Sunday, August 2, 2015

the italian poet and the comma queen: a summer romance with a bit of old russian and murder

First and foremost, I am an idiot. Yes, yes, it’s true. Despite your protestations, faint as they seem to be (that is a protestation, right?), I am an idiot. Please, do not try to persuade me to the contrary. I know what I know and the evidence room is stacked floor to ceiling, items neatly tagged with dates and places, all those reminders, all that evidence! I am an idiot. Also, I may just be a romantic, which is no excuse, I agree, except … maybe? A feeble, forgivable one?

Oh yes. I have been known to behave idiotically—so idiotically!—simply because the romance of it all caused my head to spin, my heart to flutter, and with all that going on, where can one find oneself but in a dither? Only later upon finding out that according to The Other Hey! There is no romance here! What the heck are you talking about? Quit all that spinning and fluttering and dithering and get out of here! will I crash to Earth, in dismay, all those idyllic images I walked besottedly straight into being ruled by The Insect Gods and strewn, no less, with dead flies and mouse turds. No different, really, from anywhere else, from anyone else.

Oh, I have the evidence all right. One would think one would learn.

But alas, as a romantic, every time I walk out on a morning not yet dawned to find myself nearly blinded by a full moon hanging low in the western sky barely kissed by overgrown fields, I forget. And every time I sit on the porch of an evening and the wind stills and out there in a shaft of sunlight I spy this vast other world of insects flying every which way making crazy little sparkling patterns in the haze, I forget. And on occasion in the serious dark of winter when the fire is exploding with heat and I am nearby and I am warm and a storm rages outside, I forget. And every time a Chicago Cub hits a home run, I forget. And sometimes, it’s just the air. Something about the feel of the air. And I forget.

Lately, I find romance in books. It all started a few weeks ago with that library card. I’ve had in my lifetime maybe eight or ten library cards starting at age six with a card of muted orange made of thin cardboard, stiff but pliable, with rounded edges that would bend and crease, get fuzzy. In one corner a strip of metal with raised numbers was attached through two thin slots that the metal fit into, its top and bottom edges folded over, crimped tight against the cardboard. How did that card work? How exactly, without computers, did librarians keep track of who had what book for how long? And wouldn’t it be interesting to have a list of all the books you’ve ever checked out of a library? Since age six? Sometimes I would fiddle with that metal strip and the way it attached to the card and the whole system would get worn and tattered and eventually I’d have to get a new card, which probably cost a dollar or something. The initial card, of course, was free.

I paid an annual fee of $85 for my library card here, which is plastic with a spare to attach to my key chain in case I ever forget the real thing, and now I can’t recall where I put the spare—certainly not on my key chain—and that $85 is an example of romance meeting reality, cause for alarm, but in this case, no problem. It was, however, a different story a few years back when I was first faced with having to pay for a library card. Then it was $75 to continue using a library I had been enjoying for free. Reality greeted romance with a bill for $75 and I got pissed off, walked away, joined the Amazon Nation, thought I was fine, but I was not.

If not for the library, I wouldn’t be reading short stories by Dostoevsky. One day I turned around in the stacks thinking oh, I need one more book, and there was Fyodor.
Good Lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?
Thanks to the library, on my way to and from the farmers market each Saturday I am listening to a mystery, the first being The Death of a Bore, by M.C. Beaton, read by Graeme Malcolm. Rachel was right—his voice is great! I especially enjoy the dialogue. Malcolm changes his voice a bit here, a bit there, to be one character or another ranging from quirky old spinster sisters to hardboiled seafarers to arrogant detectives. What could be more romantic than a deep, Scottish-inflected voice bringing to life this misty, murder-besieged village somewhere out there in the Scottish Highlands? (Oh, by the way, the murdered bore was a writer.)

I found In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love, by Joseph Luzzi, and Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris, at the library. Both are new books, just two-week loans, and I was feeling the pressure—I am not a particularly fast reader. Plus, I was expecting to like both, which is another kind of pressure—don’t want to be disappointed! And I was a little scared of In a Dark Wood because I have never read Dante. Perhaps this book would be too heady or literary for me. Perhaps I would not understand it.

I knew of the book only because I had heard the author interviewed one morning on the radio. It sounded interesting, but it’s possible I would have forgotten about it but for the Italian connection, the Dante connection, as no doubt Louis mentioned Dante and“The Divine Comedy” to me once or twice. Louis and I did have some wonderful conversations, and I suppose the title of this book and the author’s Italianness brought all that to mind, fed my anticipation, which added to the worry that the book might let me down, but it did not. So many passages I wanted to mark! But I could not stop reading, and besides, this was a library book, so I kept going, thinking, I will read this again someday.

