This review first appeared in Pleiades 31:2. Thought I’d share it here. Look for a few other short book reviews in the next few weeks.
Rosselli, Amelia. The Dragonfly: a Selection of Poems 1953-1981. Translated by Giuseppe Leporace and Deborah Woodard. New York, NY: Chelsea Editions, 2009.
Among but not of, a woman in a male artistic community, Amelia Rosselli was among the twentieth century’s outlying poets, who sought a new method in verse (you could call it avant-garde) for rendering the homelessness, polysemy, and cultural churn of her and Europe’s life. A follower of Dante, a contemporary of Eugenio Montale and Paul Celan, Rosselli produced a body of in-between poetry. In an era of formal experiment and technical rigor, her poems (most written in Italian) were free, melodious, and syntactically muscular, elusive not in their intellectual intricacy but in their subjectivity and density of emotional expression.
Rosselli was born in 1930 to Jewish anti-Fascist activists during her family’s exile in Paris. When she was seven, her father and his brother were assassinated at Mussolini’s orders. In their introduction to The Dragonfly, a volume of her translated selected poems, Deborah Woodward and Giuseppe Leporace trace to this crime the origins of Rosselli’s lifelong battle with paranoid depression, as well as her decades-long residency in France, the United States, and England, as a “daughter with a devastated heart,” conversant in three languages and at home nowhere. Raised abroad in a time of terrible violence and psychic unease, Rosselli didn’t settle in Italy, nor on Italian as her language, until her teens. Her poetry’s mature voice, emergent in her twenties, plays with intimacy and instability, enervation and vitality:
…I sell you
the featherweight yoke of my infirm mind strung between
the two tents of the impossible circles that
tautly join our souls, in the air, that
pulsates between your revolt and mine, that moans
and thrashes outside the portal… (93)
Despite her distance from Italy’s avant-garde establishment, Rosselli’s works—Hospital Series, “The Dragonfly,” Document, Martial Variations—found an audience and emerged seemingly inexhaustibly for more than two decades. But by the 1970s her output began to slow; by the time of her suicide at sixty-six, she had published no work in Italian in fifteen years.
In Rosselli’s dislocated and explosive poetry, it’s tempting to read biography. Woodward and Leporace see “malaise” (13) in her work, finding that “the fissures of the world at large find their mirror primarily in [her] subjective geography” (12). Like Celan, she wrote of disruption and horror in a language disrupted and sometimes horror-stricken. Much of the critical comment on Rosselli’s poetry has therefore stressed its violence, the intensity of its alienation. But more significant than the extremes of her expression—“the stench of turned wine” (181), or her speaker “machine gunned by a river / of words” (153)—is the somatic energy present even in English renderings of her poems, the intensely physical gestures of Rosselli’s syntax:
Sex violent as an object… Not learned
not pleasure-seeking, but learned and mercantile rammed like
the vessel against bat-like rocks, it fell suddenly
from the height of rigor and of the dance, from the sol fa mi do
of another day: not learned and not pleasure-seeking disguised
as a soldier gasping and hazarding among the pigpens
ransacking, in form and substance, sex has its way
with him. (129)
Maybe these phrases read more smoothly in the Italian, but I don’t think so. Woodward and Leporace’s care has been to render a sense of Rosselli’s line like that of the body fighting off illness, or reacting to a violent force. This vigorousness stands in for the answers the poetry seeks. Deep into its individuality, the voice of these poems is without external consolation or rest: in it sacred words are half-heard, lost, pulled close, forced away. One can read a passage like this, from the Martial Variations sequence—
head truly round was born the square of certitude.
If in the head truly round was born the impossible retreat
to ancient ways then in my head truly round
would fall the wheat the salt of God, the last mine. (49)
—and wonder, just where is this sentiment’s resolution? Or one can encounter the huge title poem “The Dragonfly,” with its intimations of grave illness, fallen saints, suicide and modernity, and wonder, just what is being built toward? But this endlessness of Rosselli’s poetry, its un-pin-downability, is its point. The work’s own existence—the fact of its ongoing self-creation—meets the exact terrible need it expresses.
The spinal column of
your sins harangued the crowd: The train ground to a halt
and truth stayed within its saying. (51)
The poems, too, remain in their saying. Rosselli’s work isn’t an easy read: her poems demand both close attention and an ability to step back, to glimpse the order behind the intellectual incongruities of her expression.
And that “you” in the quotation above points to another difficulty in translating Rosselli, one deeper than the difference of Italian and English musics. Woodward and Leporace note that English is unable to render her various “you,” a pronoun “usually male but sometimes female and sometimes plural” (13) in the space of the same poem. English readers have to settle for a single word to refer to her sick lover, her divinity, her twin and (sometimes) the general crowd, those survivors of a ruptured landscape and those at whom she has to shout to be heard. In that “you” is the poems’ chief irritant, their drama and emotional heat.
In the tenor of their translations, Woodward and Leporace emphasize the rupture, gut-intensity and violence of Rosselli’s work. Other takes are out there: Rosselli’s work has also received the attention of Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti, whose 2003 War Variations from Green Integer first introduced Rosselli to a wide English audience; Diana Thow, whose languid, graceful versions of poems from Hospital Series are forthcoming in the journal Transom; Jennifer Scappettone, whose own selection and translation of Rosselli’s poems, Locomotrix, is forthcoming from University of Chicago. Somewhere among and through these versions is the poet herself, isolated as the giant who “knows he can’t rhyme except within / the closed circle of his downcast familiars” (83); charming, as in these lines of Thow’s—
Two monkeys plough the soul with invisible tracks, the heart
suffered for it, old sentinel, tough, corrupt, mustached, drunk
sentinel, hopeless yet anticipating the entire curved sky in hand.
Does the heart have a hand?
—and fervid, as in this passage from Woodward and Leporace’s “Dragonfly”:
I don’t know how to thank you and don’t know your dwelling
and don’t know if this cry reaches you. I don’t
know if the infant who seeks you is the old woman who
swaddles you. I don’t know if the riverbank is wide
or the child is dead, I know not, see not, am not,
for you who are who live who vibrate who remain
out of reach of tenderness. I wouldn’t shake the harness bells
if I knew how swiftly you enter the heart.
I wouldn’t play this dance if I knew
I wasn’t alone. I wouldn’t play a single dance if you
were singing. (97)