Poetry News

Barry Schwabsky Reviews Amelia Rosselli's Locomotrix, Translated by Jennifer Scappettone

By Harriet Staff

Barry Schwabsky writes for Hyperallergic about the new translation of Italian poet Amelia Rosselli's work, Locomotrix (University of Chicago Press), brought to English by Jennifer Scappettone. Rosselli's poetry and prose, writes Schwabsky, "is the product of roiling psychological and social tensions that the poet can hardly control. As Andrea Zanzotto put it, in 1976, with the authority that comes from being one of Rosselli’s few peers among the Italian poets of her time, she 'was born inside this writing, and cannot escape from it; and at the same time she is outside of it, and has always contested it.'” More about the structure of the book:

[Locomotrix] does not supersede the two previous translations: War Variations, from Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti and published by Green Integer in 2003 is particularly valuable in presenting the entirety of Rosselli’s first published book; The Dragonfly: A Selection of Poems 1953-1981, translated by Giuseppe Leporace and Deborah Woodard (Chelsea Editions, 2009) — which I reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement of July 2, 2010 — offers a substantially different choice of poems, and therefore remains complementary to Locomotrix. But Scappettone succeeds more consistently in rendering the intensity and grit of Rosselli’s language than the previous translators, contending imaginatively with a poetic style in which words are often twisted, invented, or forced into use from other languages; besides which she gives us a very substantial introduction to Rosselli’s life and poetics, not to mention useful endnotes, along with Rosselli’s most important statement of intent, the essay “Metrical Spaces.” [Ed. note: Scappettone's translation of this essay can also be found in the Chicago Review 56:4.] Also included are an interview, a handful of letters, and appreciations of her work by Zanzotto and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Schwabsky looks closely at the Zanzotto and Pasolini takes:

Rosselli is one of those poets written through by the traumas of her time. What Pasolini calls attention to is the dichotomy in her work between its volcanic quality, the overwhelming flow of a language with no boundaries, and its fixity, the sense that the verses have been stamped out in hard-and-fast, irrefutable forms. Consider this “Variation”:

Prey to a most violent shock, wretched

and near to your heart I sent incense smoke into

your eyesockets. The Ardeatine caves mixed credences

and dreams—I had departed, you had returned—death

was a crescendo of violence that found no succor

in your head of deceit. The murky waters of

my disenchantment were polished by your joy and by

my having you in hand, near and far like the turbine

of summer stars. The night-wind departed and

dreamt grandiose things: I rhymed within my powers

and took part in the void. The spinal column of

your sins harangued the crowd: the train ground to a halt

and it was within its talk that truth paused.


In the encounter with the fairytale resided outlaws.

Here, the depths of the body — the spinal column, the eye sockets — are conjoined in an abrupt way with the catastrophes of history, such as the German massacre of Italian civilians at the Ardeatine caves in the outskirts of Rome in 1944. Yet Rosselli does not write from a place of innocent victimhood, recognizing “the murky waters of my disenchantment” and her “part in the void.” The haranguing of the crowd recalls that of Mussolini or Hitler, yet it is likewise impossible to read this poem as anything but a harangue, albeit of a transcendental variety. The difference, perhaps, is in the sense in which “truth paused” in each case. With the dictators, truth is silenced to make room for a lie, while in the poem, the pause is what allows the reader to catch her breath and take the measure of truth’s enormity. The poet’s words hurtle across the barriers of her line breaks that, syntactically, seem to occur willy-nilly, violent cuts that nonetheless leave the unstoppable flow of sense and non-sense unabated.

Scappettone points out the congruity of this poetics with the description Rosselli would give in a 1975 radio talk on Charles Olson:

In an attempt to abolish the I of the poet, he projects surrounding space, the totality of chaos, into the page — considering the poem as “transported energy” and the line as a vectorial unity in the field of the page … Metaphors and images generate a sort of animated grid; the poetry in itself is not a space of separation from reality, but itself becomes a reality in which the world narrates itself and “enacts itself.”

I would only add that Rosselli achieves this sense of “transported energy” and world-enactment far more intensely and consistently than Olson ever did.

Please do read the full review here.

Originally Published: November 5th, 2012