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. Dot Devota speaks with Deborah Woodard, one of the translators of Amelia Rosselli’s The Dragonfly.
The Dragonfly is a selection of poems spanning 28 years of Italian poet Amelia Rosselli’s life, pulling from such works as Martial Variations, Hospital Series, Document, Obtuse Diary, Notes Scattered and Lost, Impromptu, and The Dragonfly—Rosselli’s masterpiece. The book is co-translated by Deborah Woodard and Giuseppe Leporace.
If you’ve never heard of Amelia Rosselli, it’s because this, right now, is your introduction to her. Deborah Woodard’s translations, The Dragonfly, should be every English reader’s introduction to Rosselli. I first met Deborah Woodard through another poet and translator, Don Mee Choi, during my stint living in Seattle. We were at a reading when Deborah gave me a copy of the book. It was before we were even really friends: “Here,” she said. Perhaps she couldn’t help but share her poems. Or maybe she meant it as a warning. 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.
Dot Devota Each time I open The Dragonfly, there is so much more to the poems than I remember previously reading. I’ve read it so much that the spine of the book now is hyper-extended, its pages fanned into 360 degrees—one doesn’t know where the beginning or ending is—the poems converging into sculpture, like a popup book demonstrating the architecture of light.
And it is under this light I should begin the conversation, and beginning simply, back to a time when my questions were basic and urgent. From the first poem I read in The Dragonfly, encountering something unknown and aggressive—potentially monstrous—and immediately asking myself, Who is this?
So as not to be impolite and forget introductions, who is Amelia Rosselli?
Deborah Woodard This is the hardest question of all, isn’t it? I haven’t adequately answered it for myself in over 15 years of translating her poetry. She was born in Paris in 1930 to anti-Fascist activist parents. Her father and uncle, Carlo and Nello Rosselli, were assassinated by Mussolini’s henchmen when Amelia was only seven years old. Many people believe that this trauma triggered her eventual descent into paranoid depression. Then there was the death of her mother when Amelia was nineteen. She refers to herself in her poetry as “the daughter with the devastated heart.” In 1996 she ended her life by jumping out of her apartment window.
One night I was walking to the Vatican and happened to turn down Via Del Corallo, Rosselli’s street. I had been meaning to visit, but it was somehow fitting to come across it by accident. I recognized the restaurant across from Rosselli’s former apartment, and then I saw that they’ve put up a plaque in her honor on the building. It quotes the closing lines of “Impromptu”—
And if limping
fellow countrymen are these lines it’s
because we are ready for another
story that we know quite well and which we
will promptly forgo when the time comes, lost
the knack for instantaneous rhyme
for when the time was right the rhythm
had already winked at you.
—saying that here she lived for the last 20 years of her life. I felt a great desire to get into the building and see her apartment, and, in a real teaser, at just that very moment, a couple opened the door and went in as I was standing there. But I didn’t accost them. Since it was dark, I could see into the apartments a bit and noticed that the ceiling was all dark wood.
Yeah, I should have just darted in. I remember the first time I was there with Giuseppe, and we were at the restaurant across the street where Rosselli’s housekeeper worked—she said it had already been rented. This was just a couple months after her death. I thought even if I could just get into one apartment they’d be all the same, so I’d have a sense of the layout. I read online they are all really small, like studio apartments. But I saw the piece of the ceiling and thought, Well, that’s another piece of the puzzle.
DD And what do the pieces do for you?
DW Her life situation seems humble compared to what she was able to write. She was really in this small apartment without a lot of mobility. That was the sense I got talking to her housekeeper. She really didn’t get to go to Sardinia, she didn’t get to do this or do that, she just went to get her nails done, which is really pretty depressing. But on the other hand, when I went to talk to Leonard Schwartz, he said he met her in New York only a year before her death. So you hear these contradictory things, and it turns out they’re both true.
DD What makes you say they’re both true—past experience, reading her poems?
DW It’s just how she felt. If she wasn’t able to move around in the world it wouldn’t matter. Or she could go to New York, and she was connecting, and it was probably a good time. I think her illness came and went. But she felt sort of reduced after she stopped writing, I mean, I’m sure it helped her to write—it helps us all to write.
DD That’s in relation to her manic depression?
DW She also had Parkinson’s disease. Apparently. No biography has come out, but her letters are out now, critical studies are out—none of this was available when I did the bulk of the translating. I just kept reading the same little scraps over and over.
