'Nor Do I Want Your Interpretation': Suicide, Surrealism, and the Site of Illegibility in Amelia Rosselli's Sleep

By Leake, Elizabeth | The Romanic Review, May-November 2006 | Go to article overview
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'Nor Do I Want Your Interpretation': Suicide, Surrealism, and the Site of Illegibility in Amelia Rosselli's Sleep


Leake, Elizabeth, The Romanic Review


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 part 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.

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'Nor Do I Want Your Interpretation': Suicide, Surrealism, and the Site of Illegibility in Amelia Rosselli's Sleep
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