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Because I Was Flesh

I love the word OTHER, which in Italian is ALTRO.

OTHER/ALTRO is what I am not, what is different from me, what I move toward and never reach.

America, the idea of America, for me, grown up in Italy, has always been OTHER/ALTRO.

Even now that I live in America, I am interested in an America where I am not, that is far from me.

Growing up, America for me was a book translated into Italian by Cesare Pavese, Moby Dick. America was Edgar Allan Poe translated, reinvented by Giorgio Manganelli. America was The Discovery of America by Saul Steinberg, a book so beautiful that I kept it under my bed. America was Robert Crumb Draws the Blues, Charlie Patton tattoed on my arm.

America is this book that I read a month ago, and love: Because I Was Flesh, The Autobiography of Edward Dahlberg. I have never seen Dahlberg’s America. Nobody ever did. It’s Kansas City colliding with Ancient Greece.

I have spent the last twenty minutes trying to find a paragraph to quote, to give an idea of how unique this book is, and I couldn’t pick any, because every paragraph, sentence, word in this book is a surprise.

Because I Was Flesh is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read. It pushes the limits of genre, language, style, taste, and at the same time manages to keep the rhythm of the page flowing. What really strikes me is the imagery, often delirious: “Let the bard from Smyrna catalogue Harma, the ledges and caves of Ithaca, the milk-fed damsels of Achaia, pigeon-flocked Thisbe or the woods of Onchestus, I sing of Oak, Walnut, Chestnut, Maple and Elm Streets. Phthia was a bin of corn, Kansas City a buxom grange of wheat. Could the strumpets from the stews of Corinth, Ephesus or Tarsus fetch a groan or sigh more quickly than the dimpled thighs of lasses from St. Joseph or Topeka?”

2 thoughts on “Because I Was Flesh

  1. Damn! Fantastic post Luca! The stranger in a strange land feel of it is great, especially when you wrote, “Even now that I live in America, I am interested in an America where I am not, that is far from me.” It’s a feeling I’ve often had, especially over the past ten years.

    I’ve never heard of Because I Was Flesh, The Autobiography of Edward Dahlberg, until just now, and it sounds great. I’m not sure if its representative of the book, but the passage you’ve quoted reminded me a bit of Whitman. It’s those exuberant lists and sweeps over the landscape. You know?

  2. Your opening remarks bring to mind the oft quoted Rimbaud, “Je est un autre.” Such a complex idea for such a young man (he was what maybe eighteen when he wrote it?).

    Anyhow, I enjoyed this post.

    Like John, I had not heard of The Autobiography of Edward Dahlberg, until now. Sounds super intriguing. I am going to pop it onto my Amazon wishlist immediately.

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