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Amelia Rosselli’s is not exactly a poetry of resistance, but it is a resistant poetry. It is highly self-conscious, willed, and formally wrought. At the same time it is the product of roiling psychological and social tensions that the poet can hardly control. As Andrea Zanzotto put it, in 1976, with the authority that comes from being one of Rosselli’s few peers among the Italian poets of her time, she “was born inside this writing, and cannot escape from it; and at the same time she is outside of it, and has always contested it.” Yes, she writes, and with a fury; but she is also written, and by forces that shake her to the core. Her poetry is indissolubly both these writings. “There is no ‘will’ toward experimentation here,” as Zanzotto continues, “because the very breathing-surviving of the person, of the burden of her from whom this speech comes, is an uninterrupted, harsh trial—is experimentation.” No wonder that among the few contemporaries with whom he thought to compare her was Paul Celan. Were an extended assessment of the links between the two poets to be essayed, it would illuminate both — and Rosselli would not suffer from the comparison.
Locomotrix, Jennifer Scappettone’s new translation of Rosselli’s work, gives us a better sense of its urgency than any yet available to English-language readers. It does not supersede the two previous translations: War Variations, from Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti and published by Green Integer in 2003 is particularly valuable in presenting the entirety of Rosselli’s first published book; The Dragonfly: A Selection of Poems 1953-1981, translated by Giuseppe Leporace and Deborah Woodard (Chelsea Editions, 2009) — which I reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement of July 2, 2010 — offers a substantially different choice of poems, and therefore remains complementary to Locomotrix. But Scappettone succeeds more consistently in rendering the intensity and grit of Rosselli’s language than the previous translators, contending imaginatively with a poetic style in which words are often twisted, invented, or forced into use from other languages; besides which she gives us a very substantial introduction to Rosselli’s life and poetics, not to mention useful endnotes, along with Rosselli’s most important statement of intent, the essay “Metrical Spaces.” Also included are an interview, a handful of letters, and appreciations of her work by Zanzotto and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
In her Introduction, Scappettone traces Rosselli’s life story, one of essential exile. She was born in Paris in 1930. Her Italian father was a leading anti-Fascist intellectual and political leader from a well-to-do Jewish family; her mother, an English Quaker. In 1937 he was murdered. “Do you know what the word assassination means?” Rosselli’s mother asked her. By 1940 she, with her brothers, mother, and grandmother, was living in Larchmont, New York. After the war the family returned to Italy, but Rosselli discovered her new American diploma (Mamaroneck High) was not recognized there; she was sent to the exclusive St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London to complete her education. There she began studying music in a serious way: violin, piano, theory. Shortly after Rosselli returned to Italy in 1948 her mother died; she went to work as a translator to support her continuing music studies—more theory and composition, including, later, the famous summer course at Darmstadt. (Do any of her scores survive?) Rosselli’s understanding of her poetry, her metrics, would always remain permeated by musical concepts. In 1950 she met the poet and activist Rocco Scotellaro, who’d dedicated his life to the impoverished peasants of the Italian south; it was, she would recall, “an intense friendship, very rich and natural,” that lasted until his death three years later, aged thirty. “Without my realizing it, he formed me,” Rosselli later recalled. Politics was always central to her thinking, and she became active in the Italian Communist Party, retaining membership all her life. The beginnings of her writing are a mixture of her three languages, English, French, and Italian; but in 1958, when she wrote her first long poem, “The Libellula: Panegyric to Liberty”—also, curiously, the year of her inscription in the rolls of the PCI—she finally seems to have decided to espouse her father’s tongue. The next year she began writing what would in 1964 become her first book, Variazioni belliche—“Bellicose Variations” in Scappettone’s translation, or “Martial Variations” as Leporace and Woodard would have it, though I still prefer Re and Vangelisti’s blunter “War Variations.” Pier Paolo Pasolini introduced the book by calling attention to a language “dominated by something mechanical: an emulsion that takes form on its own, nonmastered, as one imagines coming about through the most terrible laboratory experiments, tumors, atomic blasts…. So that the magma—the terribleness—is fixed in strophic forms as closed and as absolute as they are arbitrary.”
Pasolini and Zanzotto, then, agree: Rosselli is one of those poets written through by the traumas of her time. What Pasolini calls attention to is the dichotomy in her work between its volcanic quality, the overwhelming flow of a language with no boundaries, and its fixity, the sense that the verses have been stamped out in hard-and-fast, irrefutable forms. Consider this “Variation”:
Prey to a most violent shock, wretched
and near to your heart I sent incense smoke into
your eyesockets. The Ardeatine caves mixed credences
and dreams—I had departed, you had returned—death
was a crescendo of violence that found no succor
in your head of deceit. The murky waters of
my disenchantment were polished by your joy and by
my having you in hand, near and far like the turbine
of summer stars. The night-wind departed and
dreamt grandiose things: I rhymed within my powers
and took part in the void. The spinal column of
your sins harangued the crowd: the train ground to a halt
and it was within its talk that truth paused.
In the encounter with the fairytale resided outlaws.
