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Dante Guides A Husband Through Grief 'In A Dark Wood'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. On November 29, 2007, Joseph Luzzi's life changed irreversibly. His wife, Catherine, eight-and-a-half months pregnant, was killed in a car crash. Before she died, doctors delivered their daughter, Isabel. In the space of a morning, Luzzi became a widower and a father. In grief, Luzzi turned to a pastor, a counselor, his family. But Luzzi, who teaches Italian literature, also took refuge in the words of Dante Alighieri. Joseph Luzzi has written about that time in his memoir, "In A Dark Wood." The title is borrowed from the opening lines of Dante's "Divine Comedy."

JOSEPH LUZZI: After Katherine's death, the poem started to take on these new levels of meaning for me because for the first time, I actually could hear Dante's voice. The poem was written, the "Divine Comedy," after he was exiled from Florence in 1302. And Dante spent basically the last 20 years of his life wandering up and down Italy, looking for a home, feeling the pain of having lost Florence in a visceral way. And that image of exile from what had been my own life, Dante's words spoke to me. They captured better than anything else the way I felt about what had happened. It was as though I'd fallen through a trap door from the life that I had into one that, you know, I didn't want and was desperate to get that former life back. So the dark wood started out to mean something very personal, that moment of the great crisis in a way that defines your life as Dante wrote about it.

MARTIN: You describe something in the book called the electric air of grief. Can you talk about that?

LUZZI: I talk about that immediate feeling of grief in the kind of shock and fog that you go into to kind of help you survive something - a sudden death like that. And I realized by the end of that year with carrying that feeling, that it had somehow heightened everything around me, that my whole life was seen through this perspective of grief, that my suffering was so intense - almost as though it was like living in a charged atmosphere. And for me, it created this sort of inwardness that the grief became a kind of prison that became very hard to get out of. You know, at one point, I finally stepped out. And the air was no longer electric. And it felt, at that point, that grief had ended and that I could begin the work of mourning.

MARTIN: Is that when you really woke up to your daughter? Because it did take you a long time to see her, understand your role as her father. What made that change finally happen?

LUZZI: As I was writing the book, I think that the thing that I had to come to terms with with myself was that the grieving process had really exiled me from fatherhood as well, that I was completely dependent on my family to help me. I decided to keep up my teaching, my writing. And I was in Isabel's life, along with my parents, but they were really doing the day-to-day heavy lifting. And, you know, as I was writing the book, I remember at one point, I wrote something like, I was with Isabel as much as circumstances allowed. And I think my editor circled it and said, were you? (Laughter), you know, question mark. And at that point, I was like, OK, I need to come clean with this. I wasn't there in the beginning. And Isabel became the center of my life, but it took years to get there.

MARTIN: You have been sitting with and thinking about Dante and his work for so long, for decades. Now that you have experienced him in this very personal way, sort of mapping out your life against his, has your understanding of him changed?

LUZZI: He's not an easy guy to kind of get inside his head. He's not sentimental. He's incredibly - you know, there's a kind of austerity and intellectual rigor. But when you ask about the new meaning to me, it was the intimacy of Dante's voice. I heard it. It was almost as though it was coming from his mouth to my ears. And that had never happened before. And what really stuck with me was that here's this guy who really had everything. He was one of the leading poets and politicians in Florence. And he loses everything. And in the first years, he desperately wanted to get back to Florence. And as he writes in the "Divine Comedy," that was his lowest point, when he had really hit rock bottom because he was trying to get a life that no longer existed. Only when he stopped trying to get back to Florence and accepted his exile was he able to start writing the "Divine Comedy." So in his moment of great despair, he created something transcendently beautiful that is still with us and speaks so vibrantly after 700 years. That, to me, was the great lesson. If this moment in the dark wood is such a thing that is going to have this - it be a turning point in your life, try to handle it with the same amount of courage and resolve as Dante did all those years ago.

MARTIN: How is life now? You did eventually remarry.

LUZZI: I did remarry. After a long and bitter journey with a lot of ups and downs, I met an extraordinary woman. And to me, the great miracle that I witnessed unfold was watching Helena become Isabel's mother and giving us our lives back.

MARTIN: The book is called "In A Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing And The Mysteries Of Love." It's written by Joseph Luzzi. Thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your story, Joseph.

LUZZI: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.