by Yeshua Tolle
Published by New Directions, 2015 | 80 pages
“I have nothing else to say, the / breath is a strategy to confound oneself in language,” writes Amelia Rosselli in Hospital Series, a fiercely experimental book of poems and exploration of the elusive nature of intimacy, the specter of mental illness, and the limits of language. Nearly fifty years after its original publication in 1969 under the title Serie ospedaliera, this series of hermetic and cacophonic poems are available in English for the first time. Team-translated from the Italian by Deborah Woodard, Roberta Antognini, and Giuseppe Leporace, their deft translation of the volume’s eighty odd poems offers English readers a new window into the work and life of one of Italy’s most idiosyncratic, challenging, and significant post-war poets.
Rosselli was born in Paris in 1930. Her father, Carlo Rosselli, was a prominent Jewish intellectual and co-founder of Giustizia e Libertà, an anti-Fascist liberal socialist party that also counted Primo Levi as a member. At the time, Giustizia e Libertà was intent on fighting Benito Mussolini at all costs, and Rosselli’s family was soon forced into hiding as members of the Parisian resistance. In 1937, however, when Amelia was only seven years old, the French fascist group La Cagoule assassinated her father. As a result, the family moved first to the United States, where she began her education, and then to England, where Rosselli’s mother was from and where she completed her education. Not long after, in 1949, Rosselli also lost her mother and decided to settle in Rome for good. It was around this time, presumably, that the nervous problems that would plague her adult life first appeared. In the 1950s, she began to seek psychoanalytic treatment, visiting first Piero Bellanova, a leading figure in psychoanalysis in Italy, and then Ernst Bernhard, a Jewish German psychoanalyst, whom she credits with helping her “remember the childhood [she] had forgotten, after the immediate shock of [her] mother’s death.”
Unsurprisingly, the trauma of Rosselli’s childhood profoundly influenced her writings. The majority of Hospital Series, for example, was composed in the 1960s during one of her hospitalizations. In it we bear witness to a private poetics that interrogates what the idea of addressing a “you” means amidst intense psychological suffering. Rosselli’s concern with mental health is rendered transparent in both the title of the collection as well as the presence of medical terms, such as “strokes,” “cough,” “meningitis,” peppered throughout. This preoccupation with the psychological is also rendered via the formal syntax of Rosselli’s self-enclosed poems. Rosselli experiments, for example, with unusual punctuation (“I stay not: not: not, not, not”), unconventional metaphors (“I stretched out powerful rhinoceros”) and abstract images (“peasant shouter of semantics”). Throughout Hospital Series, we encounter highly compressed lines that pack together a myriad of images, such as “The goatish sole-curving sky / almost vigorously promised: ignorance / and terracotta,” as well as a highly self-conscious lyricism addressing its own incomprehensibility: “Incomprehensible I remain,” she writes in one passage, and then elsewhere: “And suicidal I remained: imaginary, turned toward sadness like / an umbrella, which in its roundness parks my mind.” Rosselli herself accurately conveyed the end result of these poetic effects when she described her poetry as “catatonic.”
Further reinforcing the inaccessible quality of her poems is Rosselli’s tactic here of dedicating or addressing them to unknown friends and acquaintances. The presence of this private language between the speaker of the poem and the anonymous addressee increases the intimacy of the collection, and places the reader almost into a voyeuristic relationship. In “to Braibanti,” a poem dedicated to the poet and intellectual Aldo Braibanti, for example, Rosselli writes, “I thank my destiny / with open hands, to meet you and still / meeting you, I find no nausea for my imperfect deliriums / I find no love under your true light, I find no more / perfect horizon than your hands.” In “to S.” we encounter an even more extreme example of a private communication; even the addressee’s name is abbreviated. “Eighty poems, of a cautious and extremely interior tone,” is how she described the collection in a 1987 interview with Giacinto Spagnoletti.
Elsewhere, we encounter poems in which the unspecified “you” seems to function as a placeholder for the self. We can best understand Rosselli’s unique use of this ostensibly psychoanalytic device by contrasting it with that of Eugenio Montale (1896 – 1981), the Italian poet, editor, and Nobel Prize recipient from whom she most likely adopted it. Although Rosselli was most directly affiliated with Gruppo ’63, an experimental neo-avant-garde poetry movement, she also listed Montale, Saba, Pavese, Penna, Mallarmé and Verlaine – many of whom share Rosselli’s penchant for elusiveness – as influences. In Montale in particular, the “tu” usually points to an unknown feminine addressee who is the object of both erotic and metaphysical reflection. Rosselli, by contrast, turns that “tu” inward, into an “I”:
Seeking in sleep which yields some ill-placedcomfort a frail shadow which was ouryouth lost to hardships, when you would gildthe book of hours.
This peculiarity of style can be understood as stemming, of course, not only from the influence of Rosselli’s literary predecessors, but also from the collection’s extended meditation on her struggles with her mental and physical health. In the same interview with Spagnoletti, Rosselli suggested that the language of Hospital Series may have arisen partially as a by-product of her intense confinement, and perhaps also as a symptom of early onset Parkinson’s, an illness that would remained undiagnosed for years. “I could read or write, and naturally, study, only at the cost of great efforts… to resist weakness and survive in some way creatively, I had to isolate myself and conduct a life that was systematically private, interiorized, lacking in contacts. The poems reflect this melancholic privation of life.” We thus can see the influence of the factual and autobiographical, as well as that of her literary predecessors and contemporaries, on both Hospital Series’ content and form.
The collection is also divided against itself, likely reflecting the fact that the volume was composed in two separate periods. Rosselli has noted that the first half of Hospital Series was written a couple years earlier than the second half, and some years after its publication she claimed that the differences of two halves were intentional and meant to be contrasted with and read against one another. The first half of the collection is markedly experimental, which we would expect in light of her self-professed poetic influences. In “5 Poems for a Poetics” for example, we encounter the following lines:
Practically wild I stretched out powerful rhinoceros on thehillside of your capital: that is: I know not: I want not: you are not:I see not: I stay not: not: not, not, not, capital of mydexterities because I lost you peasant shouter of semanticsto the infinite, I’m not sure if I’ve made myself clear, but I nolonger see you
In the collection’s second half, on the other hand, we encounter poems significantly more lyrical and attuned to the nuances of prosody: “Music though does its part / and in the understanding of it dwells / my passion.” This half, too, comes as no surprise in light of Rosselli’s biography, for she was a lifelong student of piano, composition, and ethnomusicology.
In an essay to a selection of twenty-four poems Rosselli published in Il Menabò in 1963, Pier Paolo Pasolini referred to the grammatical errors, neologisms, polyglot tendencies, and linguistic deviations of Rosselli’s work as “slips.” “More than being cultural…,” he wrote, “the slips of Rosselli are of an ideological type. Throughout these studs—which ensure historicity, continuity, and stability to texts that are in reality spiritual murmurs I would call epileptic, ideographs in which a soul projects itself to the letter, and not without being literary—the world presents itself as typically liberal and irrational.” While Pasolini’s description of Rosselli’s poetics as “epileptic” and “a spiritual murmur” comes close to capturing the erratic yet intimate tone of Hospital Series, the intentionality of some of Rosselli’s linguistic choices casts doubt on Pasolini’s use of the word “slip” to describe her eccentric poetics. “Catatonic,” perhaps, remains the best description of the experience of her poetry. What is undeniable is that poetic language in Hospital Series becomes a net destabilizing its own ground: Rosselli’s fervent self-consciousness percolates through her verse.
Ayten Tartici is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale University.