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INTERDEPENDENCE: Joseph Luzzi’s Memoir, “In a Dark Wood” Excerpt 3

11760091_831757146938335_5683535591679855236_nFor me, interdependence also connotes the impact artworks have on our lives and how our responses to them, in turn, effect how others perceive them (i.e. reading a book after reading a review). Earlier this summer I was very aware of this phenomenon at a release party for Joseph Luzzi‘s latest memoir, In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love. Here he interweaves his ever-deepening understanding of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, with his grieving over the tragic car accident death of his first wife in 2007, which also became the premature birthday of his first child. At this event, Luzzi’s second wife, the very accomplished violinist Helena Baillie, played selected excerpts of pieces by the Italian composer Vivaldi that were both poignant and optimistic, and these two creations entwined together were more emotionally resonant than either could have been independently. Given all this cross-pollination, we thought In a Dark Wood would be a perfect fit for this month’s Ideablog theme, interdependence. As always, we welcome your own responses to these posts.
~Victoria C. Rowan, Ideasmyth Creatrix-in-Chief


Nothing Katherine and I shared could prepare me for the challenges that would come when our allotted time was over. Rilke once wrote that to love another person is our ultimate task, that for which all else is preparation. Only after losing this love did I grasp his awful wisdom. One of you will have to face the world alone someday and inhabit the Underworld—the hell at the start of Dante’s descent into a dark wood.

"Our Town" channeling a bit of Luzzi's grief. Source:

“Our Town” channeling a bit of Luzzi’s grief.

A car accident claimed Katherine’s body, but my grief would nearly kill her memory. For the longest time after her death, she became opaque, as an unconscious force deep inside me repressed the things that we had shared. I didn’t try to distance myself from my most intense recollections of her, from the feel of her skin against my own or her smell in the morning as sleep still clung to her. Before I met Katherine I used to believe that love’s chosen space was night, the time for coupling in the dark and dreaming in tandem. But Katherine heightened the start of each day, from the first light that fell on her through the blinds beside the bed, illuminating the dust in chiaroscuro stripes, to the rhythmic weight of her breath, as heavy on my shoulders as her resting arms. Surrounded by her sleeping body, I felt love’s gravity, and it took all of my strength to disentangle myself from her and follow the streams of brightly lit dust out of the bed and into the new day. Slowly but implacably, her death began to transform these living sensations into spectral images—things that haunted my dreams and daydreams, but which I could no longer feel or smell or taste. Grief was a great disembodier.

The insulating shock that kept me from absorbing the full pain of Katherine’s loss also numbed me, preventing me from recalling the full joy of what we had shared. The love we had made, the promises we had exchanged, the plans we had scribbled on Sunday afternoon scraps of paper—grief carried them all away. Only years later, when I began to write about this lost cache of memory, would I learn that to survive Katherine’s loss I had to let her die a second time, in my thoughts and dreams, so that the pain would not paralyze me.

The day of her accident, part of my shock was tempered by the calming thought that I could speak with her later that night in spirit—after all, our relationship had been cut short almost mid-conversation. But these one-way dialogues offered only the coldest comfort; I needed a guide, someone who knew how to speak with the dead. Someone who had written about life in the dark wood.

The Divine Comedy didn’t rescue me after Katherine’s death. That fell to the support of family and friends, to my passion for teaching and writing, and above all to the gift of my daughter. Our daughter. But I would barely have made my way without Dante. In a time of soul-crunching loneliness—I was surrounded everywhere by love, but such is grief—his words helped me withstand the pain of loss.

A sampling of Luzzi’s book recommendations:

566328Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed

Alessandro Manzoni: probably the most famous, important novelist you’ve never heard of. It’s impossible to overstate his importance in Italian history. He wrote the great novel in the nation’s literature, some would say its first, The Betrothed. In 1874, on the one-year anniversary of Manzoni’s death, Giuseppe Verdi dedicated his Requiem to him. When you read The Betrothed and encounter its calm analytical brilliance, unwavering dedication to giving a voice to the millions of poor who had been forever denied one, and its astonishing capacity to reveal the secrets that lay buried in the human heart, you will understand why Verdi’s admiration for Manzoni bordered on worship.

1Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief

I picked up this novella after serving on an academic board with the author, who is a colleague of mine at Bard. I was immediately struck by Cole’s seamless blending of the public story of his country with his fictionalized account of a narrator’s journey back to Nigeria for a family visit. With extraordinary restraint, Cole teaches the reader—always gently—about his native land’s complicated past and present struggles, while bringing us inside his narrator’s equally complex feelings about a place that he loves and is confounded by in even measure.

1 (1)Ben Lerner’s 10:04

This remarkable book is not for everyone. Lerner writes at a self-consciously intellectual level, filling his work with disquisitions on literary theory, cultural commentary, and aesthetic analysis. Yet Lerner pulls off his story without coming across as pretentious or precious. He’s able to do so because he’s very funny and extremely insightful about literature and social mores—the book is worth reading for its scathing satire of the smug assumptions circulating in the Park Slope Food Coop alone. Above all, I see 10:04 as a paean to serious writing—the sacrifices it entails, its vertiginous dialogue between, on the one hand, personal talent and vision and, on the other, a humbling sense of literary tradition and all the giants that have already marked the printed page.

See more of Luzzi’s Featured Creative posts on our Ideablog

~~~Joseph Luzzi holds a doctorate from Yale and teaches at Bard. He is the author of My Two Italies, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy, which won the Scaglione Prize for Italian Studies from the Modern Language Association. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, and the Times Literary Supplement.

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