I’ve recently been reading a compilation of letters, Epistolario Familiare, [Family Epistles], the correspondences between her father and uncle Carlo and Nello Rosselli and their mother, Amelia Pincherle Rosselli, Amelia’s playwright/novelist grandmother and namesake. I’ve been struck by the fact that Amelia did indeed come from a family of writers. Carlo and Nello—persecuted for being anti-fascist activists—wrote voluminous letters from their prison cells and were buoyed up by the arrival of books, which they promptly devoured and commented on. Amelia Rosselli is the most important writer to emerge from this extraordinary family. She enjoyed a certain position in the Italian literary hierarchy by virtue of a family name associated with both literature and political struggle, but she returned to Italy as a young woman in essentially the position of a linguistic immigrant, someone who hears her own language afresh, while continuing to reference other languages (English, French) in her head and through the wordplay of her poetry.
DD Can you describe the wordplay, and how it translates into the English versions? Is this the “lapsus” or textual glitches you discuss in the book’s introduction?
DW The term “lapsus” (basically, “a lapse”) was coined by Pier Paolo Pasolini in an introduction he wrote to a sheaf of Rosselli’s poems early on in her career. Everyone, including perhaps Rosselli herself, was influenced by his little essay. A poet of her generation, Marina Mariano, told me that many people knew about the lapsus, but that was the extent of their acquaintance with Rosselli’s poetry. At the end of his essay, 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.
DD Because in The Dragonfly it doesn’t feel like there’s an explicit, constant referencing between languages—I mean, French phrases or words aren’t usually creeping in.
DW As I continue to translate Rosselli, I see rather more wordplay than lapses. Here’s an example of English embedded in Italian, cited by Rosselli translator and scholar, Lucia Re. “Pipistrelli [Bats] / che sBATtevano di qua e di là.” “Bats that flutter here and there,” roughly translated. But you can see that the “bat” pun is completely lost in a straightforward rendition. I didn’t translate this poem, but I might have tried something along the lines of “Bats that batter themselves this way and that.” They aren’t really battering themselves, of course, but, linguistically speaking, they are doing more than flitting about. This has been, for me, one of the big challenges in translating Rosselli: retaining the first level of meaning while fishing for all the other meanings.
DD In relation to this idea of “linguistic immigrant,” I’m intrigued. I feel like there should be a Wikipedia entry for this! An immigrant goes from one (in this case) language to another, leaving the other behind. Is this her experience? In terms of returning to Italy and beginning again in her native, albeit stunted, tongue. Does she ever recover?
DW I guess I would say that, as a linguistic immigrant, she takes everything with her. Rather than being stunted, you might say her tongue was considerably augmented. English and French provide catalysts for sly triumphant strangeness, and they are a way for her to be accurate about who she was and what she had experienced. Deliberate distortion of “donor” texts is a central theme and technique in her masterpiece “The Dragonfly,” in which she improvises on passages from Campana, Montale, Rimbaud, and others. The Italian for “dragonfly” is “libellula,” a word pointing us to libel. However, now that I return to that poem, I’m looking at this line: “I am one who willingly leaves glory to the / rest but who regrets being held hostage by the / cursed lump in her throat.” So there you go.
from The Dragonfly
All of you must find Ortensia: her mechanism is
solitude. Her solitude is an ejaculatory
mechanism. Find the monstrous gestures of Ortensia:
her solitude is populated with specters, and
specters populate her with solitude. And her love
ruminates and can’t leave the house. And her
light vibrates between the walls, with the light,
with the specters, with love that never leaves the
house. With only the specter of love, with love’s
reflection, with disenchantment,
enchantment and frenzy. Seek Ortensia: seek
her vibrant humility that can’t compose itself,
and than can’t bid anyone farewell, and that bids
farewell repeatedly to no one, and tips to everyone
the little summer hat, with an uncommon show of
piety. Find Ortensia who in her solitude
populates the civilized world with savages. And the guitar’s
song no longer satisfies her. And the guitar’s
pardon no longer satisfies her! Find Ortensia
who dies among the lilies, fragile and forgotten.
In the absence of working closely with the poet one is translating, translation comes down to collaboration between one’s own ear/mind and the ear/mind of the poet. One tries to understand and to be faithful, though being faithful can certainly be interpreted in a variety of ways. I may sometimes make Rosselli clearer than she is simply because, as I search for meaning, I may close the gap. I tried to retain the gaps, but of course I was also trying to understand.
DD I really love your translations, but I can’t say it’s because I understand. I mean she jumped out of a window! I actually don’t understand at all, and feel that my engagement with these poems is based on something completely opposite.
