Notturnoby Gabriele D'Annunzio
Composed during a period of extended bed rest, Gabriele D'Annunzio's Notturno is a moving prose poem in which imagination, experience, and remembrance intertwine. The somber atmosphere of the poem reflects the circumstances of its creation. With his vision threatened and his eyes completely bandaged, D'Annunzio suffered months of near-total blindness and/i>… See more details below
Composed during a period of extended bed rest, Gabriele D'Annunzio's Notturno is a moving prose poem in which imagination, experience, and remembrance intertwine. The somber atmosphere of the poem reflects the circumstances of its creation. With his vision threatened and his eyes completely bandaged, D'Annunzio suffered months of near-total blindness and pain-wracked infirmity in 1921, and yet he managed to write on small strips of paper, each wide enough for a single line. When the poet eventually regained his sight, he put together these strips to create the lyrical and innovative Notturno.
In Notturno D'Annunzio forges an original prose that merges aspects of formal poetry and autobiographical narrative. He fuses the darkness and penumbra of the present with the immediate past, haunted by war memories, death, and mourning, and also with the more distant past, revolving mainly around his mother and childhood. In this remarkable translation of the work, Stephen Sartarelli preserves the antiquated style of D'Annunzio's poetic prose and the tension of his rich and difficult harmonies, bringing to contemporary readers the full texture and complexity of a creation forged out of darkness.
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By GABRIELE D'ANNUNZIO
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1921 Fratelli Treves
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFIRST OFFERING
Et in tenebris Aegri somnia
I am blindfolded.
I lie supine in bed, my torso immobile, head thrown back, a little lower than my feet.
I raise my knees slightly, to tilt the board propped up on them.
I am writing on a narrow strip of paper with space for one line. In my hand is a soft-leaded pencil. The thumb and middle finger of my right hand rest on the edges of the paper and let it slide away as each word is written.
I can feel the edge under the tip of the little finger on my right hand, and use this as a guide to keep the page straight.
Elbows motionless at my sides, I try to keep the movement of my hands extremely light, so that their play extends no further than the wrist joints, and thus none of their shaking is transmitted to my bandaged head.
My pose feels in every way as stiff as that of an Egyptian scribe carved in basalt.
The room is devoid of light. I write in the dark. I trace my signs in the night, which lies solid against both thighs, like a board nailed in place.
I am learning a new art.
When the doctor's harsh sentence cast me into darkness, assigning me in darkness the narrow space my body will occupy in the grave, when the wind of action grew cold upon my face, almost obliterating it, and the ghosts of battle were suddenly barred from the black threshold, when silence fell within me and around me, when I quit my flesh and rediscovered my spirit, from my initial, confused distress the need to express, to signify, was reborn. And almost immediately I began to look for a way to avoid the rigors of my treatment and deceive my stern physician without disobeying his orders.
Speech was forbidden me, especially crafted speech; and I failed to overcome my age-old aversion to dictation and the secret reticence of an art that wants no intermediaries or witnesses between the material and the person shaping it. Experience dissuaded me from trying to write with eyes closed. The difficulty is not in the first line, but in the second, and in those that follow.
Then I remembered the way the Sibyls used to write their brief auguries on leaves scattered by the winds of fate.
I smiled a smile unseen in the shadows when I heard the sound of Sirenetta cutting paper into strips for me, as she lay on the rug in the adjacent room, by the light of a dim lamp.
Her chin must be illuminated as it was by the hot sand's reflection when we lay beside one another on a Pisan beach in happier times.
The paper makes a regular swishing sound, calling to mind the surf at the feet of tamerisks and junipers parched by the libeccio.
Under the blindfold, the back of my injured eye burns like the summer noontide at Bocca d'Arno.
I see the wind-rippled, wave-wrinkled sand.
I can count the grains, plunge my hand in it, fill my palm with it, let it flow through my fingers.
The flame grows, the dog days rage. The sand glistens in my vision like mica or quartz. It dazzles me, makes me dizzy and terrified, like the Libyan desert on the morning I rode alone to the tombs of Saqqara.
