Marilyne Bertoncini’s ‘The Night of Lilac’

By and | 1 August 2014

Marilyne and I got to know each other when Marilyne very stylishly translated some poems of mine in 2009.When I read Marilyne’s poem ‘Nuit de Lilas’, I was intrigued and moved by the poem’s sensuousness and musicality, its shimmering painterly effect and sheer lift – an earthy immediacy heightened by the exotic. How could I carry across this airy and erotic blend of music, perfume and colour? It was clear that I would need to strive for the patterns of sound, format and image, and also that I might need some background and some botanical advice. With the ensuing to and fro of comments, I corrected a couple of embarrassing misreadings, and when I realised I had domesticated some lines, to Marilyn’s justifiable ‘author’s dismay’, I used instead the popular French flower name ‘painter’s despair’, the colour ‘perse’, and copied her use of ‘forget-me-not’, ‘Myosotis’, as a verb.

I asked Marilyne about the initial impulse for the poem, the writing process, the inspiration for some images, and the experience of translation. Here is her response:

‘Nuit de Lilas’, ‘Night of Lilac’, was originally partly written in Italian, in Parma where I lived all summer and travelled a lot from one language to the other. You asked me about the inspiration for this poem. Mainly my own memories, magnified by my reading of Arab poetry; images of Persian paintings and carpets, antique frescoes, films and photo-making (in a forgotten time when one had to work in the dark to see images appear on the paper!); and also my dreams and experience of a long, hot summer. I should explain that Leila/lilac is in part born from ‘Majnun and Leyla’, the major Persian classical love poem I was reading in that period – that’s probably why my poem deals with Persian carpets, embroideries, and the bluish color of Persian tiles which I call ‘pers’, and the idea of lost paradise.

I usually reflected on an image or a word linked with the lilac, the garden, and set myself to write in the hottest hours when you can only live inside and avoid light to preserve the little freshness you got from the night. The fundamental memory is of the gardens of my grand-dad, with their particular colours and perfumes. The place I most valued was the lilac-tree which I imagined as a living impersonation of night – I always saw it as springing from the earth, its roots like a labyrinth with access to meanings, and to death – to my dead people and time. It has sadness, of course, and you beautifully express what I intended to evoke for the reader.

The lines breaks follow a ‘musical’ pattern – I mean that’s the way I read them. I arranged the lines to give them a visual effect as well, with space for the words to breathe – to radiate their possibilities around them. I would very much like to be a painter with words, as I’m unable to be a real painter. I love taking photos, though, and it’s similar to the way images come to me – I’m in the dark, I ‘meditate’ on a word or a few words, and just as the photo develops in the liquid, images from the semi-darkness of the room appear to me as sequences of the poem. For ‘Night of Lilac’, I use the image of the photo, the grey flash (l’éclair de magnésie, le papier virant au noir) to come near to this idea of the apparition of the tree and the blooming of its meaning.

The Night of Lilac

Shiver of dawn called up
by the song of a bird

                        so blue
            so full

that to hear it you think of forests hidden in the depths of walled gardens behind houses

            so full
                        so clear

it frees ancient fronds moved by winds from the afterlife  

            unconscious            swimmer
                I reach the shores of silence

the tenuous song accompanies me like the flute of Orpheus into the subterranean shade