Here, the depths of the body — the spinal column, the eye sockets — are conjoined in an abrupt way with the catastrophes of history, such as the German massacre of Italian civilians at the Ardeatine caves in the outskirts of Rome in 1944. Yet Rosselli does not write from a place of innocent victimhood, recognizing “the murky waters of my disenchantment” and her “part in the void.” The haranguing of the crowd recalls that of Mussolini or Hitler, yet it is likewise impossible to read this poem as anything but a harangue, albeit of a transcendental variety. The difference, perhaps, is in the sense in which “truth paused” in each case. With the dictators, truth is silenced to make room for a lie, while in the poem, the pause is what allows the reader to catch her breath and take the measure of truth’s enormity. The poet’s words hurtle across the barriers of her line breaks that, syntactically, seem to occur willy-nilly, violent cuts that nonetheless leave the unstoppable flow of sense and non-sense unabated.
Scappettone points out the congruity of this poetics with the description Rosselli would give in a 1975 radio talk on Charles Olson:
In an attempt to abolish the I of the poet, he projects surrounding space, the totality of chaos, into the page — considering the poem as “transported energy” and the line as a vectorial unity in the field of the page … Metaphors and images generate a sort of animated grid; the poetry in itself is not a space of separation from reality, but itself becomes a reality in which the world narrates itself and “enacts itself.”
I would only add that Rosselli achieves this sense of “transported energy” and world-enactment far more intensely and consistently than Olson ever did.
Through the rest of the decade and on up through 1973, Rosselli wrote with great intensity and published regularly: Serie ospedaliera (1963-1965) (Hospital Series), 1969; Documento (1966-1973) (Document), 1976. (Rosselli’s serial method of composition is among the aspects that make it so timely today.) But for all intents and purposes she stopped writing in 1973. The title of her 1983 collection, Appunti sparsi e persi (1966-1977) (Notes Scattered and Lost), already suggests that the great effort was essentially over, and all that remained was to clear out the drawers. The title echoes that of the last book Eugenio Montale published in his lifetime, in 1981, Altri versi e poesie disperse. The fragmentary nature of Rosselli’s sparse notes recalls, at times, the “poetry that tends toward prose and at the same time refutes it” that Montale had already called attention to in the loose, diaristic poems he’d begun publishing late in life, with their distinct sense of being out of tune with the world. In both cases, perhaps, one can speak of a “late style,” in Edward Said’s sense: Opposing any sense of finish or resolution, permeated by “nonharmonious, nonserene tension and, above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against,” it takes on a “somewhat distracted, often careless and repetitive character.” One feels this tension, and this carelessness, everywhere in what Rosselli calls
that are proof of my duration,
daily delays of buses
with the hollow they have in their hearts
while in the square one stoops to talking
with one’s hands.
—although here I should point out that scende, which Scappettone here (and in the following stanza of the same poem) translates as “stoops,” should rather be “gets off”; scendere is to descend and here the poet describes herself getting off the bus in the square to talk with her hands. I don’t think stooping has anything to do with it. This is one of the rare passages in which Scappettone’s valiant effort to emulate Rosselli’s own “effects of linguistic dislocation” with “parallel maneuvers” that generate “local differences between the original poem and the translation” becomes distracting.
In any case, what distinguishes Montale’s late style from Rosselli’s is that he found his as an old man; Rosselli was in her forties when she published her Notes Scattered and Lost. She had long been prey to depression and other disorders; it is apparent from the interviews that she began to give more frequently as her work became better known — effectively, once it was already almost over — that she suffered, at times, from paranoia. Getting by from day to day became her main concern. The only break came in 1981 when, out of the blue, and in a single session, she wrote the long poem Impromptu — as Scappettone says, “a final outcry against the injustices of a voi” — you, plural — “everywhere indexed but never named.” She published one last poem in 1995, and left a few more fragments dated March that year, one of them in English and not included in Locomotrix:
you were revenue of the heart at
least without being too clear
You’d better stop crying
out certainly not in the night
open both eyes as they were miscellaneous
On February 11, 1996 — by coincidence or not, the anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath, whose poems she had translated into Italian — Rosselli died a suicide.
As with all great poets, Rosselli’s writing is best described when it describes itself, however indirectly. Here’s one way of describing her poems:
they scrabble: hiss and fear and belittle
every twitch of your nerves: serving higher
ideals as if it were a soup: to be fried
in, or held astance with light grip. They
swallow the meat in the jargon as if it
were a pauper’s den, this hell (the naked
word) (or world).
That poem, in English, is taken from the book Sleep: Poesie in inglese (1953-1966), which was published in 1992. Its furious linguistic playfulness is equally characteristic of Rosselli’s poetry in both Italian and English. With a broad range of her Italian poetry — which for that matter is constantly haunted by the ghost of English — now available in translation, it is vital that the full body of her English writing, of which Scappettone’s selection is able to accommodate only a few pages, be published in the English-speaking world. Some enterprising university press, take note. It might be surprising to many of our best poets to realize that their work has a major forerunner, strangely isolated, of whom they were never aware. Or will they be left “standing aghast,” as Thomas Mann put it in Doctor Faustus, speaking of the first listeners of Beethoven’s late works, “at these communications of which only at moments, only by exception, they could understand anything at all”?
Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli: A Bilingual Edition (University of Chicago Press) edited and translated by Jennifer Scappettone.