Umberto Saba’s unfinished novella Ernesto, published this year in a new English translation by The New York Review of Books, is part of an ever-growing body of recent literature that explores the idea that human sexuality is more pliable and fluid than the rigid labels to which we assign it. The latest novels by Bae Suah (A Greater Music), Andre Aciman (Enigma Variations), and Anne Garreta (Sphinx and Not One Day) have also opened up important conversations about experimentation with sexuality. But what sets Ernesto apart and makes it stand out among the works of these other authors is that it was written in 1953, a time in which many considered homosexuality scandalous, or often illegal.

Born in 1883, in the Mediterranean port of Trieste, Italy, Umberto Saba is best known for his deeply personal and honest poetry. Written at the age of seventy when, after suffering one of his many nervous breakdowns, and confined to a sanatorium in Rome, Ernesto tells a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a boy’s burgeoning sexuality. Estelle Gilson, the translator, writes in her introduction to the NYRB edition, “What he was writing was for himself alone—his adolescent experiences in Trieste as they suddenly welled up within him and demanded release.”

Like his teenage protagonist in Ernesto, Saba was abandoned by his father, raised in Trieste by an aunt and a single mother, worked in a flour factory at the age of sixteen, and had serious questions about his sexuality. Because of the autobiographical and sexual content of Ernesto, Saba showed his drafts to a few carefully chosen confidants. In addition to his doctor at the sanatorium, one of the only other people to read Ernesto was Saba’s daughter, Linuccia, to whom he would send parts of the manuscript with very strict instructions about keeping his writings secret. In his letters to Linuccia, Saba requests that his daughter keep his drafts in a locked container and that she send his writing back to him immediately after reading it. Linuccia took her father’s instructions seriously and didn’t publish Saba’s novella until 1975, nearly twenty years after the author’s death.

Composed in five “Episodes” with an additional section entitled “Almost a Conclusion,” the strength of Saba’s writing lies in the bold and, at times, brutally honest language that he employs throughout his text. Set in Trieste, in the last few years of the nineteenth century, the sixteen-year-old protagonist is raised by his single mother and his elderly aunt. Ernesto’s world reflects the diversity of Trieste which, because of its location in northeastern Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia, was influenced by Italian, Slavic and German cultures. During this period of time, Trieste is an Imperial Free City within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had been under Hapsburg rule since the fourteenth century. Although most of its citizens were Italian and loyal to an Italian Republic, Germans controlled the bustling business and commerce of the city and held positions of power.

Ernesto works as an apprentice in a German flour factory where he meets a laborer, a lower-class Triestine, identified as “the man” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. Ernesto’s erotic exploits with the man leave him bewildered, ashamed and confused not only because of the illicit nature of his experiences, but also because he is still sexually attracted to women.  Ernesto’s sexual encounters with the man take place in the first Episode but the emotional consequences linger with Ernesto throughout the narrative. The language of Saba’s Ernesto is candid, especially when describing the titillating and erotic first sexual encounter between Ernesto and the man. The two negotiate the intimate details of what the sex will be like as Ernesto is both excited and scared about this new experience:

“There’s a lot of things you can do in an hour,” the man said urgently.

“And what do you want to do?”

“Don’t you remember what we were talking about yesterday? That you almost promised to do. Don’t you know what I’d like to do with you?”

“Yeah, put it up my ass,” Ernesto replied with quiet innocence.

In an essay entitled “What Remains for Poets to do,” Saba argues that “It remains for poets to write honest poetry.” Saba applies this pursuit of literary honesty to his prose as well when he inserts his own commentary into the text to explain and justify Ernesto’s explicit language. Saba’s interjection of his own voice into the narrative are some of the most beautiful and enlightening pieces of writing in the novella:

With that brief, precise utterance, the boy unwittingly revealed what many years later, after many experiences and much suffering would become his “style;” his going to the heart of things; to the red-hot center of life, overriding resistance and inhibitions, foregoing circumlocutions and useless word twistings. He dealt with matters considered coarse, vulgar (even forbidden) and those considered “exalted” just as Nature does—placing them all on the same level. Of course, he wasn’t thinking of any of that now. He had blurted the sentence (which practically had a laborer blushing) because the circumstance warranted it.

The episode ends with an act that deftly mixes emotions of both tenderness and shame: the man kindly turns over the stained sack of flour at Ernesto’s request so that no one will be suspicious of what happened between them.

