Leake, Elizabeth

Suicide and Sleep

Sleep, Amelia Rosselli’s collection of English language poems, written between 1953 and 1966, presents a commentary on the poet’s critical reception; or, more precisely, on being read and interpreted. It is frequently considered a precursor to her ‘more mature’ Italian language poetry,1 a kind of poetic calisthenics in preparation for the ‘real’ event. One might argue that such a view does a disservice both to poet and critic, insofar as it dismisses the value of the collection (whatever it may be) and invites accusations of parochialism (deliberate or otherwise). But we may also read Sleep as a metapoetics, a text to run parallel to her Italian poetry and thereby to present observations on the ways her poetry has been understood, or misunderstood, by her Italian critics: the voice of Sleep is that of a poet commenting, not in private but in a nonetheless protected way, on how her poetry has been and might in future be received. (Thus her poetic interlocutors are not necessarily or exclusively the standard ones-a lover, or God, for example-insofar as they also address the reader him-or herself and double back to engage the poet.) The relevance of such an assertion goes beyond the hermeneutical skirmish with which this paper begins; it has relevance for much of Rosselli’s work, as well as for our understanding of her construction as a public persona, because much of that persona is made visible by way of her poetics of self-examination. In my reading, Rosselli’s English language poetry elucidates a presumptive relationship with her readers, her critics, and with a series of other poets, whose works and (equally importantly) whose lives function as psychobiographical touchstones for Rosselli.

To that end, this paper is pan of a larger project on authorial suicide, a project in which Amelia Rosselli figures prominently, having jumped to her death from the balcony of her Rome apartment on February 11, 1996.2 In that study I read Rosselli’s suicide as a text alongside her writings, a text that defies us to read her poetry independent of it, and independent of the dialogue it creates with another poet, Sylvia Plath, by virtue of the fact that it is on the anniversary of Plath’s death that Rosselli chose to die. I am interested in suicide in this paper in a much more literary and much less literal way, thus its presence in the title indicates a form of poetic prolepsis. Likewise, when considered in light of the poet’s suicide, we may call Sleep an explanatory text, designed to accompany another explanatory text: namely, Sylvia Plath’s suicide. Both of these texts-Plath’s suicide anniversary and the text of Sleep-are themselves acts of reading, acts to be read by others, and acts to be read by the poet herself. Put in different terms, the text of Sleep represents Rosselli’s move to the other side of the divide, as it were. By writing a poetic commentary on her critical reception, Rosselli establishes herself not only as someone to be read, identified with, and/or gazed upon, but also as herself part of the gaze.

Indeed, visual metaphors compose an integral part of the collection. It is precisely this identification of I and eye, of poetic subject and object, that has ‘pathologized’ Rosselli’s writings (and the poet herself, by extension), stripping them bare of their genealogical roots and imposing a discourse of disease alongside that of irreducible alterity.3 It is this conflation of life, text, and authorship (in which we may include her death) that this paper aims to explore from two distinct directions. First, I address the critical interventions of two of Rosselli’s readers to understand the ways her work has been untethered from the poet as a writing subject and offer as a counterargument the connections between Rosselli’s poetic techniques and those of the French Surrealists. Second, I examine visual metaphors in Sleep in order to elucidate the forces that conspire to confirm her ‘illegibility’ in the understanding of her readers on the grounds that the hermeneutical challenge she seems to pose stems not so much from the difficulty of her writings as from the subject position that produced them. Thus the Sleep of Rosselli’s poetry is a proleptic slip, a slip into the big sleep: the slip is then exactly suicide, not because she ‘slipped’ to her death but because the slip is only visible as a movement, as the shifting site of writing that makes reading impossible.