My eyelids are unprotected, completely exposed. The tremendous heat burns under my brow, inescapable.
Yellow turns to red, the plain is transfigured. Everything becomes bristly and jagged. Then, like a creative hand shaping figures from malleable clay, a mysterious breath raises reliefs of human and animal forms from the blinding expanse.
Solid fire is now worked like chiseled stone.
Before me is a rigid wall of red-hot rock, carved into men and monsters. From time to time something like an enormous sail seems to flap, and the apparitions flutter. Then everything scatters, swept away by the red whirlwind, like a cluster of tents in the desert.
The edge of the torn retina curls, burns like Dante's paper, as the brown slowly effaces the words written on it.
I read: "Why have you twice let me down?"
Salty sweat drips into my mouth, mixed with the tears of my smothered lashes.
I am thirsty. I ask for a sip of water.
The nurse refuses, as I am forbidden to drink.
"You shall quench your thirst with your sweat and tears."
The sheet sticks to my body like the shroud that swathes the salt-speckled drowned man hauled to shore and left on the sand until someone comes to identify him, to close his frothy lids and bewail his silence.
When Sirenetta approaches my bedside with a cautious step and brings me the first sheaf of paper strips of equal size, I slowly withdraw my hands, which have been resting for some time on my hips. I can feel they've grown more sensitive; there is something unusual in the fingertips, as if a glowing light had collected there.
Everything is dark. I am at the bottom of a hypogeum.
I am in a coffin of painted wood, narrow and fitted to my body like a sheath.
The other dead are brought fruit and focaccia by their families. I, the scribe, am given the tools of my office by my compassionate daughter.
Were I to rise, my head would strike the lid, the outside of which bears a painted likeness of me as I once was, eyes limpid and open to life's beauty and horror.
My head remains motionless, wrapped in its bandages. A desire for inertia holds me still, from my hips to the nape of my neck, as if an embalmer had indeed practiced his art on me.
At once my hands find the right gestures, with the same infallible instinct shown by bats when they graze the jagged walls of their dark caverns.
I take a strip, feel it and measure it. I recognize the quality of the paper by the faint sound it makes.
It is not the customary paper the craftsmen of Fabriano used to make for me, one page at a time, with a watermark of my motto, Per non dormire, which now seems as dreadful as an unending torture. This paper is smooth, a bit stiff, sharp at the edges and corners. It is rather like a scroll, one of those sacred scrolls the painters used to put in their panels.
My hands feel almost religious as they hold it. A virgin sentiment renews in me the mystery of writing and the written sign.
I hear the scroll crackle between my trembling fingers.
My anxiety seems to blow on the glowing ember behind my eye. Sparks and flashes fly in the whirlwind of the soul.
I feel the compassionate girl's hand on my knees. I raise them slightly to receive the board. To me, in darkness, it is like a votive tablet. The strip of paper is laid out on it. I take the pencil between my thumb, index, and middle fingers, the middle still furrowed from persistent work. Nulla dies sine linea.
I tremble before the first line I am about to trace in the shadows.
O art, pursued with such passion, glimpsed with such desire!
Desperate love of the word inscribed for the ages!
Mystical thrill that sometimes fashioned the word from my very flesh and blood!
Fire of inspiration suddenly fusing the ancient and the new in an unknown alloy!
The hand weighed the material. The material had color, shape, timbre.
The quill was like a paintbrush, a chisel, a musician's bow. Sharpening it was a glorious pleasure.
My humble, proud spirit trembled at the sight of the thick, untouched ream to be transformed into a living book.
The quality of the lamp oil was chosen as if for an offering to a stern god.
And during the hours of felicitous creation the hard chair became a creaking prie-dieu under knees bearing the violence of a stooped body.
Now my body is in a coffin, cramped, laid flat.
Yesterday my spirit thrashed like a great eagle caught in a trap. Today it is composed, attentive, astute.
Yet my heart beats wildly.
I feel the paper. My hand twitches as it holds the pencil, almost painfully.
All at once, in my burning field of vision the figure of Vincenzo Gemito appears, such as I saw him in the early days of his madness, climbing up a rocky, blinding slope, where demonic herds of goats nibbled on parched grass, to his prison.