Shame is a theme that Saba returns to repeatedly in his narrative as Ernesto attempts to find fulfillment, pleasure and love with a man and a woman. The fact that the man is never given a name is perhaps significant because Saba, likely through his own sense of shame at recalling these events, can’t bring himself to give Ernesto’s seducer a true identity. After two months, Ernesto decides that he can no longer keep having these sexual encounters with the man because they make him feel dirty and keeping such a secret from his mother feels shameful and wrong. After his trysts with the man, Ernesto has the overwhelming desire to prove himself a man and is impatient to have sex, for the first time, with a woman. He is ashamed because all of his friends have bragged about sleeping with women and the only sex he has had is with a man. Shame is what motivates him to seek out sex with a prostitute which erotic scene in the book is equally as tender and explicit as the one with the man. This time, however, he gives the prostitute a name because sex with a woman, even though it is a prostitute, is not as shameful as having sex with a man.   Once Tanda undresses Ernesto, she finds the best position that will give Ernesto the most pleasure for his first time. And after he climaxes she washes him with a disinfectant and his sense of shame and embarrassment cause him to excessively overpay her and leave suddenly.

Themes of loneliness, alienation and sadness—demons with which Saba himself wrestled throughout his life—also pervade Saba’s coming-of-age narrative. Ernesto is initially drawn to the man who propositions him with sex because the man loves the boy. Because of the absence of a father in his life, Ernesto wants to please the man who shows him affection and adoration. He likes the prostitute because she is warm and tender with him and this causes him to eagerly anticipate his next visit with her. Ernesto’s mother is stern with him and shows him little affection although affection is something he craves more than anything. Like many young people inexperienced with matters of intimacy and sex he mistakenly equates physical attention with emotional connection and love.

Some of Ernesto’s sadness, alienation and even shame is relieved by the unlikeliest of characters, his dour mother. Ernesto’s mother is a presence that lingers throughout the entire story and even when the man is trying to seduce him, Ernesto mentions his mother and the guilt he feels over keeping a secret from her. The woman, who was abandoned by Ernesto’s father before the boy was born, is overbearing and overprotective of her only child. Yet, she believes that she must be harsh in her rearing of the boy and must not show him very much affection. When Ernesto no longer wants sex with the man, he gets himself fired from the factory so he never has to see him again. The loss of his job devastates Ernesto’s mother and he feels compelled to confess his true reasons for not wanting to return to the factory. When Ernesto tells his mother in great detail about the whole affair with the man, the full force of the emotional connection between mother and son is fully revealed. Saba writes a touching scene that is sympathetic to both the character of Ernesto and his mother:

With his mother’s kiss and the sense that he would be forgiven, Ernesto felt himself reborn. It was one of the few kisses she had ever given him. (The poor woman wanted so much to be, and even more to be seen as, a “Spartan mother.”)

The narrative structure of the novella centers around a triangulation of people—the man, the prostitute and Ernesto’s mother—who provide the boy with affection and comfort.

We can’t help but wonder if Saba’s own sense of shame and loneliness haunted him for the rest of his life and was the reason, at least partially, for his many depressive and nervous episodes for which he was hospitalized. He was married for many years, and although they remained married, the couple’s relationship was troubled and they spent quite a bit of time living apart. It is fitting that Saba writes Ernesto in the last few years in his life as part of his therapy in the sanatorium. But it appears that so many years of shame and hiding who he truly was became too exhausting for the author because he can’t gather enough strength to finish writing Ernesto. Saba writes about his decision to leave his novella unfinished: “Add to those pages Ernesto’s breakthrough to his true calling, and you would, in fact, have the complete story of his adolescence. Unfortunately, the author is too old, too weary and embittered to summon the strength to write all that.”

Even though Saba’s text is incomplete, he gives us enough of a glimpse into pivotal events in the life of Ernesto to make his novella an important, historical piece of gay and bisexual literature. It also helps us better understand Saba’s poetry which writing is equally as personal and intense as Ernesto. To this end, I include a particularly apt final poem of Saba’s called “To the Reader” filled with all the conflict and terror that Saba perhaps felt in composing Ernesto:

This book, Good Reader, though a balm to you,
shames its creator and should go unread.
Although he spoke as a living man, he was
(or should have been, for decency’s sake) dead.

 

(This review first appeared in the July issue of Numero Cinq.)

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