Rosselli’s works were first introduced to the public in the 1963 edition of the journal Menabo, directed by Italo Calvino and EHo Vittorini.4 In an introductory essay that would become the touchstone for Rosselli criticism for years to come, Pier Paolo Pasolini identified the ‘lapsus’ or slip as the primary linguistic phenomenon in her poetry: ‘è dominata da qualcosa di meccanico: emulsione che prende forma per suo conto, imposseduta, come si ha Pimpressione che succeda per gli esperimenti di laboratorio più terribili, tumori, scoppi atomici.’5 His introduction provides two of the tropes that will become commonplace when describing Rosselli’s poetry: first, he uses images from the realms of disease and catastrophe,6 and second, Pasolini employs those images in such a way as to deny all agency on the part of the thirty-three year old poet. According to Pasolini’s formulation, Rosselli is on the one hand relegated to the position of passive bystander, an observer in the laboratory recording events as they unfold without her intervention; on the other hand, she is the Petri dish herself, the medium in which the tumori can metastasize. Pasolini offers two readings of her work that ‘naturalize’ her poetic production by defining her as the site and subject-and consequently not as the agent or author of-the creative process. The founding gesture of Rosselli as a poet, in other words, is not only highly gendered but gendered in such a way that even that which is exclusively female (the potential to bear children) is evacuated of its activeness-she is not so much the womb that labors but the egg from which the poetry hatches. Note too that her suicide will take on the same rhetorical contours-her association with mental illness signifies the gendering of her terminal act, as well, insofar as depression and hysteria have been associated with women. Not understandable as an act of courage or deliberation, seen in this light, her suicide becomes the inevitable result of her disease, just as the monstrous birth of the lapsus followed mechanical possession. (In contrast, as we will see, Rosselli’s poetic voice genders her reader male-we will return to that when we get to the poems.)

It is a surprising move, then, when Pasolini attempts to insert Rosselli’s use of the lapsus into a broader poetic framework as a point of contiguity with both her predecessors and her contemporaries; the lapsus, Pasolini writes, is Tunico fatto che rende questa lingua storicamente o almeno correntemente determinata.’7 In other words, it is for Pasolini both idiopathic, i.e. spontaneous or of unknown origin, and historically determined. Indeed, Pasolini himself seems at a loss to countenance the contradiction; as soon as he articulates a connection between Rosselli and other poets, he disclaims it in a series of parenthetical disavowals, among them that Rosselli’s lapsus is characteristic of the linguistic poets (though she is not one); they also appear frequently in works by French Surrealists (to whom, for Pasolini, she bears no relation).8 In broad strokes, Pasolini’s otherwise insightful introduction to her work runs aground when confronted with her etiological indeterminacy.’ His coupling of scientific and ideological discourses effectively equates the defining feature of Rosselli’s poetry with both excess and lack; if the lapsus is the place where the pen slips, it is also a slip of the chromosome producing a tumor, a slip where the chain of historical cause and effect breaks. Rosselli’s poetry, in other words, is like a tomb, which functions to contain the now superfluous body in the absence of a soul.

Writing thirty-two years after Pasolini, Stefano Agosti reaches related conclusions regarding Rosselli’s poetry. In his 1995 collection of essays on contemporary Italian poetry10 Agosti successfully argues for the primacy of the associative over syntagmatic competence, by which he means that the actual framework of a text is deformed by features such as vacillating accord, anagram rhymes, and alliteration, rather than the proposition or terms of the text. He cites the lapsus as the preeminent example of associative competence, focusing in particular on the ‘semantic short circuit’ created by combining new words to create indeterminate but highly suggestive new ones, such as ‘deglutare’ to suggest both ‘deglutire’ (to swallow) and ‘degustare’ (to taste or sample).” Similarly, lexical iteration and analepsis function to create a sort of snowball effect as the same phrase is repeated and built upon. With Sleep we may extend his observations beyond the economy of the individual poems, since one of Rosselli’s poetic techniques involves intermittently reiterating phrases or series of phrases that interlink with one another across the collection. For example, one poem consists simply of the words, ‘hell, loomed out/with perfect hands’,12 words that will reappear in the first line of a longer piece almost sixty pages later.

The effect of such a technique is two-fold. The polysemic, stratified construction of sound, word and imagery within and across the poems creates a tight network of multiple meanings, a hypertext if you will, of meanings superimposed one upon the other in such a way that on the one hand, interpretation is potentially infinite, and perpetually indeterminate on the other. For Agosti, meanings are so various that in the end we cannot decide upon any as a result of the framework of the poems-associative, not syntagmatic. Here Agosti confronts a challenge analogous to Pasolini’s, of making meaning at the site in which excess and lack co-exist. Recall Pasolini’s formulation, which appropriates the very technique it describes: Rosselli’s language is ‘imposseduta,’ that is, not grasped, possessed or mastered.13 But by whom? For Pasolini’s lapsus is meaningful in two ways, one positive and one negative. With his Rosselli-inspired combination of two words to create a richer, more suggestive one (‘imposseduta’), he is arguably paying a sort of tribute to Rosselli. But he plays at the same time on the broader context of his remarks to create ambiguity in their attribution of agency. Put more simply, there are two implications for Rosselli’s poetry: that the reader is doomed to fail to grasp the multiple meanings of the poems, and, more problematic, that Rosselli herself cannot master them. What do these implications suggest? When coupled with Agosti’s observation about the associative framework of her poems, they suggest that Rosselli’s poetry eludes mastery (both hers and ours) precisely because of the site from which it was produced. We cannot point to a locus of enunciation, whether of flesh and blood or bodied forth in a text, except in the form of a movement, of a slip. Rosselli’s poetry cannot be mastered, possessed, grasped because it was written in transit, on the fly, on the way from nowhere to nowhere.14

