Boston-born Dahlberg (1900-1977), an immensely high-flown essayist beside whom Emerson can seem earthbound, first made his name as a social realist with the novels Bottom Dogs (1929) and From Flushing to Calvary (1932), then retired to his massive book collection, became a classicist, renounced his novels and collected his essays in widely known but unread volumes such as Can These Bones Live?, The Flea of Sodom and The Sorrows of Priapus, not publishing another novel for 30 years. Many readers, straining at a vocabulary seemingly belonging to a 500-year-old man, may wish he'd never left fiction. The 12 essays and two long poems herein are typical of his work, as is this passage from ""A Decline of Souls"": ""'A great city is. . .a great solitude,' said Aristotle, and so is a small town. Observe the funerary rites of a marred, touchless shopper in a self-service market: each customer is a sepulchral orphan: he walks and talks to himself. When he approaches the cashier and gives her the money for what he has bought, she drops the change into the palm of his exiled hand without grazing the skin. This is supposed to be market-place sanitation. But people must exchange each other's germs or expire of the worms of Herod."" Your ignorance of the worms of Herod is not Dahlberg's worry. Among the rugged peaks in this short chain of essays (reprinted from a 1967 volume) are his prayer to the American earth, ""The Leafless American""; a review of man's sexual nature and mortality, ""The Sandals of Judith""; essays on Stephen Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Oscar Wilde and Nietzsche; a moving essay on returning home to a city he hated (""Kansas City Revisited""); and two skewerings of his critics and reviewers, ""How Do You Spell Fool?"" and ""The Malice of Witlings."" Without question, the chief work here is the magnificent long poem ""The Garment of Ra,"" which embodies a lifetime of reading in simple diction and cadences. Up from cult.