DW Yes, she jumped out of her window. If anything, poetry may have deferred that terrible outcome. For the last couple decades of her life, she mainly curated writing she had done earlier, with the notable exception of her long poem, “Impromptu,” which became her last book. “Impromptu” is dark, of course, but it is also the record of the artist’s Indian summer, her chiaroscuro of being and time. She invokes her friend and mentor Pasolini—the poem has pastoral moments. It’s not like Plath’s Ariel, a courtship of death. She lived longer than Plath so she had the capacity to create a retrospective. She just experienced more due to time. However, I should add that she died on the anniversary of Plath’s suicide—I don’t think that that was just a coincidence.
The languor of summer is dreamt of
in winter: your winters
don’t burn with that ink
that I hold in my hand to later
stain your fingers by myself
I joined in stronger
embrace of the conjoined.
It it rises or sets the moon must
be because, unofficial
it stretched out in the field that
never flowers, when
the wheat is dry it’s also
full of dirt, the dust
that goes up the nose is
not nauseating — it’s only competition
with this grass heart of mine
which infuriates you with
this arguing decanted
by a joy reduced to its
DD One of the things I’m most interested in is why Rosselli? What drew you to these poems in the first place—and then to a decade and half long translation project?
DW I found her work by accident because I was looking for another translation project. I had worked on the poet Antonia Potsi. Her poems are very different—they’re simple and clear and crystalline. But then my friend Linda Lapin, who lives in Rome, sent me a bundle of books so I could practice my Italian. Rosselli’s first book, Martial Variations, was in that batch. (It’s now completely out of print.) At first I opened it up, and I just couldn’t get a handle on it, so I put it back. Then I opened it after I studied more Italian, and I looked at it again. It was still really opaque but fascinating, and I could tell it was a world.
When we first began translating, we had no idea where we were going—we didn’t have permissions, we just did it. Initially I did a first draft of The Dragonfly—I looked up 5 trillion words. We just worked through the poem countless times. That’s how we did it.
I was drawn to the work because it was an intriguing world, and it remained a really rich world—the world just got richer. So I didn’t leave.
DD You said Rosselli refers to herself as “the daughter with the devastated heart,” a line appearing twice in this book—
from Martial Variations
After God’s gift came the rebirth. After the endurance
of the senses all days fell ill. After the ink
of China, an elephant was reborn: joy. After joy
hell set in after paradise the wolf in its den. After
the infinite came the joust. But the tapers fell and the beasts
sated themselves, and wool was prepared and
the wolf devoured.
After hunger the child was born, after boredom the lover
wrote his lines. After the infinite fell the joust
after the head was pummeled the ink swelled. Warmly encased
the Virgin wrote her lines: moribund Christ replied to her
don’t touch me! After his lines Christ devoured the suffering
afflicting him. After the night fell the entire buttress
of the world. After hell was born the son hungry for
success. After boredom broke the silence the shrill
whistle of the peasant woman who sought water in the well
too deep for her own arms. After the air that
descended delicately around her immense body, was born
the daughter with a devastated heart, was born the
suffering of birds,
was born desire and the infinite which once lost can never
be found. Hopeful we totter till in the end the ending fishes
up a servile soul.
from Obtuse Diary
She made the others believe that
madness had attacked the intellect of the sister in flesh, and
that in her bones lurked a dangerous sign of her own death, or
of one of the others. The wise if vain true master no longer
wanted to be called great master, as saddened he cleverly
declined any responsibility for seeing the daughter with her
devastated heart detached from her center of false honor.
On top of her losses, her health, and the landscape of post WWII, sickness pervades.
DW She has this capacity that great poets have to basically write about the same thing as much as she wants, and it never gets old. It just gets more and more obsessive, honed, complex, labyrinthine, involving—it just doesn’t fall flat. In Hospital Series she does seem to be addressing a lot of poems to a you, and whether that you is an actual person or a doppelgänger for her own psyche, or the post WWII landscape. . . . each poem is sucked back to this malaise, and yet each poem is unique. Because there are little parts when translating where, as Giuseppe said, “someone can hold a gun to my head and I’m not really sure which way to go on this particular line.” Maybe with more consulting of her papers or letters some things will become clearer. I don’t know that everything will though. She creates this hypnotic world.
But as a young poet, how do you find Rosselli?
DD It feels like such a new experience. An ascent onto some hellacious stage, where beauty is so thick one chokes on it, then finds more beauty in the choking. I think some of the beauty in her poems is actually a response to feeling overwhelmed. She maintains this heightened state, smothering my emotions so I fight to recover twice as hard. I’m having this actual experience, this physical, bodily, and emotional experience—especially in the poem “The Dragonfly” and writing from Martial Variations. She was trilingual, so her poems have access to a broad spectrum of emotion, but is it because she has more language that she’s able to convey more emotion and experience?