I see him in a room as narrow as a cell, pacing continuously between the door and window like a caged wild animal.
A great head with a mane of hair and beard like a prophet gone mad in the wind of the desert, barely supported by a slender, bent body and two legs broken by fatigue, held upright by an unyielding stamina, as Michelangelo's legs must have been upon the Sistine scaffolds.
Right hand in his pocket, he gesticulates with the other and never removes the first, as if it were paralyzed.
I am moved by the same pity and anguish that assailed me when I learned that for years, ever since the start of his dementia, he had kept a piece of red modeling wax hidden in his hand and endlessly repeated, with his thumb and forefinger, the motion a sculptor makes to soften and taper it.
Stricken in the head and stripped of the power to create, all he retained was that instinctive gesture, that moulding motion, that habit of the Cellinian craftsman, master of lost-wax casting.
And here he is now, in the inferno of my bandaged eye, living a terrible life.
He looks at me from the depths of a desperate sadness. He has grown old. His hair and beard are white, unkempt, ravaged by storms and destiny, like the kingly locks of Cordelia's father. His hand is no longer hidden: he is holding the scrap of red wax between his thumb and forefinger. Fleshless, all nerves and bone like some sickly root of the soul, the hand repeats the motion without cease.
Now his head vanishes, then his body, devoured by the fire under my eyelid, which burns as in a foundry.
The hand remains, only the hand, as if it belonged to some victim of the blaze.
And the wax does not melt: there it is, red as a clot of blood, between the ceaselessly moving thumb and index finger.
The vision becomes so intense, so harsh, that I struggle not to cry out in fear and pain.
Madness flashes through my brain.
I have the urge to tear my eye from its socket, that I may see no more.
I am inside the night, my night of flames and torment.
Sirenetta has left my side. In the adjacent room I hear the paper rasp gently as she cuts it.
Overcoming the tremor, I place the tip of the pencil at the edge of the strip.
For a brief moment I have the confused impression of gripping not a wooden pencil but a piece of lukewarm red wax. It is a moment of indeterminate horror.
At last I write on the invisible scroll.
I write these words:
"O sister, why have you twice let me down?"
Anxious, I call my watchful guardian, who comes running.
I say to her: "Here, see if you can read what I've written."
She takes away the strip, which sounds like a palm frond.
The seconds seem eternal, marked by the beats of an anxious heart.
In the other room, a melodious voice reads without pause the words I have written, which must surely seem sibylline to her.
"O sister, why have you twice let me down?"
The first time, she overshot glory by a hair's breadth, killing my comrade, who had vowed with me to go on a journey of no return.
The second time, in a fateful game of hours, she granted another the magnificent destiny to which this same man had assigned me, admitting my divine right to the honor.
An angel or demon of night blows on the blaze inside my lost eye.
Countless sparks spatter in the wind.
My head is bent backwards, abandoned, dangling in the void.
I no longer feel the pillow, I no longer feel the bed.
I hear a confused rumble, I hear the roar of the aeroplane, I hear the crackle of combat.
A brusque, compassionate hand has pushed me aside. My head has been punctured: it hangs down in the void, over the vibrating edge of the cockpit.
Over me falls the shadow of the right wing; the propellor's airy star is my crown.
Now not fire but blood spatters everywhere. Not sparks but drops. The heroic pilot is bringing the sacrificed poet back to the fatherland.
O boundless glory!
What divine or human hand ever cast a more august seed into the furrows of the earth?
In the speed of war the endless blood scatters like grain in the wind.
Each spurt divides by the thousands, like the mist of a crashing waterfall forming a rainbow. It does not flow but flies, does not fall but rises.
What is Orpheus's head, floating upon his lyre, compared to this sublime aspergillum?
The new myth is more beautiful still.
I see my face transfigured in the centuries of greatness to come.
The soul does not flee but still hews to the wound like radiance to the flame that bursts and fades in the gunfire, stopping and resuming, subsiding and then flashing again, held by nothing but an invisible bond that the will to burn makes stronger than the storm.
