Trieste: Saba, Morris, and Harwood

‘Trieste, new city
That preserves a boyish adolescence.’
Umberto Saba

In July last year, around the time of my birthday, I visited Trieste with my daughter and my partner. It was the first real holiday we had taken together: a strange experience for us all, I think. Two halves of my life had been joined. A crossover had been made.

Once the main port for the Austro-Hungarian empire, Trieste stands at the northernmost part of Italy. History has left it blurred and equivocal, a passing through point, a nexus. I feel like I’ve drifted through places like this all of my life. Born in Shropshire, a border county, I’ve never really shaken off my Welsh roots, and I seem to dwell on the liminal whenever I set out into the world. Boulder, Berlin, London, Argentina, Sri Lanka, all of them have, in one way or another, proved to me that all places are simultaneously other places, knots through which the world passes. Our experiences of them as some kind of total and discrete entities is one of those flawed assumptions of travel. Like the idea that it allows you to escape.

‘For all its traditional sobriety Trieste is a hallucinatory city, where fantasy easily brushes fact…’ Every city should have a record like Jan Morris’s Trieste And The Meaning of Nowhere. Personal, reflective, historical, digressive, its cast of characters might belong to a fabulous historical novel. Thomas Mann writing part of Buddenbrooks in the Hotel de la Ville. James Joyce creeping out to brothels, and memorizing dialects in the port. Morris herself, balancing Trieste’s equivocal character with her own gender identity. Ivan Bunin, Adolf Eichmann, Lord Lucan: the characters step in and out of Morris’s lovingly realised sense of  the city’s confluences, the grandeur of its imperial history, and the tragedy of the fate of its Jewish community. For all of that, it is a personal book, almost like the description of a love affair. When Morris invokes the idea of hiraeth, you understand that Trieste represents a place beyond bricks and roads: it’s an ideal of personal significance, nebulous as a memory.

‘It is not, mind you, a city for pedants: the shop you want has probably adjourned for the holidays, the museum is temporarily closed for refurbishing, you’ve missed the last bus owing to schedule changes… But for the drifter it is just right.’

Every city deserves a drifting history and every city demands a poet. The poet of Trieste is Umberto Saba. Born Umberto Poli in 1883, his nom de plume either derives from a homage to his Jewish mother, or the name of his childhood nanny. He ran a book store in Trieste, and wrote poems dedicated to the strutting new city he saw grow up around him. He doesn’t quite manage to be the Cavafy of Trieste, but no matter. There’s an essential sadness to Saba’s work, a feeling of missed opportunities, of a life lived in the aftermath of a missed direction, the ship that left one night without you aboard, the train that stopped too long. (He descended into opium addiction in his final years, after being prescribed the drug for his depression). All poets remain drifters, even when they remain in the same city. That lack of a plan, that chancing in hope: it’s part of a poet’s make up. ‘Poets don’t drive…’ according to Martin Amis. It’s because they are staring out at the landscape through the window, letting others get along with navigating junctions, street signs and roundabouts, the fussy business of staying alive. They look for an image in the trees, listen for a rhyme in the engine’s thrum, their mother’s name, a childhood nanny. All poets remain children, drifting without a plan.

According to Morris, ‘Melancholy is Trieste’s chief rapture.’ Overall, I will remember my stay there for its happy moments. Playing cards outside the Revoltella, while drinking Aperol spritz. Diving from boardwalk in the public Lido. Drinking coffee in the Caffe San Marco. A few poems written in a high apartment over the avenue. That feeling that my life didn’t always have to be the charged field between two poles. Still, the week wasn’t without its sadness. On my birthday, after lunch in the city, all three of us walked back through the afternoon sun, crossing Piazza Unità d’Italia. A jazz band played on a stage; jugglers, drag artists and street performers occupied the streets. Back in the apartment, my daughter slept in her room, while my partner went for a walk down in the avenue beneath us. In the stuffy double room, I lay down on the bed, and dreamed a fitful dream about a pale city under hot sun, a cry shrieking through the haze of a day. When I woke up and checked the news on my phone, I discovered that Lee Harwood had died.

‘Trieste has a rude
Charm. If you like it,
It’s like a tough and greedy kid’

Umberto Saba

2 thoughts on “Trieste: Saba, Morris, and Harwood

  1. Peace offerings. This country is in flag tatters. G Hill is dead. Bad blood leaked/mopped. Envelope dreams. Castafiore shrill. The origin of hostility: ? Another. Decade din. Dark. Signal-? Forward. Ameliorate. Prarie posed. Wait…Hope.


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