“Poets are untranslatable, especially poets like Saba who work more in ‘tone’ than in ‘images,’” Italian poet Umberto Saba (1883-1957) wrote in a third-person study of his own work. Zack Rogow’s new translation of “La capra” (“The Goat,” 1910) brings the quiet clarity of Saba’s most famous poem into English. Where many of his contemporaries were invested in rhetorical flourish and technological innovation, Saba turned to poetry as a mode of autobiographical inquiry expressed through the formal rigors of classical verse. Born in 1883 to a Jewish mother and a Christian father, who abandoned the family before Saba’s birth, Saba grew up in a Jewish community in the cosmopolitan port of Trieste. Though he expressed sole allegiance to his identity as an Italian—even as he was dispossessed by Fascist racial laws and forced into hiding during the Nazi occupation—Judaism in Saba’s writing has offered fertile ground for considering the question, what is it exactly that makes a poem Jewish?
– Claire Schwartz
I spoke to a goat
She was alone in the meadow, she was tethered.
Sated with grass, bathed
in rainwater, she bleated.
This bleating was the twin
of my own sorrow. And I answered,
first as a joke, then because sorrow is universal,
its cry never changes.
You can hear this cry
even in a lonely goat.
In a goat with a semitic face
you could feel the protest against every wrong,
Umberto Saba (1883 – 1957, born Umberto Poli) was an Italian poet from the port of Trieste. The author of more than 15 books of poetry and a thousand pages of prose, Saba is perhaps best known for his continuously revised collection of poems, Il canzoniere (The Songbook).