Long sorrow now become sudden joy, long misery transformed to purity's pinnacle, the soul gazes upon the wondrous face that now is truly its own, the face it so wished to possess but could not.
It knew death was a victory, yet never one so great.
Immortal, it is yet radiant in death, and the wind of the mournful flight cannot extinguish it.
Flesh was its weight, and is now its rapture.
Blood was its turbulence, and is now its freedom.
It is borne by the body in an élan of creative beauty.
No believer's or martyr's head on the block was ever so beautiful as this head on the fragile edge of the morning's abyss.
No wounded eagle ever bloodied the light so fiercely with its flapping feathers.
The blood eternally glistens the way the milk of the goddess gleams eternally white in the night.
Behold the earth, behold our destination.
The last drop scatters in the rumble of flight.
On wings unscathed the heroic pilot bears the bloodless body of the sacrificed poet back to the Fatherland.
The news is swift as a thunderbolt and remote as the memory of a great deed.
Every shore of Italy shudders like the cloth of her flags.
Glory kneels and kisses the dust.
Why are the blind portrayed as seers facing the future? As those who reveal what is to come?
Just as Tiresias dipped his divining lips into the blood of a black ram slaughtered over a ditch, so have I drunk my sacrifice for several nights; and I see not the future, nor live in the present.
Only the past exists, only the past is as real as the bandage in which I am wrapped; it is as palpable as my crucified body.
I feel the breath and heat of my visions.
In my wounded eye, all the substance of my life, the sum total of my consciousness, is forged anew. It is inhabited by an evocative fire in continual labor.
He who approaches my bed is less alive than the dead man who stares at me with embers for eyes, as if rising from a burning sepulchre in Hell.
I write not on sand, I write on water.
Every word I trace vanishes, as if abducted by a dark current.
It is as if I can see the form of every syllable I record through the tips of my index and middle fingers.
But only for an instant, accompanied by a glow, a sort of phosphorescence.
Then the syllable dies out, disappears, lost in the fluid night.
Thought runs as though across a bridge that collapses behind it. The arch resting on the bank is destroyed, then at once the middle arch falls. As dread reaches the opposite bank, escaping in fear, the third arch gives way and disappears.
I write like one casting anchor: the hawser pays out faster and faster, the sea appears bottomless, and the fluke never manages to catch, nor the hawser to tauten.
Like a rapturous melody arising unexpectedly from some deep orchestra; like the revelation of a line of verse awakening the soul's secret sound; like the message of the wind that is the speed of infinity in motion; with a spirit without mooring, a body without form, a bliss resembling terror, I feel the world's ideality.
My comrade lies on the island of the dead, down there, behind the briny brick wall, behind the mournful curtain of cypresses. He is in the quadrilateral of earth where sailors are buried, laid neatly inside the leaden coffin that I saw sealed by a hissing flame.
He lies under a funeral pillar of Istrian stone planted at the head of a pile of turf.
His pillar is like a sundial, where Icarus's arm extends like a bronze stylus indicating, over the carved name, the only hour: the hour of ultimate bravery.
My comrade is dead, buried, released.
I am alive, but precisely situated in my darkness, like him in his. As I breathe I feel my breath pass through purplish lips, like his in his first hours, opening a mouth made almost senseless, hardened by the metallic taste of the iodine circulating in my body.
I am like him in my injury as well: I see again the sheet of cotton covering his right eye socket, shattered in the crash.
Thus are his death and my life one same thing.
From his stillness down there, what I loved in him reaches me here; and from my stillness here, what in me was worthy of his love goes out to him.
Though I suffer, and though he suffers no more, the flesh dissolves for both of us, as our spirits rejoin.
Between his last word, which I heard on the receding shore, and his livid, gelid hand, which I grazed with my lips an instant before the coffin lid concealed it from mebetween that voice and that coldness, was I alive with him? Or did I die with him?
There is a place in the soul where the river of darkness and the river of light flow together.
It is the place where our friendship lives on. Where our images are reflected and merge.
Excerpted from Notturno by GABRIELE D'ANNUNZIO Copyright © 1921 by Fratelli Treves. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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