The Slip and Surrealism

It is here that we may return to Pasolini’s observation about the French Surrealists’ predilection for the lapsus. Rosselli’s familiarity with the works of the Surrealists can be established from her writings, though it should also be added that she more frequently acknowledged links between other poets’ works and those of the Surrealists than with her own.15 (And perhaps this too is significant: her earliest assignment in journalism was to deal with André Breton; Rosselli demurred, suggesting that she write instead about Boris Pasternak.) The similarities between the Surrealists’ works and Rosselli’s are more structural, or perhaps procedural, than they are political, either in the broader sense or in the specifics terms of, say, the Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1930;16 and it should also be said that in spite of the subset of shared techniques, the outcomes are radically divergent. But these techniques are significant to my argument insofar as they locate Rosselli’s works in relation to identifiable literary predecessors (I will discuss Leopardi later as well), thus calling into question the notion that her work is somehow aberrant or without genealogical antecedents (except in her use of the lapsus, itself an aberration) and, equally importantly, they offer a further gloss on Pasolini’s and Agosti’s observations about agency and ‘authorship’. The points of contact between Rosselli and the French Surrealists help elucidate the role of the reading I/eye in Sleep, insofar as it is identified both with the poet herself, and in relation to the readership the poems address.17 Agosti’s discussion of the semantic short circuit, for example, is evocative of the hermetic rebus characteristic of the Surrealists, by way of their engagement with Abbé Constant. Defined by Breton biographer Anna Balakian, the hermetic rebus consists of the ‘mediation of disperate entities,’18 which is what is visible in Rosselli at various levels: in the semantic short-circuit, a word or words that embrace multiple meanings, and, by extension, at the level of the text itself in the form of repetition across the opus. The imbrication across the length of Sleep of images, lines of text, and texts in their entirety similarly finds its correlative in Breton, in his formulation of a poetics of ‘I’un dans l’autre,’ that is, the network of relations between poetic objects.19 Agosti’s characterization of these as both excessive and lacking, while not inaccurate, obscures the depth and breadth of Rosselli’s poetic kinship relations, emphasizing instead her singularity.20

More complicated, perhaps, are Pasolini’s discussions of the origins of the lapsus in conjunction with Surrealist concepts such as ‘automatic writing.’21 As we saw earlier, Pasolini invokes the Surrealists in order to disavow any connection to them (save the connections of which Rosselli herself is aware). While the move itself is curious (though not wholly unjustified, particularly in light of Rosselli’s predilection in Sleep for poetic reversals), the effects are educative, because Pasolini’s ambivalent invocation of the Surrealists nonetheless serves a secondary purpose beyond shoring up his argument about the ‘mechanical’ or ‘spontaneous’ quality of Rosselli’s writing. The bridge that links Rosselli with a specific poetic tradition, it can only be crossed by way of the discourse of pathology, for Pasolini’s recourse to the images of disease and catastrophe22 in Rosselli’s poetry can be traced (in a rather less apocalyptic way) to Breton by way of Pierre Janet, professor of psychiatric medicine and teacher of Carl Gustav Jung. Obligatory reading for Breton and his cohort at medical school,23 it was Janet’s L’Automatisme psychologique24 that inspired Breton’s interest in automatism, that is, providing access to the most deeply hidden recesses of the mind by way of a kind of purposeful inattention (not unrelated to the channeling of seers or psychic mediums), and particularly automatic writing, which is meant to assist the patient (or poet) to unveil repressed emotions: if s/he ‘cannot lift the self-censuring mechanism of reason that bars access to automatic thought’, automatic writing can ‘squeeze out the data.’25 Thus it is Orphan language,’ language that ‘denies’ the presence of a writing subject in favor of a kind of transcendental transcriber. Janet (like Freud) saw automatic writing as a therapeutic tool for patients with psychological disturbances. Perhaps the pathological is unavoidable in any discussion about Rosselli: not because of any inherent organic defect of hers (or in any case any that could be considered relevant) but more simply because of her abiding interest in psychoanalysis, especially the theories of Freud, and because of their ramifications for the study of poetry: after all, part and parcel of repression takes place through condensation and displacement, which are structural qualities common both to dreams and poems. Indeed, if Rosselli’s and the Surrealists’ works are based on ‘simulated states of mental alteration’ (as Franco Fortini asserts), might we not also claim the same for all poets?26 In other words, there is a way in which reading Sleep through Breton problematizes Pasolini’s and Agosti’s assertions about the idiopathic nature of her poetry: paradoxically, it is precisely the way her writings give the impression of having come from nowhere that situates them, that grounds them in a poetic tradition. It is precisely Rosselli’s ‘orphan’ language that permits us to identify her poetic forebears.

