Amelia Rosselli - a virtuoso, subversive, neo-Petrarchan sequence of poems. These explosive poems, a furious cacophonic crescendo of semantic and syntactic accumulations deeply admired by Pasolini, place Rosselli among the greatest writers of her generation

Amelia Rosselli, Hospital Series, Trans, by Deborah Woodard, Roberta Antognini and Guiseppe Leporace, New Directions, 2015.

Hospital Series, a bruisingly intimate colloquy with an elusive lover, is Italian poet Amelia Rosselli s virtuoso, subversive, neo-Petrarchan sequence of poems. Rosselli wrote much of the series in the mid 1960s after being hospitalized for a mental illness she suffered from for most of her life, and whose pain shapes her language and difficult vision. These explosive poems, a furious cacophonic crescendo of semantic and syntactic accumulations deeply admired by Pier Paolo Pasolini, place Rosselli among the greatest writers of her generation"

In 1996 a woman leapt to her death from her fifth-floor apartment balcony in Rome. Fifty-nine years earlier two brothers were found dead by a road in Normandy, their carotid arteries severed. Later identified as the Rosselli brothers, Carlo and Nello, it soon became clear the pair had been assassinated by Mussolini’s agents; and with those deaths in 1937, Italy had lost two of its bravest anti-fascists just when it needed them most. What many didn’t realize at the time was that these deaths also signaled great loss for one little girl, who had lost a father and an uncle in one fell swoop. It was this little girl who would jump to her death fifty-nine years later, a great poet on the brink of old age.
It’s unsurprising that Amelia Rosselli, Carlo’s daughter, only eight years old at the time of his murder, was to live a life plagued by the turmoil of her early years. Art and suffering are often said to keep close company and in this case Amelia’s frequent bouts of depression, and her mother’s death shortly after her father’s, led to a childhood in exile from Fascist Italy in which creativity and poetry became a natural means of escape, a manner in which to channel grief to larger effect.
Working in the aftermath of World War II Rosselli became one of the most important poetic voices emerging from Europe, but most importantly a notably isolated female voice in the dominantly male narratives of war. Serie ospedaliera (Hospital Series), Rosselli’s second book, was first published in Milan in 1969. A self-professed ‘Poet of exploration’, the collection certainly lives up to Rosselli’s declarations of pioneering new expressions of language and form. Unfortunately, at times these ambitions fail to fully deliver in what is an intriguingly complex series.
It’s not every writer who has the luxury of choice when deciding which language to write in, and the trilingual Amelia chose very deliberately to write in Italian, her mother tongue. It stands to reason then that to translate her work into English—a language, like French, she chose to disregard—is particularly difficult. Rosselli knew the parts of Italian that remained singular to the romance language—the tones, the rhythms, the ease of its rhymes—all aspects that overwhelm the language unlike any other. She understood acutely the manner in which Italian words allow a compacting of meaning, the way a single Italian word can tell you many things an English one can’t simply by its ending. She chose Italy as the ‘ideal fatherland’, and, with it, its language.
Writing in a confessional mode, Rosselli desired to create stanzas that could be characterized by a new objectivity, what has been called a “collective orientation”, “where the I is the public, where the I is things, where the I is the things that happen.” This statement itself needs a moment or two to digest, a factor that a reader soon realizes is a commonplace when encountering Rosselli’s work. There is a breathlessness to this poetry, a rushing hurry that infiltrates every line, every comma and every upset pause. Ironically, despite its own velocity, Rosselli’s work remains poetry made for slow digestion, for repetition and quiet meditation. Whatever increased tempo the lines urge the reader into they also beg for a stuttering repeat, a re-watch, a careful scan (and re-scan) to pull them together again into a larger whole. So many of the images that Rosselli invokes are deeply powerful, but they appear like flashes in a minefield. It becomes harder as one reads on to snatch at these moments as they run through to the next line.
In other words, Rosselli is a demanding poet, her verse reminiscent in some respects of Eugenio Montale’s, always asking more of the reader – to re-read, to revise, to look away and come back with greater understanding. However, whereas in Rosselli’s other collections there remains a congruence of content, in this collection it is unsurprising to learn the entire series was composed while she was a patient in psychiatric care. The evident distress of such an experience comes to the fore again and again; at times her language collapses completely: “I know not: I want not: you are not: I see not: I stay not: not: not, not, not.” The fragmentation of voice itself becomes a crucial part of the creative process. It is through this “experience impossible and dauntless we laboriously ruptured isolation”, and ultimately this seems to be Rosselli’s goal, to rupture isolation, to escape to a greater freedom.
