THR Web Features   /   November 9, 2023

Afterword to an Introduction

The special challenge of presenting a poet whose work is neither new nor widely known.

Barry Schwabsky

( THR illustration; Amelia Rosselli in the 1960s; background art by Lisa Buchanan.)

A book of poetry can be illuminated by any number of specialized research methods—philological, biographical, or what have you—and all these approaches may be of value, everything they reveal may be precious for some readers. But when placed before uninclined readers, or (using a different sense of that little word “before”) when placed before the very text they are meant to illuminate, such researches can feel preemptive; they seem to issue a warning: “You need guidance. You are not ready to receive this text without my, the specialist’s, supervision. This text is closed to you unless I open the door.” One thinks of the sign often seen on the scaffolding, in Italy, surrounding monuments under restauration: Vietato ai non addetti ai lavori (off limits to the general public).

When we poets publish our own books, we do without such warnings. Difficult as the poems may happen to be, we postulate that potential readers will negotiate them in their own ways, in accordance with their own pleasure, and that the knowledge necessary to this encounter cannot be determined in advance. Stéphane Mallarmé, asked by the editors of the magazine where he first published Un coup de dés to explain that truly unprecedented work, acceded to their request, but with a statement that began, “I would prefer that this Note not be read or, if skimmed, that it be forgotten.” If nonetheless we accept without question this kind of preemption in the case of the republication of a book that is already well known—Leaves of Grass, Ossi di seppia, whatever it may be—that’s probably at least in part because it’s also implicit that there are, have been, will be many such introductions. The implicit cacophony of their differences and disagreements cancels out or at least ameliorates the imputed authority of each one.

However, in presenting a book that is neither new nor well-known, the writer of an introduction faces a different problem. An explanation seems called for: Why this belated appearance? That’s the implicit question I had to address in writing an introduction to Amelia Rosselli’s Sleep, a book of poetry in English written in the 1950s and ’60s and published in Italy in a highly abbreviated selection in 1989, then in a fuller but still incomplete version in 1992. Available to Italian readers with facing translations into their language for more than three decades, Sleep had never been comprehensively presented to an Anglophone readership. Here, by the way, I have to acknowledge that in my introduction to the new and belated American publication of Sleep, I inadvertently failed to mention, as I should have done, the fact that a number of poems from that book had been included by Jennifer Scappettone in her 2012 collection Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Rosselli, along with her excellent translations of the poet’s work in Italian. I concluded my review of that book, published in October that year, with these words:

With a broad range of her Italian poetry—which for that matter is constantly haunted by the ghost of English—now available in translation, it is vital that the full body of her English writing, of which Scappettone’s selection is able to accommodate only a few pages, be published in the English-speaking world. Some enterprising university press, take note. It might be surprising to many of our best poets to realize that their work has a major forerunner, strangely isolated, of whom they were never aware. Or will they be left “standing aghast,” as Thomas Mann put it in Doctor Faustus, speaking of the first listeners of Beethoven’s late works, “at these communications of which only at moments, only by exception, they could understand anything at all”?

That was hardly the beginning of my engagement with Sleep. Having lived in Milan in 1981–82 and again in 1987–88, I first read Rosselli’s Italian poetry sometime during that decade. I picked up the 1992 Garzanti edition of Sleep: poesie in inglese, probably toward the end of the 1990s and quickly became fascinated and also puzzled by it. This was a poetry different from anything else I knew in English, but neither was it exactly written in the language of a foreigner, as was the case with some other poets of “English as a second language” who had interested me, such as the Czech Ivan Blatný. Rosselli’s was a poetic artifice that could be estranging, yet was full of echoes from the history of English poetry. And when Rosselli’s Italian poetry finally began to become known in the English-speaking world in the early 2000s, I kept imagining a publication of her English verse would soon follow. Whenever I had a chance, whenever I thought I had the ear of someone who might be able to bring the idea to term—not as often as I’d have liked, I have to admit—I talked up the idea. The conclusion to my review of Scappettone’s collection was merely the visible manifestation of this sub rosa campaign, which bore fruit nearly a decade later when I managed to spark the interest of that percipient editor (and dyed-in-the-wool Italophile), Edwin Frank of New York Review Books.

I ended up writing the introduction to this book, not as a scholar of modern Italian poetry in general or of Rosselli in particular, but as a poet who had developed an inexpugnable enthusiasm for and fascination with the work of a fellow poet, whom I cannot think of as a purely historical figure, but rather as an elder contemporary. One not unlike, I believe, John Ashbery (who first published six of the poems from Sleep in the international journal Art and Literature in 1966) or Leslie Scalapino or Wanda Coleman or any number of others who most decisively helped me get a sense of what poetry could be in the present and have continued to do so even since their deaths.

It was this intuition of the continuing—or really, I would rather say, merely incipient—currency of Sleep that led me to conclude that the best way to introduce the book to today’s readers in the United States, Canada, Britain, and other Anglophone areas was not to give a thorough interpretation, nor to give more than a few basic indications of Rosselli’s dramatic, not to say tragic, life story, except insofar as it would explain to readers new to Rosselli how this Italian poet had come to write, in Italy, a collection of poetry in English—which meant explaining that her mother had been English and that, after the assassination at Mussolini’s behest of her Italian Jewish father in 1937, she had grown up in Westchester County, New York. In doing that, I passed over some of the other most salient aspects of her work, notably her profound immersion in music (her composition studies took her to Darmstadt) and her passionate political commitment as a member of the Italian Communist Party. Instead, I saw my task as primarily to offer an outline of the book’s publishing history, and to recall the status quo of Anglo-American poetry at the time Rosselli began her career in the 1950s—notably, before the overt splitting off between what Donald Allen in his famous 1960 anthology called The New American Poetry of the Black Mountain, Beat, and New York School groups (and then of the so-called “British Poetry Revival”) on the one hand, and the more conservative trend represented, for instance, by the 1957 anthology New Poets of England and America, edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson. At a distance from the internal politics of Anglo-American poetry, Rosselli’s writing ignored the well-policed boundary lines between them, though the result was far more radical than anything in the Hall anthology and for that matter, than much of what was in Allen’s book too.

I didn’t go into these details in my introduction, but by highlighting Rosselli’s appreciation of both Charles Olson (who was in the Allen anthology) and John Berryman (who, somewhat surprisingly, was not one of Hall et al.’s chosen poets, though he would well be thought of as one of their fellow travelers) I think I was able to give readers who know something of postwar poetry in English a clue to the stakes that were not stakes to Rosselli. And with that, I wanted to alert them that something rather unfamiliar was about to hit them as they read the book—but without trying to define for them what that would be. There’s no true preparation for a first encounter with the singular vehemence, full of familiar echoes yet deeply unfamiliar, of a passage such as this, with its strange coinages (“petticure,” “all-afrantic”) and rushing syntax:

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.

That such a poetry intends to stymie interpretation—that is, domination—is what the poems themselves assert:

you might as well think one thing or another
of me; I am not at mercy’s chance, nor do
I want your interpretation, having none
myself to overpower me.

Rather than fall into the trap of interpretation, then, I thought it best to simply address a few simple questions that any reader might have: What is this book? How did it come to exist? Why didn’t I know about it before? And why might it be worth the trouble of reading now? In trying to address that “why,” my main object was to give a sense of the texture of the poetry, the surface the reader first encounters, which I believe is the main location, too, of its depths. After that, readers should be on their own. And though it might be delusional to present Rosselli as what I nonetheless cannot stop feeling she is, a living poet, I wanted to accord the life of her verse its freedom and openness—including the openness to what might be misunderstanding or ignorance—rather than restraining it with premature definition.