Sleep and the Gaze

Let us turn now to a few of the poems themselves, which to my mind both correlate and problematize Pasolini’s and Agosti’s interpretive dilemmas. The first is the one I mentioned earlier (to ‘Hell loomed out with perfect hands’/Sleep p. 66):

Hell, loomed out with perfect hands, wrapped

our glare with a fierce shudder of fright into

the night exchanged for a pair of rubies. Fright

Desdemona’s petticure, was all-afrantic he

might come off rushing on the last bus, but

we were ready to admire his creative genius

and let nothing disturb us save the chime at

the door-bell when it rang off at its best.

Necessarily our gun-drop dropped off at hell’s

timing: loomed out again into a wrapped parcel

containing all of our bodily food. Soul discomposed

watched from afar but no regard of angels enwrapped

his studious regard with love.

Here we can count four instances of ‘semantic short circuits’ (petticure, gun-drop, enwrapped, and you could argue discomposed as well, both because of its uncommonness and because it seems to point to the more frequently used elements decomposed and discomfort). We might also note the lexical iterations: the words fright, hell, regard and loomed appear two times each, and ‘wrapped’ appears twice in addition to its presence in ‘enwrapped.’ Loomed is a particularly pregnant term, since it is associated with both the semantic field of weaving (an active, creative, productive process) and the visual field (we say that things loom in the distance, for example). In this case the usage seems to be drawn from the field of weaving, at first blush-‘perfect hands’ are responsible for the looming, hands that produce an object (hell) that ‘wraps.’ But that is only a partial meaning, for it is the ‘glare’ that is wrapped in line 2, which must in turn be linked to its related terms-admire, watch and regard. Compare the ‘glare’ that is ‘wrapped’ by hell in the first lines with the visual terms of the last lines: ‘Soul discomposed/watched from afar but no regard of angels enwrapped/his studious regard with love.’ The terminology of watching that frames the poem contains within it four distinct vantage points: our glare, Soul watched, regard of angels, and his studious regard. The consistent use of the first person plural throughout the poem locates our visual allegiance, as it were, on the side of the speaking subject in sharp contrast to the third person singular of ‘his studious regard.’ We may look, the poem implies, but when ‘he’ looks, he looks alone (no regard of angels enwrapped his studious regard with love). That is to say that the speaking subject and we readers by extension maintain sole possession of the gaze (or I should say the glare) unlike the male subject whose regard is nullified by the absence of angelic observers.

More explicit in their indictment of the male gendered reader is the pair of poems that begin ‘Do come see my poetry’ (p. 134):

Do come see my poetry

sit for a portrait, it

hangs in dimples, by the

light bay window, and pronounces

no shape of word, but that

you find it imperative.

Do come see me writhe, in

the shadows of lust, as

if the sun had cleared

it from all narrow doubt.

Do see it shake off all

posts with a stick, hitting

the air, in long shadows.

It never made better claim

before, than to turn you

loose upon my sorrows.

Similarly, ten pages later, the poet takes up the same structures (p. 144):

Do come see my poetry

demand it sit for a portrait

in silence recalling

all past experiences

with no boredom enslaving

its cheeks which wait.

Do come see my poetry

be forceful and desperate

(if ever desperation were ever

a nest in the mind). In kind

it is suave almost, but rather

uncertain as to its premises

and as to its finalities

it avoids gaps, principles,

rests on unconscious decision

while you paint.

With a stroke of the brush you

empower it, with a bliss which

was not there, before we talked.

With a slip of the pen you

endow it, with thoughts which

were never there at all, save

that you lurked in the shadows

finding out its message.