This escapism also manifests physically within the collection. Her enjambment is striking and used often and to dramatic effect, the slippery nature of her lines becoming in and of itself a task before the reader, one of fluid navigation and understanding. The structure of the poems invites reconsideration to gain clarity, something Rosselli self-consciously addresses while presenting emotional conflict openly on the page:
I’m not sure if I’ve made myself clear, but I no
longer see you taking shape
reduced to an industrial love.
Sections reveal an absolute clarity.
 Rosselli herself translated the likes of Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickenson and with this knowledge it’s hard to view this collection without noting the similarities of their work. The resemblances, particularly with Dickenson’s fragmentary voice, the scattered often stream-of-consciousness dissolution, combined and contrasted with razor sharp and incisive observations made in overly clipped clauses. Her eye never passes, but pierces. Even sex becomes objectified: “violent as an object (quarry of whitened marble)/(curved amphora of clay)” – and, with this objectification, seen again anew.
Amelia Rosselli
The musical nature of the Italian language is almost impossible to render in English, and yet the translators, Deborah Woodard, Roberta Antognini and Guiseppe Leporace, have clearly made an effort to mimic the rhythms of Rosselli’s words. The translations ache with the effort, yet on some occasions the effects chime brilliantly, as with the line: “Inkling inkling your gloves will never touch a living thing.” There is poetry alone in the detail of such translation. In fact the naming of the ‘series’ remains as a subtle nod to Rosselli’s own musical training (she was both an accomplished musicologist and musician, who played the violin, piano, and organ), something that becomes clear very quickly when reading her work out loud wherein the highly musical metric structures of her poetry come into full light. Rosselli’s words are as powerful as musical notes, and their composition, whether on a page or when spoken aloud, maintains this sense of importance.
There is one poem towards the end of the collection in which Rosselli transforms her body into a ship, cast out into the ocean of life, wrecked and wonderful in a single moment. Painting, like writing, is presented as an artistic act that creates but also one that strips back and destroys; layers are added, but so too are they taken away. The same analogy could well be used for Rosselli’s poetry. In fact, on re-reading such a section, it is hard not to see the reader as the ship “storm-tossed” in the sea of Rosselli’s mind:
Your watercolors discomposed my mind
loquacious from winterstice. Throughout spring’s
discomfiture, I, storm-tossed ship, was still craftily
scaling the bright carousels: drowned treasure
yours and mine. The paintbrush quivered gently
in the simplicity of a shack discomposed by winter
that was an unremitting cruelty, a sleep of yours hidden
from my prayers, a slipping away from railroad tracks
often sliding toward my head instead, bowed
when there was light.
One failing that remains ingrained within this collection is the fluidity that plagues its production. Individual poems are difficult to pick apart from the whole, which although immersive is also bewildering. To read the series is to wander until a sudden change in direction makes you stop and reflect; it can be hard to recognize at which points certain poems end and others begin. Rather than individual poems, then, the reader finds it is instead sections and moments that come to the fore. One passage in particular near the collection’s end speaks to the title and again seems to resonate both with Rosselli’s personal experiences within the confines of her hospital bed, along with the reader’s experience of encountering her poetry:
In the chamber you were lying on the bed so narrow
as to be my mate, while you fared
anything but close, in a house of bordellos
closed only to me. You lived in the very air!
and it was a self-querying, this silence, that
dragged oblivion throughout its sentences.
Later, the speaker reaches out:
I lay my hand on the air that separates us
as if I could touch all that unripeness: you don’t
see it, you’re too touched by your illness.
 I don’t withdraw my hand; I leave it there suspended
as if there were a void to disobey, and
often I see it transforming itself that soul
of yours you detest enlarging.
Without moving her hand, the speaker is left with a “stillborn gesture”. Left alone, she turns inward:
I step back, I no longer nurse the slightest
desire to enchant you; in your illness you’re
a zebra moving, taut in its
The clarity of such action, the pained simplicity of it, heightens the beauty of Rosselli’s account of the entire situation. Rather than the chaotic crisscrossing of ideas that often permeates these poems it is at these moments of stripped back observation that Rosselli comes into her own. - Thea Hawlin