Throughout the book I found silky threads of connection bringing in new ways to look at things, to organize thoughts and feelings through that crazy poem written hundreds of years ago as well as through most everything else Luzzi draws on. So many threads weaving together, coming through the language, the poetry, the family, the grief, the love, the Italian—I would go so far to say the very texture of the paper.

Luzzi is a professor of Italian and a Dante scholar. He is also a writer and a man who in a split-second lost his wife but not his unborn daughter—his first child. He is a man—a romantic, I feel sure—struggling to understand not only grief but love, how to move on, move forward; how to live the life that is now rather than yearning or grieving for the life that was, or was supposed to be. He turns to and is taught by Dante Alighieri, a poet exiled from his home, from Florence, in 1302. Dante spent pretty much the rest of his life writing “The Divine Comedy,” a poem of 14,233 lines in three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. He died in 1321.

It turns out that Luzzi, also Italian, is the first in his family to be born in America, raised in Rhode Island, and not only does he become a professor, he moves away from his family, his roots. But, after the loss of his wife and birth of his daughter, he moves back “home” and in many ways is saved not only by Dante but by his Old-World, Italian-speaking mother.

For me, some of the most interesting parts of In a Dark Wood were the descriptions of Luzzi’s family, the mother and father who came to the U.S. from Calabria, an area in southern Italy, in the mid-1950s. I remembered the page number—249—of one sentence I knew I had to remember. In describing his father, Luzzi writes:
He died longing for a Calabria that never was, because America never became the place he hoped it would be.
You could substitute so many places, so many things, for “Calabria” and “America.” Maybe “Chicago” and “the Upper Peninsula.” Or, “togetherness” and “solitude.” Go ahead—you try it.

A couple of pages before, Luzzi is going on about Dante and Cacciaguida and Florence and this and that and this is kind of what he does, he takes you to these places and people you may know nothing or little about, teaching you a bit about them but eventually making it clear that whatever it is he’s talking about, it is also something about him, and quite possibly you, too.
It’s not surprising that Dante would create so extravagant—and skewed—a picture of this primitive Florence that never was. He had fallen prey to the great enabler of grief and handmaiden of mourning—a disease that itself was an invention, that of nostalgia.
Now, if you want to know how nostalgia was invented, read the next paragraph of the book. You will find yourself, kind of, in the Swiss Alps with the “banging of cow kettles” and learn, like I did, that nostalgia is one part pain. -algia = pain. I knew that, of course, I mean, I see -algia in other words and know it means pain, like in neuralgia and fibromyalgia, but never before had I seen the -algia, the pain, in nostalgia. I always thought nostalgia was supposed to be fun, like dancing without shoes to Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.”

Lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for my life before here, my life in Chicago and Evanston and the suburbs, where I grew up, the security of 9-to-5, the knowing of every street, every alley, every shop, every distance, every beaten path and every short-cut around it. In other words, home. I’ve been homesick. Like Dante. I have begun to think that in my own way I was exiled from Chicago, because there are reasons I never went back except when I had to, and not all reasons have to do with me not wanting to go back, but rather, with me being not able to go back.

Right now I am deep into Between You and Me, written by a copy editor (copy-editor? copyeditor? see page … dang, can’t find it) at The New Yorker, who, by the way, is a woman of a certain age with a great sense of humor. This book is all about stuff like Words! Grammar! Style! Punctuation! All that fuss over “who” and “whom”! “That” and “which”! Commas commas commas … or, commas, commas, and commas … or, commas, commas and more commas. (Did you know the comma was invented in the 1400s by an Italian guy? Which means, of course, that Dante had 14,233 lines of poetry, but no commas to work with.) Norris occasionally draws on The Honeymooners to make a point (“polopony” appears on page 119, in a discussion of compound words, and I simply laughed out loud, seriously, LOL), and she tells stories of New Yorker editors and writers and starts off the whole thing, the book, with a story about her first job: checking swimmers’ feet for fungus at a public pool in Cleveland.

Grammar and fungus! Not romantic? Well, OK, I’ll give you the fungus—not romantic. But grammar? Where would we be without words and grammar? Without clarity? Without expression of feeling? After all, it is through words peppered with punctuation that so many of us find—indeed, try to capture, hold on to—romance. Oh! Idiots that we are!

 to be continued …

See … nostalgia. Some of these guys look a little creepy and everyone is wearing shoes! However, there are two couples I find particularly romantic. Can you guess who? (Or is it “which”, as in which couples are romantic, not who couples? Hmmm … )


  1. I get lost in your words. Every week I am engrossed.

    1. Just so you find your way back out. It's a helluva place to get lost!