And now the sitting is at end

your new principle stares

you in the eyes, and with dread

it surmises, you were never

born before you wrote

of tender surmises.

The invitation to observe (do come see) and interpret (be forceful and desperate) the poetry is coextensive with an invitation to gaze upon the body of the writing subject (do come see me writhe), an invitation whose inevitable outcome is the undoing of both the poet and the product (it never made better claim before, than to turn you loose upon my sorrows.)

The second poem is noteworthy for its combination of self-referentiality and the introduction of writing imagery and painted imagery: (‘it is suave almost, but rather uncertain as to its premises and as to its finalities it avoids gaps, principles, rests on unconscious decision while you paint’ and the next stanza). Note here that the ‘it’ to which the poem ostensibly refers-Rosselli’s poetry itself-could as well refer to her interlocutor’s written or painted product, so that the object of interpretation is ambiguously attributed and thus, presumably, faulty in its execution. The conclusion of the poem supports this reading (‘you were never born before you wrote of tender surmises’) insofar as it simultaneously provides motive for the interlocutor’s act, and denies him all subjectivity outside the act of writing about her work. Note the shift in ownership of the gaze-where at the beginning of the poem it was the interlocutor who could ‘come see’ the poetry, at the end of the poem the roles have reversed-‘now the sitting is at end/your new principle stares you in the eyes.’ Finally, note the recurrence of the theme of lurking (similar to looming in the first poem), here connected explicitly with the lapsus that is attributed to the interlocutor this time: ‘With a slip of the pen you endow it, with thoughts that were never there at all, save that you lurked in the shadows finding out its message.’ Such an attribution puts a new spin on our initial observation that Rosselli’s poetry is ‘imposseduta,’ unable to be possessed or grasped, because of the site from which it is produced. Perhaps more accurate would be to say that the source of the challenge is not the site but the sight-that is, the vacillating origin of the gaze, first attributed to the reader then to the poet, with one all the time aware of the other-resulting in a simultaneous expansion and foreclosure, not just of possible meanings but of visual perspectives.

We may borrow Kaja Silverman’s distinction, following Lacan, between the gaze and the look. She states that the gaze is not ‘coterminous with any individual viewer, or group of viewers. It issues “from all sides”, whereas the (look) [sees] only from one point.’27 For Lacan, the gaze, which ‘exceeds’ or ‘triumphs’ over the look, is ‘unapprehensive.’28 The look, in contradistinction, ‘foregrounds the desiring subjectivity of the figure from which it issues, a subjectivity which pivots upon lack, whether or not that lack is acknowledged.’29 Thus for Lacan the gaze is comparable ‘not to the male look, but to woman-as-spectacle.’ He writes, ‘At the level of the phenomenal experience of contemplation, this all-seeing aspect is to be found in the satisfaction of a woman who knows that she is being looked at, on condition that one does not show her that one knows what she knows. The world is all seeing, but it is not exhibitionistic, does not provoke our gaze. When it begins to provoke it, the feeling of strangeness begins too.’30 So there are two issues at stake here-the issue of desiring lack, on the one hand, associated with the look; and the more phenomenological issue of awareness. With a word choice that uncannily recalls Pasolini’s ‘imposseduta,’ Lacan’s description of the gaze as ‘unapprehensive’ reaffirms what we have already observed in the poems. Amelia Rosselli’s poetry is ‘unapprehensible’ too, we might say, because of its alignment not with the look (le regard, for Lacan-no regard of angels enwrapped his studious regard with love) but with the gaze. Moreover, if we continue in this vein we must conclude that Pasolini and Agosti and their talk of the lapsus is really talk about lack, about desiring subjectivity constituted by their unacknowledged hermeneutical lack; hence, to return to Lacan, the ‘feeling of strangeness’ that ensues.

In a short poem at the end of the collection Rosselli makes oblique reference to Leopardi’s celebrated poem ‘L’infinito.’31 But where Leopardi, seated upon the hill, has the view blocked and so vividly imagines it, Rosselli’s vantage point seems to be lower-she, gazing up at the hill, cannot apprehend it by virtue both of her (faulty) vision and the block created not by a hedge, as for Leopardi, but by the interlocutor. Compare ‘L’infinito’ (here quoted in its entirety) and Rosselli’s poem:


Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,

E questa siepe, che da tanta parte

Dell’ultimo orrizonte il guardo esclude.

Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati

Spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani

Silenzi, e profondissima quiete

lo nel pensiero mi fingo; ove per poco

Il cor non si spaura. E come il vento

Odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello

Infinite silenzio a questa voce

Vo comparando; e mi sovvien l’eterno,

E le morte stagioni, e la presente

E viva, e il suon di lei. Cosi tra questa

Immensità s’annega il pensier mio:

E il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.32

too vast a promontory for my sight

is this hill of belief: too vast

a thought you hide from my sight

this hill which slopes.

too strange a coincidence, your hand

on mine.33

Located at the end of the collection, Rosselli’s response to Leopardi functions in two significant ways-one, it cements the relationship between the primacy of the gaze and any potential understanding of her poetic project (it is her interlocutor who blocks the view); and two, it aligns her readership with the lapsus, with the excess and desiring lack of which she herself is accused, not only because of the shifting vantage point from which the poetic gaze is produced, but also because of the active, ambiguous, unacknowledged occult role of the interlocutor-‘too strange a coincidence, your hand/on mine.’ Consequently, we must note our own readerly collusion in that threat, discernible within the texts themselves as a kind of insistent triumvirate; Sleep is structured, in part, around the repeated assertion that ‘we are three’, though their identities (the poet, a lover, father, reader, critic, alter ego, God, the panoptic gaze?) are never specified.34

Put differently, in Sleep Rosselli is commenting on the relationship between the gaze and the look. She problematizes the attribution of agency in the conventional Poet /Reader dichotomy and by doing so (in Lacanian terms by calling attention to the presence of the gaze), her writings provoke the feelings of strangeness that could be summed up not with that synthetic disavowal ‘Je sais bien mais quand même .. .’3S but rather ‘je sais bien, donc …” In other words, with Rosselli we are confronted by the suggestion of a text that rejects the fundamental disavowal upon which all subjectivity is constituted; moreover, Rosselli’s is thus a text that unbinds or calls into question the coherence of the ego (here identified with the poem’s male interlocutor-God, Lover, Reader) not in order to supplant it with a feminine subject fortified by her own constituting disavowal, but in order to point out its utter, potentially devastating precariousness, thus articulated by Rosselli: ‘nor do I want your interpretation, having none myself.’ The founding gesture for you and me, too, is the lapsus.

Suicide as Text

It is precisely in regard to the presumptive threat posed by the lapsus to the coherence of the ego that we may now return to the question of suicide. Leopardi’s poem and the Surrealists automatic writings act as explanatory texts to inform our understanding of Sleep (genealogically and methodologically, and in their combined interests in the gaze and the detachment of the poet from the poems). By the same token, Rosselli’s suicide exists as a text alongside her writings, a text that defies us to read her poetry independent of the suicide or of the dialogue it creates with Sylvia Plath by virtue of the concurrence of Plath’s and Rosselli’s suicides. Beyond the dates of their deaths, Plath’s life and works are intermittent players on the stage of Rosselli’s life: Rosselli translated Plath; on more than one occasion she explicitly names Plath as one of the greatest American poets,36 and Rosselli herself argues for a close study of Plath’s poetry (and not her biographical data) as a way to understand Plath’s suicide; Rosselli, like Plath, lost her father at around age nine; both women underwent electro-shock therapy, and so on. Such connections, whether by coincidence or by design, are admittedly trivial: turning the poets’ lives into socks to be matched, these minutiae discount the gravity of their deaths, of the losses they suffered and our loss of them. And yet they are irreducible proof, not only of Rosselli’s engagement at multiple levels with Plath and her legacy, but also of the artifacts of Rosselli’s life outside her texts. By virtue of their commonalities Plath, too, joins the interlocutors who more explicitly people Sleep, retroactively doubling the text’s concerns with self-scrutiny. In other words, despite the logic of Rosselli’s elective affinities with a fellow poet at the broader level, the particulars also tell a deeper story, particularly when considered alongside the kinds of engagements between the poets (engagements that are not visible with, say, Leopardi or the Surrealists).37 With Rosselli’s characterization of Plath’s poetic gaze as inward (thereby embracing the latter’s meditations on the temptations of suicide), we are thus confronted with a discomfiting spectacle: Rosselli contemplating Plath contemplating suicide. Thus to return to my earlier formulation, the Sleep of Rosselli’s poetry is a proleptic slip, a slip into the big sleep: the slip or the lapsus is suicide, not because she ‘slipped’ to her death but because the slip is only visible as a movement. Rosselli’s gaze, identified with Plath’s, shifts the site of Rosselli’s writing to a place outside the poet, it draws in yet another interlocutor to engage with, and possibly obstruct, her poetic gaze-‘we are three.’38 The lapsus as the shifting site of writing in Rosselli can thus indeed be said to make her ‘illegible’; fortunately, it equally opens up the infinite next hermeneutical world.