Severe the threefold sentences. En route with the archipelago we were
swept up by the current, inorganic event, land and sea spit
blood instead. As you split, I stared at myself in the vast
archipelago that was my mind, very severe, logical,
desperate before so much void: a battle, two, three battles

lost. But the furor of our looks, you lantern
who thought to guide, I routed crank, but the furor
of these two looks of ours blocked: the victory taken for
granted the battle conquered the bandits stronger than us, the union
of two souls a tarantella.

 The unhappy moon bowed down in its lament.

Innocent rivulets, halfempty boats, the mountains’ lakes agape
premise that I should be yours, and obedient.
 Your aquarelles discomposed my
mind loquacious for the winterice. With the mess of
spring, storm-tossed ship, I cut footholds still
among the merry-go-rounds colored with cunning: your my
drowned treasure. The paintbrush sweetly shook
in the modesty of a hovel discomposed for the winter
that was a continual cruelty, a sleep of yours hidden
from my prayers, a straying from the railway
that often rather veered toward my head, reclining
when there was light.

    And the light discomposing itself in equal parts evolved
economical colorations on the map of the railroadman.

    Pallid, enervated, irascible, you warded off swallows
while I painted on, equally enamored of

nature and of my need.

Amelia Rosselli’s Serie ospedaliera among the poet’s most haunting, imaginatively intense and formally rigorous collections, has just been published by New Directions as Hospital Series, translated by Deborah Woodard, Roberta Antognini, and Giuseppe Leporace .
Originally published in Italian by Il Saggiatore, Milano, in 1969 Serie Ospedaliera also contained an earlier long poem, La Libellula, The Dragonfly, composed in 1958.
For the first edition, Rosselli insisted on an IBM monospaced font (one in which each letter occupied the same amount of space), and on a layout with each poem printed on its own recto, accentuating a geometric and formal rigor.
Each stanza can be read in equal amount of time, composing a square, echoing the arresting image chosen for the cover: a series of squares receding one inside the other.
Rosselli worked on the poems of Hospital Series from 1963 to 1965, yet in an interview with Renato Minore (in Il Messaggero, Feb 2, 1984) she stated they were written all at once during a fifteen day creative burst.
Following Amelia Rosselli’s first collection of poems Variazioni belliche (War Variations), the title Hospital Series again contains a musical term: series is a reference to serial music which Rosselli was studying.
Alessandro Cassin interviewed Deborah Woodard a poet and translator living in Seattle and Roberta Antognini, Associate Professor of Italian and Chair of Italian at Vassar College.
Alessandro Cassin. When did you encounter the work of Amelia Rosselli, and what was your initial response to it? Given for formidable challenges of Rosselli’s language, what drew you to undertake this translation?
Deborah Woodard. I think it helped that, when I started, I had no idea what I was getting into. An old friend of mine, Linda Lappin, who is herself a translator, sent me a bundle of books she was discarding from her library, and Variazioni belliche was among them. I stowed the books in the lower compartment of a sideboard in the dining room and, eventually, drew out the Rosselli. I opened it up and put it back. It was too difficult to parse. But then having lost interest in another translation project, which seemed too thin, I went back into the sideboard stash, and picked up the Rosselli once again. Fascination trumped doubt. I translated a sample poem, brought it to Giuseppe Leporace, whose classes I was auditing at the University of Washington, and we began translating. When we learned that Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti’s translation of Variazioni belliche was forthcoming from Green Integer, we made the decision to switch to Hospital Series.
Roberta Antognini. I truly encountered Amelia Rosselli and her poetry through Deborah. I teach Italian language and Literature at Vassar. A few years ago, realizing that in the foreign literature classroom, translation is inseparable from writing and reading, teaching and learning, I decided to build on my lifelong passion for translation by developing a seminar on literary translation from Italian to English, for fourth year students of Italian. As a consequence of this course, I found myself increasingly immersed in translation studies, fascinated by a field that defines me as an individual and, in this country, as a professional. Although I had some previous experience as a translator—I translated Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Teodolinda Barolini’s book, The Undivine Comedy, into Italian—it was this course that whetted my appetite for translation. The first time that I offered it, I invited Deborah Woodard for a class presentation on her work on Amelia Rosselli. And I soon discovered that Rosselli is one of the most interesting and innovative Italian poets of the past half-century. As she was both a poet who wrote in three languages—Italian, English and French—and a translator, questions of translation are central to her work. Deborah asked me to collaborate with her in preparing Hospital Series for publication and I enthusiastically accepted.
AC Amelia Rosselli’s first collection of poems, Variazioni belliche, was published in Italy in 1964, and her last, Sleep, in 1992. How do you explain the long delay in translations and critical attention in America?
DW Translation doesn’t fare all that well in the United States in general. And poetry itself is a hard sell. Each translation that comes out adds to the momentum and reaches out to new readers. Having translated Rosselli for twenty years, I know that she only gets better. This process of bestowing upon her the attention she deserves, though still achingly slow, is irreversible.
RA One can even say that Amelia Rosselli is more appreciated in the United States than in Italy. Although quite known in Italy, she has not yet received the critical attention she deserves. Partly because her poetry requires such a strenuous, almost physical, mental effort, and partly because Rosselli was a particularly difficult individual, an outsider somewhat isolated from the contemporary literary scene.
AC Now at last, thanks to your work, that of Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti, and of Jennifer Scappettone, there are a variety of different translations available. Many scholars are beginning to study her work. Do you have any hypotheses for why her moment has finally arrived?
DW As I said above, it is a slow build. But we are getting there.
RA There is a tendency among American scholars in Italian studies to translate, especially women. To the point that, for instance, we have the paradox of Italian original texts by sixteenth, seventeenth hundred women writers available in Italian in a modern edition only because of the English translation. I believe Amelia is part of this trend.
AC Translations are often done in teams: could you describe the specific nature of the collaboration between you, Giuseppe Leporace and Roberta Antognini on Hospital Series?