DW There is the sense that the work just gushed out of her for 15-20 years. There is one quote from a book called Five Poems Towards A Poetics. “By the nights that took on a languor of a heart attack, I rhymed perpetual luxurious lechery. By the / roguish nights, in the furrow of the nights I am truly / inexhaustible.” I gather that she wrote “The Dragonfly” very quickly, but she thought about it a lot before she wrote it. Her last poem “Impromptu” was written in an afternoon, and she was happy about it—she called up a friend. So sure, I think it’s the access to the languages. She’s punning in languages. I don’t think she’s striving at it in a Joycean way, where it’s getting put together a little more clinically. Even Shakespeare has some moments where he puns, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing, it just kind of happens. It just happens really fast. It’s volcanic.
DD I was just thinking of that same shape! Rosselli said that the death of her father left an emotional void. She goes on to say that she attempted to fill it by writing.
DW Any writer can be multi-lingual and bring in all these elements but not achieve the same work. There is always a mystery. That’s what enabled me to return to a poem 20 times, there’s always more. I’d go, “oh, so she’s doing this other sound thing here, there’s a fourth level.”
DD That’s why the volcano is such a great representation—it’s seemingly bottomless and explosive.
DW I’m sort of dissecting a volcano as a translator.
DD I assume her void was never filled from her father’s death. But in her poetry I feel that hyper filling in of a void. It feels like she has the language to convey loss infinitely. It doesn’t succeed in filling this void, but it buries it so intensely that it creates this raw mountain. Or builds a monument.
DW That’s why it’s really surprising when there are “real places” in her poems, she just creates her own topography. Occasionally she does go to the country, and she mentions it.
DD Like Ortensia, which appears in the poem the book is named after, “The Dragonfly.”
DW Ortensia is Rimbaud’s Hortense. Originally I thought it was a place.
DD It is actually a place in Italy, too. But the Rimbaud reference is also true for the “ascent” into hell I feel from her work.
DW It’s thrilling to me that even in translation her work can transmit all this power. That feels like everything I could ask for, really, it all boils down to every single book being read by specific individuals who are being moved by, and inspired by, and irritated by it. That’s all it is: one person’s relationship to the text. If translation can create that possibility then that’s phenomenal. I wasn’t trying to do any of that, I was just enjoying translating for myself—to connect to the poems.
DD Because once you have The Dragonfly in your hands you can’t ignore it.
DW I brought out the book with a really small press. We only did an initial run of 500 so we need more books, but I don’t know how this is going to get done. The publisher is 86 years old, and he’s holding down the office by himself. He doesn’t even have computer skills. But I must say it was humbling when talking to him on the phone once. He said, “Oh, I’m packaging up reviewer copies.” This 86 year-old man is personally wrapping up the book? How can he spend his time doing that?
Really, it’s been other people—like yourself and Brandon Shimoda—that have encouraged me to talk to people about this book. Most of the blog posts I’ve gotten have been from writing to people directly. And that’s what’s worked.
You say that her writing is important to your own. Tell me a little bit about how Rosselli’s been for you and your writing?
DD There are some poets you read, but then there are other poets you read, and it’s impossible not to write during and afterwards. After reading only ten pages of her book, I had to put it down and I immediately began writing something completely new, a series called And The Girls Worried Terribly. Response had to be immediate—she demanded it. The way to respond was by writing.
DW It seems you’re pretty prolific—your Insurgency Series, there’s a million of them.
DD Rosselli might be truly inexhaustible, but I do become exhausted. Writing these new poems now, I never know what I’m taking from her—
DW She did that with The Dragonfly, and then they became her own. So you’re doing the same thing, carrying on the tradition.
DD When I’m reading her I recognize my parentage, a lineage. I know she’s important to me, but why is she an important poet?
DW To make a general statement, as a translator, I am engaged with the text in a synthetic rather than analytic fashion, and so, in a way, I don’t know if the poet is important or not. I had no idea who Rosselli was when I pulled her book out from a bundle of discards from the personal library of a friend in Italy. Of course, in time I learned that Rosselli was in a unique relationship to both language (as she was trilingual) and to the post-WWII realities of dislocation and trauma. But she isn’t simply representative of an historical moment; rather, the depth of her linguistic enterprise coupled with her other preoccupations (fragmentation as a more or less a given) make her potentially very important to contemporary poets. For me, Rosselli is more about hearing than about seeing. She loves to be aurally coerced and to hear in three languages. To find a better ear, one has to turn to Dickinson and Dante. Translating her has been, and continues to be, an incredible apprenticeship to the ear.
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?
DW It doesn’t. What it needs is the truly important poetry. Rilke said, “I’m reading a poet. Not everyone in this building is reading a poet because there aren’t that many poets.” You know, of that magnitude. That’s why it’s hard for me to move on from Rosselli.