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Dot Devota and The Dragonfly

By Harriet Staff

The Dragonfly (Chelsea Editions Books), by Amelia Rosselli, is a collection of poems from 1953 to 1981 that has been recently translated into English by Giuseppe Leporace and Deborah Woodard. First thing, an excerpt:

Removing the ancient angels from their pedestals
of piety, removing the ancient angels from
their pedestal of pride, and tossing everything
into the sea. Removing the ancient angels who along
with prejudice cling to my skirts;
removing every instance of cowardice; removing
each repentance: removing pride and piety:
removing even the wind if it clings to
your plentitude. Eating, sleeping, dreaming: don’t
take sleeping pills. Eating, sleeping, dreaming,
and daring: removing ancient baseness, removing
the soldiers’ bandages from the crowned statues
of gardens: removing piety blood
and pride. September has left ajar its sonorous
doors, and humility enters by way of a frozen sun.

Poet and critic Barry Schwabsky has written that, “Rosselli is bruising. The form of her poetry is unprecedented in Italian… The lines are extremely long, typically over twenty syllables, and would be prose except for their unpredictable shifts of register and metaphorical richness… they rush inexorably, like dense magma, with abrupt halts only between sections…”

Amelia Rosselli, born in Rome in 1930, referred to herself in her poetry as “the daughter with the devastated heart.” Both her father and uncle were assassinated by Mussolini’s henchmen, and her mother died when Amelia was 19. In 1996, she jumped out of her apartment window, ending her life. Rosselli’s work certainly calls to mind that of novelist and poet Elsa Morante (1912-1985), but only, perhaps, because Morante might be (among Italian women writers of the modern period) the most known abroad (here)—this could be changing. Rosselli is considered by scholars as the outstanding poet of the century, her work both mythic and musical, influenced by Bachmann, Celan, Char, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Pasolini, and Plath (Morante favored Simone Weil and Pasolini as well). Both writers engaged with Freud, and most importantly, both tried to render with lyric accuracy the atrocities of war. Regardless, it is Rosselli who has got some fire under us at the moment, and primarily because of the Portland (by way of Seattle) poet Dot Devota.

In a recent interview with Rosselli’s translator on BOMBLOG, Devota writes (devotingly!):

With these translations there’s potential to sell your soul and see the violet heart of poetry thumping behind steel curtains. Rosselli writes, “I’ll continue to exist: I don’t know if from misery’s / pale swollen depths you’ll arrive to celebrate.” I read this book and left my body. The Dragonfly is a warning—as to how bright the world burns. For poets, the blood boils at a higher temperature as if bribed with salt. To live to be 80 years old might require a relatively high dosage of dull poetry. Think of the alternative! If all poetry burned as brightly as The Dragonfly, we would be the meteorites of its glow, cast through the perilous layers, warm to the touch but dead on the desert floor. Let The Dragonfly be the exception. The Dragonfly is a necessary violence.

Devota goes on to converse with translator Deborah Woodard about, partly, who Rosselli was, what her humble living situation was like in relation to her work, her depression, status as “linguistic immigrant,” Devota’s emotional reading experience, poetic lineage, and the concept of the “lapsus” (“lapse”), a term coined by Pasolini in an introduction he wrote to a sheaf of Rosselli’s poems early on in her career. “Pasolini himself says ‘it [the lapsus] is only a thread I follow to record some impression of a text that presents itself as inexpressible.’ Anyway, the lapsus is popular because it is one concrete in, as Pasolini suggests, a complex oeuvre that defies easy definition.” The two also discuss translation:

DD The poems I seem to respond to the most are translations. There is something about a translation that makes poetry more poetry. These days I only seem to be reading them. The other day I picked up a book of poems by an American, it took me ten minutes to realize I wasn’t even looking at the left side of the page, because I was just so used to that being foreign text.

DW You are a translator too.

DD No, I’m just predisposed to becoming one. There are translators and there are explorers. Why? Does the world need more poetry?

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, May 19th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.