DW Giuseppe and I worked on Hospital Series for several years. We put the translation on the back burner when Alfredo de Palchi of Chelsea Editions invited us to compile The Dragonfly: A selection of Poems 1953-1981. By the time I returned to Hospital Series, several new books on Rosselli had been published, and the Mondadori definitive edition of her work was in the offing. It was time to take a fresh look at Hospital Series. When Roberta and I met at Vassar, and subsequently attended the Barnard symposium in 2011 on Rosselli, we agreed to work together to review Hospital Series and prepare it for publication. We came to terms over a couple glasses of red wine. Thanks to Roberta, the translation is crisper and more accurate, and there is more of Amelia’s music in it and a pinch more of her word play, all of which makes me very happy.
RA Even though I was revising more than translating, the experience of co-translating Serie ospedaliera with Deborah has been exhilarating. In Amelia, tradition and innovation are so deeply intertwined that almost every word is a challenge. When Deborah was looking into the depth of the target language, I was digging into the source language as profoundly as I could, trying to find out as much as I could in order to convey to her the movement of Amelia’s poetic voice.
AC In 2009 you translated with Giuseppe Leporace a selection of Amelia Rosselli’s poems (The Dragonfly. A selection of Poems 1953-1981, Chelsea Editions). That earlier collection included 17 poems from Hospital Series. In your new book you have reworked those same poems, at time making different choices of words, word order and entire verses. Can you contrast the experience of working on the two translations and describe how your understanding of this material has changed?
For example, in your first translation of Sex violent as an object (whitened quarry of marble)
You first translated: “Non gaudente, non sapiente serpentinamente influenzato da esempi illustri o illustrazioni di candore, per la pace e per l’anima purulava” as: “Not pleasure-seeking, not learned serpentinely influenced by illustrious examples or illustrations of candor, it festered for peace and for the soul.
In your new translation it becomes:
Not sybaritic nor sage
serpentinely influenced by illustrious examples or illustrations
of candor, it festered for peace and for the soul.
DW I wanted to speed the lines up a bit, too, as this poem moves so beautifully. In general, few translations are written in stone. With a poet such as Rosselli, one can always have a new idea because she presents us with concentric circles of sound and meaning. I consulted the thesaurus, came up with “sybarite” and “sage,” and loved the sure-footedness of these new choices. In fact, as Roberta pointed out to me, “gaudente” and “sapiente” are hapax words, occurring only once in the text. We needed something a little out of the ordinary, for a poet who is always out of the ordinary.
AC Now that several translators have worked on Amelia Rosselli’s poetry, the English language reader has choices. One measure of the difficulty of translating Rosselli is highlighted by the fact that even the title of her first collection, Variazioni belliche, has been translated alternatively as War Variations, Martial Variations and Bellicose Variations… Would you care to elaborate?
DW I’m not completely convinced by any of these translations of Rosselli’s title. At the time, I felt that Martial Variations flowed well, but, rethinking that choice, I fear that it suggests a regimented display that is the complete antithesis of what the text is about. War Variations is accurate but sacrifices the Latinate mellifluousness of the original. At the moment, I think that I prefer Bellicose Variations (Scappettone) because the attitude, the bellicosity of the narrator’s voice, is so prominent in these poems. It is more of a mouthful in English than in Italian, but, for whatever reason, this title is tricky. Fortunately, Hospital Series is always going to be translated as just that (I think!).
RA The discussion of this title provides a great example of the way Deborah and I worked on the final draft of Hospital Series: literally dissecting words and debating solutions. In this case, the great fascination of the vaguely oxymoronic title Variazioni belliche comes from the combination of the (also but not only) musical term variazioni with the adjective bellico that retains the Latin etymology (the noun would be “guerra” which has the same German origin of the English “war”). However, bellico means “pertaining to war”, rather than “bellicose”, eager to fight, for which there is the adjective bellicoso. Hence, the variations are not bellicose, they just belong to war. Personally I like best the more literal translation of War Variations, which in English has a nice alliteration to it.
AC Rosselli’s experimentation with language takes radical new turns from book to book. Having translated both earlier and later work, how would you characterize the specific language of Hospital Series?
DW With the exception of the heightened lyricism of the Campana-influenced “La Libellula: panegirico alla libertà” (“The Dragonfly: panegyric to liberty”), I didn’t find the language between her first two books to be markedly dissimilar. Hospital Series is a bit more meditative than Variazioni belliche at times, perhaps. The issues are the same, but the theater is smaller and more intimate—again, with the notable exception of “The Dragonfly”, which was written earlier. Documento strikes a very different note, but I can’t adequately characterize the ways in which its language differs as of yet. I might provisionally term it more austere.
AC Do you plan to translate more of her work in the future?
DW Yes, once our schedules synch up, Roberta and I will be reviewing Rosselli’s poetic prose / veiled autobiography Diario Ottuso (Obtuse Diary), which I initially translated with Giuseppe Leporace for The Dragonfly, and which I worked on with another translator, Dario de Pasquale, as well. I love this little book of “prosa d’arte.” Then, finally, Roberta and I will turn our attention to Documento (Document). Documento is a challenge, to say the least, but we are drawn to the magnitude of this text. It is an entire landscape, and a very social and political one, it would appear.
RA All of Amelia’s poetry is characterized by an inner tension between the geometry of the prosody and the freedom of the language. Amelia considered Documento her most mature work, and, if we intend for maturity a sort of crystallization of this tension, it probably is.
AC How, if at all, do you feel that your work on Rosselli has impacted your own poetic practice?
DW I was very influenced by “The Dragonfly,” specifically by the way Rosselli interrogates lyrical imagery at the same time as she rejuvenates it. In my view, she renovates the lyrical line by finding ways to distort it, if that makes any sense, and by stopping it in its tracks and then picking it up again. I learned a lot from Amelia about timing. Her ear is impeccable. The extended riffs of “The Dragonfly” gave me a sense of freedom—the poem is, after all, a panegyric to liberty. I hope that Documento will give me another key, somehow. -

