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Serie ospedaliera: A review of Hospital Series by Amelia Rosselli

By Thea Hawlin.

Hospital Series

Amelia Rosselli, Hospital Series, translated by Deborah Woodard, Roberta Antognini and Guiseppe Leporace (New Directions, 2015)

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
preserve.

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.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thea Hawlin

Thea Hawlin (Ha-V-lin) is a writer, artist and cultural critic. She read English at the University of Cambridge then ran away to Italy. She writes for publications such as AestheticaThe London Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and reading everything by Italo Calvino.

To find out more about Thea and read more of her work visit her website: www.theahawlin.com

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 25th, 2015.