Rutgers University

1. See Tandello for this view of her English language works as part of an ‘apprenticeship stage’.

2. Parts of this paper were delivered at the MLA convention in San Diego, California, December, 2003.

3. Nelson Moe identifies the roots of her alterity in three facets of her identity: in her ‘relationship to the Italian lyric (as English and French writer); the masculine lyric (as woman writer); and to the poetic lyric (as musician and musicologist).’ (Moe 184) To this list I would also add her illustrious political parentage, which we might phrase, to follow Moe, as her relationship to the patriotic lyric (as successful suicide): by this I mean the clash between the expectation of a poetics (and politics) of high-minded nobility aroused by her father’s and uncle’s political martyrdom, and (what is commonly held to be) the ignoble defeat of suicide. Moe, Nelson, ‘At the Margins of Dominion: The Poetry of Amelia Rosselli’ in Italica Vol.69 No. 2 Summer 1992 pp. 177-197.

4. Pasolini, Pier Paolo, ‘Notizia su Amelia Rosselli’ in Menabó 6. (Turin: Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1963) pp. 66-69.

5. Pasolini p. 66.

6. Consequently the lapsus becomes a veritable poetic Frankenstein, an unnatural hybrid of human and mechanical.

7. Pasolini p. 66.

8. Pasolini p. 67.

9. Nelson Moe, in his ‘At the Margins of Dominion: The Poetry of Amelia Rosselli’ came to similar conclusions about Rosselli’s perceived uniqueness when he says, ‘Discussions of her work repeatedly mention the singular nature of her poetry, along with such variant adjectives as solitary, unique, anomalous.’ (Moe 177). In a note he provides both a list of critics who have difficulty locating Rosselli’s poetry within any tradition or school, and he lists those poets to whom we can reasonably make comparisons.

10. Agosti, Stefano, Poesia contemporanea: saggi e intervenu (Milan: Bompiani, 1995). pp. 133-51.

11. Agosti p. 136.

12. Rosselli, Sleep p. 10.

13. Pasolini himself has created a neologism much in the style of Rosselli’s lapsus: ‘imposseduta’ is an invented word, related both to ‘possedere’ to possess and impossessar(si), to master, grasp, or appropriate.

14. But is the lapsus really the root cause of her difficulty? Unlikely, since after all techniques such as that are not unique to her poetry; indeed the generation of Italian language poets with whom she is often, if only tangentially, associated-I Novissimi, la Nuova Avanguardia, later il Gruppo Sessantatrè-is known in large part for its predilection for the ‘poetry of non-meaning’: in terms that sound similar to Pasolini’s, Franco Fortini describes he work of the Neoavanguardisti, for example, as ‘impersonal, arbitrarily organized’ and engaged in a ‘radical denial of communication’ in order to ‘destroy the ‘normal’ linguistic universe.’ (Franco Fortini, I poeti del novecento. Bari: Laterza, 1978. p. 205). At issue then is arguably not Rosselli’s technique but rather something more nebulous.

15. See, for example, her references to André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, and Paul Eluard in the critical writings contained in Caputo. These references make explicit the connection between figures such as Gyula Illyés and Giordano Falzoni; speaking in connection to her own Spazi metrici, she mentions Breton as an example of one of the few poets who know how to use free verse. Caputo, Francesca, ‘Cercare la parola che esprime gli altri’ in Amelia Rosselli: una scrittura plurale (Novara: Interlinea Edizioni, 2004) p. 59 (Caputo 59).

16. Both Rosselli and Breton, however, were involved at various points with the PCI, and their respective works are ideologically engaged.

17. It is tempting after such a statement to evoke the unforgettable eye scene in Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien andalou, though such an evocation does not propel my argument beyond the obvious: an instance in which Rosselli’s ‘surrealism’ is, besides methodological or technical, thematic as well.

18. Balakian, Anna, André Breton, Magus of Surrealism (NY: Oxford University Press, 1971). Pp. 28-9. Balakian p. 36. For Balakian, these ‘disperate entities’ derive from what for Abbé Constant is the principal of ‘coincidentia oppositorium, the coexistence of opposites, and the reversal of one into the other’.