Amelia Rosselli, Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli, Trans. by Jennifer Scappettone; a bilingual ed., University Of Chicago Press,  2012.

A musician, musicologist, and self-defined “poet of research,” Amelia Rosselli (1930–96) was one of the most important poets to emerge from Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Following a childhood and adolescence spent in exile from Fascist Italy between France, England, and the United States, Rosselli was driven to express the hopes and devastations of the postwar epoch through her demanding and defamiliarizing lines. Rosselli’s trilingual body of work synthesizes a hybrid literary heritage stretching from Dante and the troubadours through Ezra Pound and John Berryman, in which playful inventions across Italian, English, and French coexist with unadorned social critique. In a period dominated by the confessional mode, Rosselli aspired to compose stanzas characterized by a new objectivity and collective orientation, “where the I is the public, where the I is things, where the I is the things that happen.” Having chosen Italy as an “ideal fatherland,” Rosselli wrote searching and often discomposing verse that redefined the domain of Italian poetics and, in the process, irrevocably changed the Italian language.
This collection, the first to bring together a generous selection of her poems and prose in English and in translation, is enhanced by an extensive critical introduction and notes by translator Jennifer Scappettone. Equipping readers with the context for better apprehending Rosselli’s experimental approach to language, Locomotrix seeks to introduce English-language readers to the extraordinary career of this crucial, if still eclipsed, voice of the twentieth century.

In Scappettone, Rosselli has found an inventive, aesthetically kindred translator, one who rightly chooses ‘to startle when Rosselli startles, and not to gloss';—to maintain, that is, rather than tame, the singularities of Rosselli’s capacious and difficult work. But the word ‘maintain’ makes it sound too easy, as if the translator had only to leave well enough alone, when of course what is often required is the invention in English of sympathetic singularities, which Scappettone, a poet herself, provides in abundance. As if that weren’t enough, the poems themselves are framed by Scappettone’s excellent introduction and by well-chosen prose selections and helpful bibliographies and notes. . . . Locomotrix is an exemplary volume and by far the best introduction to Rosselli now available to English-language readers.” - Geoffrey Brock

“After more than a decade of research, travel, translation, revision, and cross-examination, Jennifer Scappettone offers to the Anglophone reader an extraordinary harvest of texts by Amelia Rosselli, under the comprehensive (and Rossellian) title Locomotrix . . . in a bilingual edition, which permits the volume to continue the dialogue across languages that is in fact the powerful root of Rosselli’s imagination and poetry. A poet herself, beyond being a scholar, Scappettone is the ideal translator of a dense and multifoliate writing like that of Rosselli. . . . [B]oth readers for whom the voice and history of Rosselli are still unknown and those already familiar with her work will find elements of reflection and annotations that interrogate and reinterrogate the texts (which are now legible in a new light thanks to the insight/translation into English).” - Marco Giovenale 

“Jennifer Scappettone’s selection from the full corpus of [Rosselli’s] work, with a substantial introduction to match, offers English speakers with little or no Italian the best chance yet of engaging in depth with Rosselli’s demanding and strangely rewarding voice.” - Peter Hainsworth 

“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.”
Barry Schwabsky

“[Scappettone] is always conscious of trap doors and multiple meanings to unravel and iron out . . . [and] knows how to render the tone of reflection or desperation, invective, shock, spontaneity, and freedom in the poetry of Amelia. All with great daring—or rather, thanks precisely to this daring of hers.” - Giulia Niccolai

“Poet, translator, and professor, . . . Scappettone—who has also translated authors of her own generation, like Giovanna Frene, Florinda Fusco, and Marco Giovenale—offers a truly compelling example of the vivacious osmotic exchange between the current experimental poetry of the United States and that of Italy. Her Locomotrix is not only an accomplished example of an ‘expanded’ anthology (that includes critical writings, letters, and photographs), but also a stimulating and felicitous theoretical attempt to present the complex—and certainly not easily translatable—work of the splendidly ‘obtuse’ giantess-mother of a great part of today’s poetic research to a global public.”
- Gian-Maria Annovi