                        star-coloured thread
                        of the reed whose voice

                             opens the door
                             of the night

Between lavender and burgundy under the eyelid of the night ciliated by dreams amethyst almond in its narrow bed before the silent explosion exposes the living flesh through the dark cracked husk the space of a blink chiselling heaven a thousand and one little cruciform calyxes the colour of peacocks swallow feathers grey doves Call to the wasps drunk on dawn ronzio che precede la prima ora del mattino whose flight already whirrs around the fountain before the sparkling the plain song of morning
Phosphorescence flinging forth a vinous froth soon set into efflorescences of quartz in its vein of lava of obsidian Toothed borders of the wound the sky greens through as if burned before reaching its final colour of flax-blue in the limpid morning Flame where ether blends with earth quiet grisaille subduing the tart greens of mint and sage the honeysuckle tasting not only of honey but rancid butter its nard lighting torches soon burned out So ungraspable and subtle the memory Lilac luminous nucleus of night
I saw your eyes, Leila, in the shade of the blind while the cries of turtle-doves coiled in the morning colour of their pink plumage The sun’s reflection is caught in the glass teasing me the voice which torments me is like your own when your joyous song lifts to the fountain murmurs and trembles like the gush of water but the collared bird with a beating of wings dispelled the illusion And I saw you, Leila, flee like a shadow skipping across the orchard in the light veils of the clouds of May But the passing wind made the branches dance and nothing of you, this morning, is left here
Lilac Prattle of childish dances and nursery rhymes Laces and nets which bind and encompass me Mazes and laces Tangles and interlacings Arabesque of branches hidden under the foliage Secret labyrinth where memory is lost in search of itself Light perse veil like Persian silk chiffon Lattice-work of stamens where the solo of the dark sifts and dances the solar writing of death Colour of Passion your grapes to be pressed supple curls of the lilac of my childhood its thousand mouths fragrant as a soul melting against my own mouth In the serenity of evening while the doves murmur and the fifes of the cicadas resound in the garden colour of yew colour of ivy Elsewhere silent blue brazier of stars Dolce sorella nella mia lingua segreta
Clear or cloudy according to the days Nightwoman in daylight Green For Majnûn enraptured Forgotten in the grey hollow of the night Pomegranate pip
After the dazzling magnesium flash of lilac torches burning dawn the ozone blue of clear day turning to black like a film reversing the real under the thousand green blades of a thousand vipers swathing the tree and its thunder with their moving mantle of supple scales false jewellery the colour of seaweed and marine grottoes Is there a more scandalous absence than yours Leila sustained in the garden by the gushing fountains the weeping roses under the glaucous eyelid of enchanted arbours and the piercing drill of insects in the sun
Each time your name tears the heart As with the flight of a bird My sky is darkened by an equal sadness Each time the wind imitating your voice Moistens her eyelid Palpitating my soul names you in its sigh And if your body is outlined among the shadows The madness that draws it along is my madness Also And only the night then answers to our desires
There empty space undulating into the infinity of our childlike gaze the Zone surrounded itself with belts of workers’ gardens precisely demarcated and coloured like Persian carpet designs aligning their herbal damask enhanced by the carmine of tulips or the gold and silver bouquets of marigolds and cinerarias There at the border edge of the town’s dreams one pushed a complaining door grinding askew the trellis fence bled gold on Sunday's clothes and one was elsewhere in the section of mossy paths forget-me-notting between the tendrilled stems of heather-pink painter’s despair with its slender umbels In the furthest part caressing the toolshed and the old cistern the sweetness and crimped sharpness of the treeflower its indefinable presence perforating the sky the pulsing grey flash organizing the plots of the Garden become a wheel around this nucleus
Leila Memory is like the shepherd’s drum And it resounds so strongly And swells with sadness And myths become memories And you are the drum And the shepherd And the world And my sadness which sings O Leila You are the green flash which raises the eyelid of heaven And the song of birds And the sistrum which makes the sun rise And you are each evening the hand which embraces everything The cold flame which dims And leaves naked The Night
On the whiteness of the sheet dark knotty branch with wrinkled bark the outstretched arm carries the corolla of the hand straining in a last gesture of labour or of giving like a magnolia flower before its fall Hard under the worn skin translucent as the lunar ocellus of honesty the tree of veins still lives the colour of slate The mauve tree designs the final embroidery for the hand which twisted the silk The tireless knotter weaving the marvels of the lost garden

Innocence of the dawn blooming from the dew of dreams still ignorant of the bird in its cage on the blind facade struck by the sun.

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