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INTERDEPENDENCE: Joseph Luzzi’s Memoir, “In a Dark Wood” Excerpt 4

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


No matter how many diapers I changed, or how much baby spittle fell on my collar, I didn’t feel like a real dad. Part of me was elsewhere. Obsessed with my work. Dreaming of a new home. Speaking with the dead. Kicking at the sandy beaches of my Rhode Island exile. And sounding Dante’s rhyming tercets over and over, as if they were a charm to ward off evil spirits.

After editing all day, I would return to my mother’s house and play with Isabel for a while before my mom fed her and got her ready for bed. Then, after reading or watching television, I would go to sleep in my high school bed across the hall from my daughter’s room. Katherine’s death had sent me into the dark wood, a new dimension of life that I had never imagined existed. And now, having fallen into that other life, I had splintered off into the most bizarre realm of all: my childhood, which I was reinhabiting as a forty-year-old. I knew that divorce and depression could send grown men back in broken heaps to the homes they had grown up in. I did not expect as much from death. But there I was, watching Hannity and Colmes on Fox, in my pajamas and on my mother’s rust-colored sofa, my feet in her red shag carpeting, the stillness of her dead-end street as impenetrable as the fog that had descended upon me. I was supposed to be taking care of a baby, but now I needed to be taken care of, and I had returned to the safest place I knew.

At around three a.m. Isabel’s cries would often echo throughout the hallway. I would awake to them, prop my head against the pillow for a moment, and then pad across the hallway to where my mother would already be holding Isabel in her arms.

Parenting back in the day. Painting: Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, c. 1480/85. Oil on panel, 53.7 x 42.5 cm (21 1/8 x 16 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Parenting back in the day.
Painting: Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, c. 1480/85. Oil on panel, 53.7 x 42.5 cm (21 1/8 x 16 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Lassa jera, ci penzo io,” she would say as I loitered by the crib. “Leave her be, I’ll take care of it.” Usually I would demur, sliding past my mother and Isabel and retreating to my bed and fetal sleep.

But one night, for no reason other than the faint call of that same instinct that had otherwise abandoned me, I awoke with a start as Isabel’s sobs sent me running to the crib.

Dai, lascia stare, ci penso io,” I answered in standard Italian to her Calabrian dialect. “Let go please, I’ve got her.”

My mother scurried off, half in worry that I would drop or mishandle or fail to quiet Isabel, half that I was losing precious sleep when I needed to get my strength back. Ours was not a house where grown men held crying babies at night.

As I held the chaos of my hysterical baby in the dead of that winter night, I imagined the impact between Katherine’s jeep and the oncoming van, the crunching of metal and explosion of debris along the narrow country road. Isabel’s actual screams merged with Katherine’s imaginary ones, signaling to me that the world was fundamentally a place of disorder and violence. It was a constant reminder that I hadn’t been able to save my wife, that I might not be able to protect my daughter. The ill-fated turns, the undertows, the black ice, the live wires—they were everywhere.

Seven hundred years earlier, in the throes of his doomed youthful love for Beatrice, Dante too sensed the fragility of life when he dreamed of the ladies with wild hair and their menacing words. Dante intuited his vision as an omen, a sign that his love for Beatrice was star-crossed. Now that the heavens had indeed misaligned in my own life I could not get Dante’s fateful syllables with their rolling R’s out of my head. Tu pur morrai.

Isabel wasn’t crying out of fear or for her mother at three a.m. But I heard them as fear or longing. My rational mind understood that she blessedly knew nothing of these sentiments, yet her cries gave voice to my own anguish. I was in charge of protecting her, but it was my mother who spent her days holding my daughter in her arms. Grief had compromised my sense of other people’s needs, even my daughter’s—the bundle of life I was now cradling and comforting, our two hearts pounding as we clung to each other, both of us desperate for human touch as we rode the arrow shot by exile’s bow, neither of us knowing if and where it would ever land.

A sampling of Luzzi’s book recommendations:

3Petrarch’s Rime Sparse (Scattered Rhymes, c. 1327-68)

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ’l core… O you who hear in scattered rhymes the sound Of those sighs that nourished my heart… Thus begins one of the most influential collections of poetry ever written, the ultimate reminder that the history of literature, unlike science, isn’t necessarily about “progress.” Petrarch wrote his lyric poems almost seven hundred years ago, yet he remains perhaps Italy’s finest lyric poet—ever. Together, these poems tell the story of Petrarch’s lifelong devotion to his muse, Laura; individually, each poem stands alone as a testament to Petrarch’s otherworldly skill in drawing out the musicality of the Italian language.

1Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

As a writer, it’s hard not to stand in awe of Dickens and his literary toolkit: an effortless gift for storytelling, great sense of humor, natural linguistic playfulness, and wise, warm regard for humanity writ large—even when he’s poking fun at it. From beginning to end, A Tale of Two Cities keeps the reader enthralled with plot twists and suspense that, however farfetched, never come across as cheap or gratuitous. For we are in Dickens Land, where story and imagination reign supreme, and where we are led onward by the most large-hearted of guides.

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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