“In the landscape of twentieth-century Italian writing, Amelia Rosselli’s poems stand out as a unique achievement, cultivating oblique, discontinuous forms that mix social diagnosis and satire, memory and introspection, tragedy and utopianism. Jennifer Scappettone’s editorial project is a work of cultural restoration that helps to create a broader context in which the anglophone reader can more fully appreciate Italian poetic traditions. But she has done much more: drawing on her own formidable skills as an experimental poet in English, Scappettone has produced an ambitiously innovative translation whose effects are at once stunning and uncanny in recreating the Italian. The result is a body of poetry that is challenging, to be sure, yet tremendously powerful.” - Lawrence Venuti       

  Half a century after the searching start—across and between tongues—of her uncompromising poetic practice, the poet Amelia Rosselli has emerged in global literary discussions as exemplary: as both prophetic and crucially contemporary. She has come to occupy a prominent position in literary history as one of the twentieth century’s most significant and demanding poets of the Italian language and beyond, with a body of work that concretizes in its agitation the postwar era’s fallout and bequest. Her books of poetry and recently collected prose are testaments to a uniquely multiform sincerity, and to a fiendishly restless mind, synthesizing a literary tradition that stretches from the thirteenth-century dolce stil novo through Rimbaud, Campana, Kafka, Joyce, and Pasternak with the frankness of the news. The daughter of an assassinated hero of the Italian Resistance who spent her childhood and adolescence in exile between France, England, and the United States before settling in Rome, Rosselli is esteemed for the idiolect she forged to voice the aftermath of this experience while resisting both the confessional first person dominating mainstream poetry during the years of her production and the aesthetic conformities of vanguardist schools. Self-described “poeta della ricerca” (“poet of research”), she regarded poetry as a sphere of activity exceeding the narcissistic gamut of self-expression and constraint of genteel intellectualism: language in Rosselli’s handling is a site of innovation with imperative philosophical and political consequences. Never mere linguistic exercise, her writing launches explicit and implicit structural assaults on the authority of traditional poetic forms, as well as the social and cognitive forms that gave rise to them.
She has fed me senseless small change, brought me to the bank, had me counted and found the sum surplus. —“My Clothes to the Wind” (1952)
To summarize her oeuvre, then, is but “an obligatory cruelty”; in its errancies, this work draws into question the synthetic categories of postwar poetry that have been forged thus far. In the early English prose piece called “My Clothes to the Wind,” the young author describes those who would encompass her as “Biscuit-makers all, and I a crumb who’d not coagulate,” voicing an attitude of alienation from reigning forms that would persist on many fronts. Rosselli’s tumultuous upbringing in the midst and aftermath of the Second World War as a victim of Fascism fostered her estrangement from the Italian literary establishment for decades. Being linguistically and culturally heterogeneous, her writing was initially regarded as a key exception to the rule of this national literature, even in the face of acclaim by prominent poet-critics and her historical distinction as the first—and still one of few—female Italian authors included in canon-defining anthologies of twentieth-century poetry. Yet as consciousness rises regarding the fundamental reciprocity between italianità (Italianness), emigration, and immigration, her poetic output has been subject to an explosion of attention. The impulses of Rosselli’s work in and against the Italian language are best appreciated when aligned with aesthetic trends that are international, while her role in shaping the future of this particular language and its literature is best grasped if we listen for the way it articulates the Italian patria, or “fatherland,” as itself a hybrid, transnational cultural formation. Rosselli’s is arguably the poetry most vital to evolving understandings of global modernism and postmodernism to have emerged from postwar Italy, testifying to the privations and hard-won inheritance of cultures bound by colossal networks of commerce and violence. Her poetic transmutes the war into which she was born into a battle against every species of tyranny: literary, cultural, sexual, economic, and, congenitally, political.
Rosselli was born in Paris in 1930 into a prominently, ardently antitotalitarian climate—into a family living in political exile. Her paternal grandmother and namesake, Amelia Pincherle Rosselli, was a secular Jewish Venetian feminist and republican thinker from a family active in the unification of Italy; Amelia Pincherle was the celebrated author of plays, some in Venetian dialect, and of short stories, children’s literature, political and literary essays, and translations. Amelia’s mother, Marion Catherine Cave, was a brilliant English activist of the Labour Party, from a family of Quaker and distant Irish Catholic heritage and modest means. Her father, Carlo Rosselli, was an intellectual leader and eventually a martyr of the anti-Fascist Resistance. Having been convicted—in a trial he exploited to critique Mussolini’s regime—of facilitating socialist Filippo Turati’s flight from Italy, Carlo himself escaped from the penal colony on the island of Lipari in 1929; Marion, pregnant with Amelia, was briefly arrested for complicity before the family was reunited in Paris. It was from the French capital that, with his brother Nello, Carlo launched Justice and Liberty, a prominent non-Marxist resistance movement based on principles of “liberal socialism,” which included Primo Levi, Cesare Pavese, and Leone Ginzburg among its affiliates, and later became the influential if short-lived Action Party. Upon the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Carlo was among the first to mobilize an armed brigade of volunteers in the fight against Franco, articulating the importance of organizing resistance to Fascism across Europe with the rallying cry “Today in Spain, tomorrow in Italy.” Identified as prime enemies of the regime, the Rosselli brothers were brutally murdered by the French Fascist terrorist organ La Cagoule in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, Normandy in June 1937. The news was dealt to the seven-year-old “Melina” and her younger brother Andrea by their mother as a problem of language: “Do you know what the word assassination means?” She recalled in a 1987 interview, “We answered yes.”
from the introduction by Jennifer Scappettone