19. For Balakian, this network or ‘lacework of interrelations’, as she calls it (Balakian 33), can be linked in genealogy to Janet, and is made visible in the relative paucity, in Breton, of images linked through the adverb comme. For a discussion of metaphor in Breton, see Gabellone 23-34.

20. Lino Gabellone describes the Surrealist ‘object’ similarly: ‘L’oggetto è allora un significance privilegiato ehe sussume tutta una serie di significati instabili, ineffabili o aleatori, entrando in una catena diacronica di significanti (correlativi oggettivi) aperta nei due sensi (passato-futuro) e virtualmente infinita.’ Besides the emphasis Gabellone places on multiple meanings in Breton, the notion of the aleatory, key to Breton’s poetics, is similarly mobilized in Rosselli as the ‘chance’ outcome of word combinations. Lino Gabellone, L’oggetto surrealista: il testo, la città, l’oggetto in Breton (Torino: Giulio Einaudi editore, 1977) p. 19.

21. Gabellone describes automatic writing thus: ‘il testo automatico (e per estensione la poesia surrealista) funziona solo attraverso la denegazione della scrittura in quanto materialità, e deve poter dare di sé un’immagine senza storia e senza paternità, rimandarci a un linguaggio orfano, tagliato fuori dal mondo, perfettamente autoriproduttivo.’ Gabellone p. 16.

22. Alongside the tumours and atomic explosions that compose her language, Rosselli’s texts are ‘dei soffici spirituali direi epilettici'(Pasolini 67), and the lapsus reveals the word ‘sotto un aspetto orrendo, di oggettività putrefatta o ridicola.’ (Pasolini 67)

23. See Balakian for a discussion of the impact of Janet of Breton (and Jung).

24. For a thorough description of the influence on Breton of Janet’s automatism, see Balakian 28-35.

25. Balakian p. 29. She quotes Janet: ‘Let the pen wander automatically, on the page even as the medium interrogates his mind.’Janet, L’Automatisme psychologique, Felix Alcan, Paris, 1921 (9th edition), p. 464.

26. Fortini, Franco, I poeti del novecento (Rome: Editori Laterza, 1978) p. 208. Translation mine.

27. Silverman, Kaja, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (London: Routledge, 1992) p. 130.

28. Lacan, Jacques, Four Fundamental Concepts quoted in Silverman.

29. Silverman pp. 142-3.

30. Silverman p. 151.

31. Here again we may recognize the presence of a clear and identifiable poetic tradition into which Rosselli’s works fit.

32. The Infinite:

Always dear to me was this lonely hill

Ay, and this hedge that from so broad a sweep

Of the ultimate horizon screens the view.

But, as I sit and gaze, my fancy feigns

Space beyond space upon the further side,

And silence within silence past all thought,

Immeasurable calm; whereat well nigh

Groweth the heart afraid. And as I hear

The wind sough thro’ these thickets, then between

That everlasting silence and this voice

I make comparison; and call to mind

The Eternal, and the ages dead, and this

The living present, and its clamour. So

In this immensity my thought is drowned:

And sweet to me is shipwreck in this sea.

Translation by Geoffrey Bickersteth. The Poems of Leopardi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1923. pp. 208-9.

33. Sleep p. 120.

34. For a harrowing account of the psychological ‘surveillance’ to which Rosselli was subjected during the years 1971-1979, see her ‘Storia di una malattia’ in Caputo. (Caputo pp. 317-326)

35. See Mannoni, Octave, ‘Je sais bien mais quand même” in Clefs pour l’imaginaire ou l’autre scène (Paris: Seuil, 1969).

36. She also mentions John Berryman on a number of occasions in her list of ‘all-time greats.’ Another example of the loss of the subject alongside the text, John Berryman committed suicide in 1972.

37. By the same token we might note that Rosselli’s Elizabethan October is often associated with the poetry of John Donne, author of Biathanatos (published in 1641), the first tract to defend suicide. For a discussion of the history and importance of Donne’s argument to subsequent interventions in the debate, see Georges Minois’s History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture, trans. Lydia Cochrane, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) pp. 94-97.

38. Derrida elaborates on what he calls ‘slippage from one death to another’ in his The Work of Mourning, cautioning against the dangers of applying observations or feelings about one death to another, thereby reducing the individuality of each ‘act of mourning’; at the same time, one might argue that that slippage enriches our understanding of the ties that anchor the dead to the world, to each of us as mourners. Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 8.

Copyright Romanic Review May-Nov 2006

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