Joseph Luzzi’s new memoir, In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love, transforms unthinkable tragedy into literary gold. In November 2007, while Luzzi was teaching at Bard College, his beloved pregnant wife Katherine was in a car accident: She died later that morning at the hospital, shortly after their daughter Isabel was born. In the space of a single morning, Joseph Luzzi became both a father and widower.
Luzzi’s previous memoir, My Two Italies, sketched the duality between the southern region of Calabria, where the Luzzi family hails from, and Florence, home of the Renaissance. He calls upon his two Italies once again to help him endure the electric anguish he experiences in the wake of Katherine’s death. His return home to Rhode Island and his fierce Calabrian mother Yolanda allows for baby Isabel to be brought up in the bosom of a southern Italian matriarchy, while his reading of Florentine exile Dante helps him journey through the dark woods of grief.
More than counselors or pastors, Dante’s Divine Comedy teaches Luzzi about the stages of mourning. The Inferno is charged and electric, while Katherine’s absence is so raw; stumbling through the Purgatorio is challenging, as Luzzi adjusts with difficulty to becoming a father to Isabel. Eventually, the Paradisio emerges: an adjustment to Katherine’s death, Isabel’s needs and the entrance of new love.
More than simply a memoir of mourning, In a Dark Wood is also a deeply felt reading of the Divine Comedy, with excursions through Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid. Luzzi’s life-experience charges these epic poems with urgency and meaning, taking them from the classroom and into the world. His learned yet accessible discussions of these texts—as they helped him through his grief—will encourage readers to look to these classics with fresh eyes.
In a Dark Wood testifies to the life-giving importance of literature and what it has to teach us.