Writing From the Picture

I am fascinated by the interplay between words and images, particularly in the creative process that occurs when a picture triggers a story.

My story “To Dante,” published in Room Magazine (vol.31.1 2008), was inspired by Dante and Beatrice, painted by Henry Holiday in 1883. We see Beatrice in the painting, walking next to her friend Giovanna in Florence as Dante awaits their approach. My narrative, a blend of historical fact and fiction, is told from the point of view of Beatrice. The proximity of the two women in the painting inspired me to invent a relationship between them.

danteandbeatrice1.jpg
Dante and Beatrice, 1883, by Henry Holiday

To Dante

When I was a virgin page my name was Bice de Folco Portinari. Now you scrawl all over me with perfect verses and call me Beatrice.

I am everywhere–in your goblet of wine; in the flicker of the candle on your desk; in your reflection when you stare out the window after midnight. I resemble you so much–my name is Love.

I walk down the Lungarno with Giovanna. You stand at the Ponte Santa Trinita, watching us. I clutch my rose; push my thumb into a thorn until it bleeds. I want to throw my hand into the Arno, let it drift under the Ponte Vecchio, watch a trinket merchant retrieve it from the cold water and wait for your next poem.

Dante, stain me with black ink. Drown me in your inkwell. Stab me with your golden nib. Engrave me into rock and throw it into Vesuvius. Make me erupt into a molten sheet of syllables. Beatrice is so beautiful to read.

I remember the first time we met, in my father’s garden, when you were nine and I was eight and the yellow butterfly landed on my cheek. How delicately you plucked it and pressed it between your palms. You kissed its lifeless wing and said you would keep it forever. Enigmatic are the hearts of boys who have lost their mother at seven years old.

Now you stand like a bronze statue, bracing your heart with your hand, waiting for me. I imagine what you will write tonight: Saw lady Vanna and lady Beatrice coming towards me, where I was still standing–one bliss still pursuing another bliss. L’una appresso de l’altra maraviglia.*

Durante Degli Alighieri, did you ever stop to think that your quill leaves scars? That this courtly passion of yours produces more than literary masterpieces? Townsfolk are gossiping. Simone wants to break our engagement.

As we walk past you I avoid your gaze and concentrate on the scent of my flower. We go to Giovanna’s house. No one is there, not even the servant. From the sitting room window, I look at the hills basking under the languid Florentine sun. At the graveyard this morning, Giovanna gave me the rose.

Giovanna takes me to her bedchamber. She shows me the purple silk she bought at the fair. She wants to sew me a dress. She drapes the sumptuous fabric on my body, pinning it into place here and there, paying particular attention to where it gathers under my breasts. Giovanna unties my hair, lets it flow down the way it does on brides, combs it gently between her fingers. My heart flutters like a butterfly, looks for a place to land–somewhere between the covers of an unwritten book.

*Dante Alighieri, The New Life, (circa 1293), Chapter XXIV.

Talleen Hacikyan

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