Spring 2011, #17


Letter from Rome: Rediscovering Amelia Rosselli

     by Linda Lappin

A few weeks ago, I found myself wandering through an elegant Roman neighborhood. Small villas with wrought iron balconies overlooking lush gardens of palms and jasmine tucked behind high walls; Moorish arabesques of gold mosaic glinting from imposing facades. Purely residential, undisturbed by traffic or commerce, there was not a shop, cafe, or even a newspaper stand, and at that hour of the mid afternoon, not a soul about - only a cat or two, startled by my intrusion. Turning a corner, to my surprise I came upon a trestle table piled with books set up along the sidewalk, rather incongruous in such a classy neighborhood. The vendor looked like an outsider too, with his dirty jeans and pierced nose. He crouched in the shade of an entryway watching me as I thumbed through the yellowing pages of his books. They were mostly legal tomes, political philosophy, biographies of statesmen, illustrated with maps of countries whose names have changed, whose borders have been erased, all discarded from some judge’s library, perhaps from one of the ritzy homes in the vicinity. Someone had moved, or died, or simply needed space.

Then among those dull, worn covers, I noticed a slick grey jacket encasing a slim volume - that I instantly recognized, having once, years ago, owned a copy which I later gave away. It was Amelia Rosselli’s third, groundbreaking volume of poetry, Documento, published in 1976. This book, more than her earlier collections Variazioni Belliche and Serie Ospedaliera introduced her work to a greater, admiring reading public, beyond the writers, feminists, and the politically engaged who had already discovered her. One critic labeled it “A visceral cry uttered with precision.” Rosselli herself said of the collection that she had tried to address universal concerns beyond problems of the personal. The title itself is intriguing: “Documento” means of course, document, a documentation, a record of a true experience, and in daily usage, it also means: identity papers. This book, which aimed to go beyond the personal, was for her an act of self- identification. “I am not what I appear,” she wrote. Those words resonated for many women in the late 60s and early 70s, when poetry in Italy, and indeed the entire literary and cultural establishment, seemed preponderantly male. Amelia Rosselli’s voice jarred; her grammar scandalized. Those who found her poems hard going protested her lack of “sense”, her weird imagery, her fragmented syntax, and the undercurrents of violence and excruciating pain bespeaking mental illness churning beneath the surface of her work.

When Rosselli first published her startling poems, Phyllis Chester had not yet published Women and Madness, a frightening enquiry into why there are so many women in mental hospitals; into why some women’s normal reaction to a lifetime of stress as second-class citizens should be defined as pathological. Nor had Gilbert and Gubar published their seminal The Madwoman in the Attic connecting the language of madness with the narratives of female rebellion. Rosselli would, perhaps, have recognized herself in those pages in which myths of mental illness are challenged.

Amelia Rosselli committed suicide in Feburary 1996, throwing herself from the window of her tiny flat in the center of Rome, after a period of grave depression. Long before, she had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a pronouncement she never accepted. She was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of thirty-nine and may have suffered severe nerve damage as the aftermath of meningitis. Her fragility of nerves, treated twice with electroshock therapy, was, however, also the product of great traumas in her childhood. Her father was the celebrated anti-Fascist leader Carlo Rosselli, who was assassinated along with his brother Nello by order from Mussolini in 1937 when she was seven years old. Jewish, anti-fascist, stateless and in perennial exile, she grew up polyglot and intensely aware of the social- political reality of her times. She lived for a while in the United States and England, studying music which deeply influenced her use of language: “I have never separated the two disciplines,” she once wrote of poetry and music, “considering the syllable not only as an orthographic nexus, but as a sound - or the sentence not only as a grammatical construct, but as a system.”

Hers is a poetry of disarrangement, to use a term of Tony Hoagland’s, for it attempts to disarrange the reader’s consciousness, which she achieves by treating words as sounds, colors, impressions, combined to create textures, atmospheres, and mosaics of subliminal meaning. Her poems and prose writings are like magnetic clouds of whirling bits of metaphor and sound, suspended by the centrifugal force of an obsessive emotion.

Until recently her work was known only to critics, connoisseurs and the cultural elite, rarely anthologized - perhaps because her language is so singular and difficult. Critic Alessandro Poleri has described it as “Pre-logical, primitive, shamanic.” But year by year, her reputation in Italy and abroad, has grown, and continues to grow. New publications keep appearing: notebooks and previously unpublished works, critical appreciations and biographical essays, Ph.D. theses, translations, and it seems, a forthcoming volume of her collected works is to be published by the prestigious Meridiani imprint of Mondadori, a sign that a writer has been welcomed into the canon of the greats. Today she is recognized as a great modernist poet akin to Montale, Campana, Rimbaud, TS Eliot, Char, Akmatova, and Plath, with whom she strongly identified. The date of her suicide, Feb.11th 1996, may have been intended to underline her feelings of kinship with Plath, whose work she had translated for the Meridiani series.

The book in my hands is a perfectly clean first edition. No name scribbled inside the cover, no dog-eared pages to mark a favorite poem, nothing underlined. It looks as if it has rarely been opened, much less read; but the pages are stained by damp and give off a musty smell. It has probably been stored in a box in some dark cellar for years. In its own way, this book is a little piece of my own story in this country where I came to live in 1978, and eke out a living as a literary translator. I was introduced to Rosselli’s poetry by her cousin, whom I knew briefly - but I never had the opportunity to meet the poet herself. Years and years ago, moving house in Rome, I sent my copy of Documento to a poet friend, who twenty years later, published a volume of translations of Rosselli’s work. In some small way I was a link in a chain - voices connecting to voices, words connecting to words to pass along a thread of experience.

The exquisite villas of this neighborhood dating from the twenties testify to the rise of Fascism in this country, the ¬†oppressive, patriarchal system that destroyed Amelia Rosselli’s childhood happiness and marked her for life. The surrounding walls are ornate and silent, like the walls of tombs. No sign of the life unfolding within them flickers from the windows -- all is hidden behind a facade of order and reserve. Against all this, Rosselli smashed mirrors of complacency - inviting her readers to pick up the shards and see a sliver of their own pain and their own rebellion reflected in each jagged piece.