Saturday, 7th July, 2018

Palermo ’63: A Refugee on the Shore of Language

In October 1963 Amelia Rosselli (Paris, 28th March, 1930—Rome, 11th February , 1996) was one of the few female writers invited to Palermo for the first, lush meeting of the literary (neo)avant-garde, soon to be remembered with the “occasional tourist name” of ‘Gruppo 63’, as Umberto Eco later ironised. Amelia, confided in her last interview with Plinio Perilli, went to the sea of Palermo to observe, “keeping herself a little on the periphery, on purpose”, in silence (or almost).

Amelia Rosselli and Giacinto Spagnoletti photographed by Dino Ignani.

Amelia Rosselli represents an exception in the literary canon of what Osip Mandelstam referred to as the “wolfhound age”, the century of the persecuted. Born in Paris where her antifascist father Carlo Rosselli escaped from his exile in Lipari, she soon found herself forced, following the double fascist assassination of her father and uncle, to leave France immigrating to Switzerland, England, the United States and finally Italy in 1946. Here, she was defined by the writers of her time as stateless, exiled, sick, and even psychotic (by Vincenzo Mengaldo). Yet, as she herself repeatedly corrected Pasolini, Amelia preferred to call herself a refugee, “a daughter of the Second World War”.

The trilingualism (French/English/Italian) of the first writings (Diario in tre lingue), together with her experiments to re-gender language (‘il castello’ becomes ‘la castella’ in Impromptu) confirm her as an exceptional writer, outside of many realities of her time but just as well inclined to receive, live (and eventually die) through this same elsewhere. Pasolini was among the first to recognize the poetic exception of Amelia, describing her as if “she would step over her own language […] not with the violence of another rival language—‘ideologically and historically’ other—but with the violence of that same language alienated by itself through a process of disintegration (musical, the author would say) which, in reality, represents it abnormal, but identical to itself.”

In October 1963, on the shore of Palermo, the avant-garde fervently discussed the necessity—perhaps still unresolved—of a synthesis between lyrical realism (of Moravia and Pasolini) and the new stylistic approaches of the avant-garde (from Sanguinetti’s collage to Balestrini’s combinatorial experiments). Here, detached from the alacrity of the situation, Amelia wrote eight poems. In one of these, dedicated to the poet Adriano Spatola, we find ourselves among faint but deep lines, where the details of the sea and its myths reveal, like in the movement of a rip current, messages lost, stolen and returned from a discourse now consummated from his own, tyrannical double:

The sea has white points that I don’t know and tempo, so good
It wags good in my embrace, I corrupt sweetly—
and slight it laments the aches at the knee touched to me.
Without spite I remind you of an immense day of joy
but you forget true knowledge. If the night is a
trueful abature I would like to play with the sweet
belles mister who taught you that giving or the true, is
not true.

Sensing sweet tyranny die I recall you,
eager siren—but the face stripped of a lucid prediction
of other faults and docile submissions promotes idiot
hopes in me.

Grave misfortune solicit.

The truth is a death entire.1

Adriano Spatola wrote that the poet, faced with the sense of paralysis caused by reality, cannot help but accept to delete himself, “throw himself into the water hole” with what he called “the obstinacy of a suicidal diver”. The sea (of Palermo and maybe, sadly, also the metaphorical sea of via del Corallo in Rome, where Amelia dived for the last time), perhaps at last returned to her a refuge from that reality that so intensely worried her. This is revealed to us, today on the shore, by these same ‘idiot hopes’ of a language other yet identical to itself that Amelia has managed to leave us, perhaps the only one—in times where the sea is anew the background of cultural persecution—still able to pronounce new words.

1. English translation from the Italian kindly provided by Jennifer Scappettone. For more information on Amelia Rosseli in English refer to Scappettone’s Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli, a Bilingual Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2012.

The “white points” of the Hotel Zagarella in Solanto (PA) where the poet stayed in the Fall of ’63.

Colophon: Nostre Signore del Fuori (Our Ladies from the Outside) is a complementary column to the performative work of Nora Turato,
published in the Giornale di Sicilia every once in a while throughout Manifesta 12. Written as a series of eight microhistories of women related to the city of Palermo, this column aims to explore the theme of the outside through ‘minor’ voices, mumblings and mutterings, popular myths, clichés and platitudes, potential forms of reflection on the linguistic and cultural syncretism of the city.
Edited by Andrea di Serego Alighieri. Italian proofreading by Emilia Cantieri.
Typesetting by Robert Milne. Contact: Made possible with the support of Mondriaan Fonds.