La Vita Nuova
by Dante Alighieri
In that book which is
my memory . . .
On the first page
that is the chapter when
I first met you
appear the words . . .
Here begins a new life
Until I read this poem I never considered what moment in my life I might mark with the plaque Here Begins a New Life. As it happens today is a good day to consider the question because today is my husband’s and my 24th anniversary.
I taped Dante’s little poem to a column on the campus of the Jesuit all-boys’ high school my husband attended and where we first met at his school’s low-budget and lumbering production of Damn Yankees. Thirty-one years ago I stepped through this portico into the gym it once housed, and there my life took the tiniest of turns that in retrospect mapped out the rest of my life.
I sat in the bleachers, waiting for play practice to start. This was in the days before the old gym was turned into a state-of-the-art library, before the school had an 480-seat theater, back in the days when an English teacher with extra time directed the play, when students built sets from plywood and two by fours, and we all learned to project because no one had body mikes.
A boy I had recently become friends with, perhaps the first boy I was ever comfortable enough with to befriend, walked in the gym after spring break. I hadn’t seen him in over a week, and when he appeared, tall and lanky, with flaming red hair, granny glasses and a face swollen from sun poisoning, I realized I had been waiting for him without knowing it. I felt a rush of happiness, a happiness I still associate with the heady smell of sawdust and boys’ body odor. We walked down the length of the gym, side by side, and something wonderful and quiet happened. I felt I had come home. Walking side by side with him felt like home.
And that was the beginning of everything.
Since I’m keen on symmetry, I’ll mention that as I write this, I’m waiting to see him after a week’s time and my own face is swollen and red from a bite or allergic reaction.
The poem is from Dante’s La Vita Nuova, an autobiographical book of poems and prose about his love for the immortal Beatrice. When he first saw her, he was nine and she was eight. From that moment he never stopped loving her, even though both married other people. The day she first said hello to him, he was so overwhelmed he had to go home and pull himself together. He fell asleep and had a dream that became the volume from which this poem is taken. (Apologies are in order: my knowledge of Dante is about as deep as this poem is long, and so the presentation is on the shallow side. Plus it’s Memorial Day and I want to weed the garden before my husband arrives home.)
I will say that I like how the poem takes its time to get to the point. Dante leads his audience down and around a spiral of book, chapter, page, and finally a few words to get to the precious center: Here begins a new life.
Happy Anniversary, dearest heart.