from Variazioni belliche / Bellicose Variations (1964)

What ails my heart which beats so suavely
& maketh hee disconsolate, ese
soundings quite steel? lle Those
scomminglings therein ’mprinted fore Ille
be harrowed so
fiercely, alle hath evanished! O shhd mine
hares rampant thru th’nerves &s thru
channels rimed ’f thisse my lymph (o life!)
not stopp, thus yes, th’I, mio
nearyng unto mortae! In alle claundors soul of mine
thou dost propose a cure, thee I imbrace, you,—
find ’at Suave Word, you, return
to the comprehended saying that makes sure love remains.

from Documento / Document (1966-1973)

It comes
blown down the stairs,
likeness that I make of each thing
that passes through my mind
as if forgiveness were always at the ready there.

To barter the cigarettes of others
for a dormer full of good books . . .

In the court and the percentages I saw
the trial extended between the lines
and I acquitted the commanding officer
because you were the usual slaughterer

of women in the labyrinth
frightened by the scream
between mountains of stone
in the horror of a bomb

like all of our best things:
politics in its chintzy sale
you bestow your assembled powers liberally
amongst the illiterate of the neighborhood

and amongst the dust you were carrying intact
in grey luggage.

this is the sea today
in waves more serene that slash
that scream & that toil of yours deliberately

fusing the
vision of a gash with a gash
everything remakes itself,

& from the top & again
the fragrant lymphatic canals
of mosquitoes
in the empty shack
no one can any longer lay hands on
knotty histories
trading them for a metaphor.

There’s something like pain in this chamber, and
it is partly overcome: but the weight
of objects wins, their signifying
weight and loss.

There’s something like red in the tree, but it is
the orange of the lamp base
purchased in places I don’t wish to remember
because they also weigh.

Like nothing I can know of your hunger
the stylized fountains are
precise in wanting
a reversal can be settled of the destiny
of men divided by oblique noise.

General Strike 1969

lamps wholly alight and in the howl
of a calm audacious crowd
to find yourself there, acting with seriousness:
taking risks! May this apparent
childishness shatter even my own
power not to give a damn.

A deep inner God could have sufficed
my egotism did not suffice for me

the taste of riches in an otherwise
throttled revenge did not suffice

for these people. We had to
express something better: allow ourselves

this rhetoric that was a howl
of protest against undaunted

destruction in our frightened
houses. (I lost on my own that vertical
love of solitary god
revolutionizing myself in the people

removing myself from heaven.)

Please welcome the scholar and translator Diana Thow, who for today’s entry has generously provided poems from her translation of Amelia Rosselli's Serie Ospedaliera (Hospital Series) in addition to some illuminating and insightful Rosselli context and commentary.
                        From Serie Ospedaliera (1963-1965) 
                        Amelia Rosselli/translation Diana Thow 

                        Lifting of weights and particularities of fate
                        little doves eyed my strength
                        taken from your take-off like
                        candy, the vocation melted into
                        a semantic revision of our quarrels
                        and birds. None of the soldiers who really
                        wanted to remarry was able to tell me
                        who is it that really marches.

                        ….solitary in the didactic regions
                        I held the brigantella disappointed by
                        such a miserable fate, oh
                        see I’m exploding, don’t run away, the
                        piano’s machinegun subtracts
                        sensations, metro, camphor, the curved
                        red lips bricks of the safe.

                        A thin little voice: enough to open the shutter
                        of the little window, that changes the world
                        and its surfaces are a part of your
                        migraines. Enough to barely open, open, your
                        sleep measures itself against the sky, where
                        a tragic image stays.

                        You open a wall: another appears, to take
                        your pulse. You can’t razor the wall, you don’t want
                        to save yourself those few spirit hours, forcing
                        its mysterious cells. And still, you feel like
                        a fallen pine between the new pine groves,
                        straight end to rotten pity. 

                        You scare yourself with all your heart
                        with the air that shakes and sheds you;
                        dreams radiate down through the
                        illiterate facades, you count
                        blood in fat drops
                        falling full into your hands
                        withdrawals from the anguish of knowing
                        where the air is what does it move why
                        it speaks, of ills so watered down
                        to seem, so many things together
                        but not one you forget, your
                        dragging night and blood
                        through immense days.

