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.
Diana Thow graduated from Barnard College in 2003 and holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. In 2009 she was awarded a Fulbright grant to Italy for her work on Amelia Rosselli. She has published her work in journals such as Carte Italiane, The Quarterly Conversation, The Iowa Review, and Words Without Borders. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Robert Fernandez is the author of the poetry collections We Are Pharaoh and the forthcoming Pink Reef, both from Canarium Books. He lives in Iowa City.