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INTERDEPENDENCE: Joseph Luzzi’s Memoir, “In a Dark Wood” Excerpt 5

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

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Ulysses’ words used to strike me for their rhetorical force and drama: he is a flickering tongue of flame hissing with lethal eloquence. But Katherine’s death changed my understanding of him. Ulysses returned to Ithaca after a lifetime of adult wandering, and now I had returned to my hometown, the place where I was born and raised, after years of decidedly less-dramatic wandering. Yet, like Ulysses, when I took the sheets of childhood in my arms the scent made me sick. Sometimes you cannot go home again. Like the Greek hero, I had to digest Dante’s most bitter lesson: the worst exile is internal, when you are cast forever from what had been your life—com’ altrui piacque, as pleased another or fate decreed. The genius of Dante’s Ulysses is that he shows how the most intense feeling of dislocation can occur in the most familiar of places. I returned to Westerly seeking a respite from my grief, a place where I could mourn Katherine in safety and peace. I found myself instead just as restless and anxious there as Ulysses was in Ithaca in Inferno 26. Like Ulysses, I learned that once exile becomes a state of mind, even your childhood home can seem as strange and unwelcoming as Calypso’s cave.

Ulysses (the one in white) doing his big bad hero thing

Ulysses (the one in white) doing his big bad hero thing

Those first months in Westerly I would take Isabel to the coast and push her stroller along the shore. The ocean winds would snap and sting as I bundled her in a blanket and guided her along the same two-mile stretch that I had run while training for my high school tennis team. Weekapaug’s grand, austere homes were always most beautiful in winter, when there were no crowds or traffic to distract your eye from the stark contrast between the gray shingles and the blue ocean. I saw myself in Isabel’s jet-black hair and full lips, but I could not see her natural mother anywhere, except for her blue eyes. With each passing day those blue eyes were becoming slightly more like the brown color of mine, making me wonder what, if anything, of Katherine would be left in her. We would finish our walk at the very spot where I had listened to McKellen narrate Odysseus’s journey. Wrapping the blanket tightly around Isabel, I would pick her up and look in the direction of Block Island, which you could make out on a clear day. If the wind wasn’t too strong, I could hear Isabel’s breath fall on my shoulders as I held her to keep her warm.

Katherine had gone to the other side, but she had left someone behind. My heart would race as I pondered this vita nuova—a life without Katherine—that I wanted no part of. Then I would feel Isabel’s breath. It was more than time: it was life, hope.

Perhaps even a map out of the dark wood.

We were far from where we should have been, and I had never planned to share my childhood coastline with her so closely. But in those few moments that I held her, I understood that the rocks and houses and water were just things, places and spaces on a map like any other. They were no longer my home.

Home was my daughter’s breath on my shoulder.

A sampling of Luzzi’s book recommendations:

1Patrick Modiano’s Out of the Dark

I read Out of the Dark because I was curious about Modiano’s Nobel Prize—I had heard of him when I lived in France, but only because I remembered seeing his name plastered on the wonderful, low-priced Folio editions from Gallimard. Reading him for the first time this past year, I was struck by his similarity to one of my favorite directors, the Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni. Both artists manage to create eerie, elegant, highly stylized worlds in which even the slightest word or act is pregnant with innuendo.

1Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

When I first read Ferrante for a review I wrote in 2013, the freshness of her voice and level of her mastery blew me away. I teach Italian literature for a living and have a doctorate in the subject, but I had never read anyone like her before—and yet her unique prose, humming with intelligence, reminded me of some the very greats in the nation’s history. The novel features Ferrante’s exquisite patience in building up a story brick by brick, making us feel as though we’re observing life itself on the page, in all its chaos—until suddenly and organically this mess coalesces into something unexpectedly beautiful, taking our breath away just as minutes earlier it had seemed to rob us of all hope.

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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