[Note: “You scare yourself with all your heart” first appeared in the estimable THERMOS]

RF: Who was Amelia Rosselli?
DT: In her words:
            Born in Paris afflicted in the epoch of our fallacious
            generation. Laid out in America among the rich fields of landowners
            and the statal State. Lived in Italy, barbarous land.
            Fled from England land of the sophisticated. Hopeful
            in the West where nothing now grows.
            —from “Contiamo infiniti morti…”
in Variazioni Belliche, translation Cinzia Blum and Lara Trubowitz)
Amelia Rosselli (1930-1996) was a dynamic, idiosyncratic and intensely lyrical presence in postwar Italian poetry. She was in a category of her own: not only multilingual (she grew up speaking English, French and Italian), she was often the token female in the largely male dominated field of Italian literature at that time. Rosselli was born in Paris in exile. Her father was the famous antifascist leader Carlo Rosselli, and her mother was British. Her very name bore the scars of Italy’s struggles to liberate itself from the fascist regime in an era that was trying to forget its fascist past. After her father’s assassination, she spent formative years in upstate New York with her extended family. During this time her grandmother read the children Dante in Italian so that they wouldn’t forget their Italian language and heritage. Amelia finished high school in London, and moved with her grandmother to the family home in Florence in the 1950s, eventually relocating to Rome, where she would live for the rest of her life. Her voice was as distinctive as her poetry: she spoke Italian with a hint of a French accent (most noticeable in her French pronunciation of the letter R). In addition to her work as a poet, she also worked as a journalist, editor, and mentor to younger poets.
Rosselli was deeply interested in prosody (both English and Italian) and had a background in both visual and musical studies. She was largely an autodidact, but had extensive formal training as a pianist, organist and composer in her teens and twenties, and in the decade before her first book of poetry was published she was intensively involved in the experimental music scene in Rome. She attended the famous Darmstadt music conference at the end of the 50s and beginning of the 60s, and met composers such as Cage and Stockhausen and studied with Italian composers Guido Turchi and Luciano Berio. Even when she left music for a career in literature the influence of her musical upbringing lingered: there is a recording of Rosselli reading her final poem, “Impromptu,” in which she basically sings sections of the long poem.
RF: Tell us about the traditions Rosselli was working out of and about her associations with her contemporaries.
DT: Rosselli’s trilingual background is crucial to her poetics—her verses reflect this particular mesh of languages in their linguistic flexibility and complexity. She was associated with the neo-avant-garde poetry movements of the 60s and 70s, in particular the experimental Gruppo ‘63, which included poets Edoardo Sanguineti, Antonio Porta, Adriano Spatola, Giulia Niccolai, and Elio Pagliarini. Rosselli was reticent about her affiliation with the group, as she felt herself to be working within a more lyrical tradition; she named Montale, Campana and Saba as influences, as well as Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rilke, and T.S. Eliot. Yet, within the group she felt a special affinity for Antonio Porta [For those unfamiliar with Porta, I recommend picking up the recently released selected Porta here —R.F.], who also translated some of her English poetry into Italian (the bilingual volume is called Sleep-Sonno). In Rome she frequented literary circles that included Alberto Moravia (her cousin), Elsa Morante, Carlo Levi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and she performed with Carmelo Bene. John Ashbery published her first English poems in his Paris journal Art and Literature in 1965.
RF: What work have you chosen to translate and why? 
DT: I’ve translated her second collection, Serie Ospedaliera (Hospital Series), because I love the book. I was living in Rome when I translated it and the city truly saturates the collection—the Roman cobblestones (sampietrini, named after Saint Peter’s Square) are mentioned by name, the Tiber winds in and out of the poems, the green spaces are often the hidden gardens of the Janiculum Hill, above Rosselli’s neighborhood in Trastevere. The screech and shrill of the squares and scooters and markets are audible in these poems, the solid stone of the buildings, their windows and blinds opening and shutting. The poems share an intensity, what Rosselli called a linguistic rigor, with Variazioni Belliche, yet there is a softer edge to them. Petrarch returns often, as does Montale, and the violence of the first collection turns inward, becomes more searching and contemplative. In the collection Rosselli navigates the interiors of the lyrical subject, destabilized by illness. The figure of the sick lover transforms sickness itself into a lover; the lyrical object of desire also becomes the lyrical subject, the one who speaks and observes. This reflexivity is also true on a linguistic level: in Rosselli’s Italian there is always the pull of the English language; the effect, for someone who reads both, is that of looking through Italian at English. Translation always creates a space in which the translator is asked to think about the translating language in a new way, one that is estranged from its standard patterns and enriched by its new associations with the source text. Rosselli’s multilingualism opens English up to Italian and French in a way that illuminates all three languages, sharp rays of light cast through a prism.


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