REMEMBERING LOUISE DESALVO
I read Louise DeSalvo’s Vertigo for the second time last month. The first time was two years ago, when I read it at the suggestion of my colleague Edi Giunta.
“I’m writing a novel about Hoboken and my childhood there,” I’d told Edi.
“You should read Louise’s Vertigo,” she said. Simple.
It took me a while to get to the book, but eventually I did. I’d met Louise years before at one of Edi’s great parties. I spoke to her a bit, nothing that I recall beyond the usual exchange of information, those biographical notes that initially don’t get very specific or deep. I never got to know Louise very well, unfortunately, and we didn’t have any other interaction save a few emails when I was applying for grad schools in creative writing. Nor did we establish our mutual origins in Hoboken, I don’t believe. I’m sure we didn’t mention our love for the place.
After my first reading of Vertigo during the summer of 2016 I began writing Louise an email. I still have it: a few sentences, addressed too formally to Professor DeSalvo. Maybe I’d forgotten our conversations; maybe I wanted to be proper. But I’d hardly made a start that held much significance, so I let it sit. “I’ll read the book again,” I told myself at the time, “then I’ll be more prepared. I’ll have more to say to her.” Well, that never happened. I mostly forgot about the email. This past year I heard the news of Louise’s death, but only when I came across the eulogy written by Edi. I was sad for Louise, her family, for her friends and students. I was particularly sad for Edi, who was especially close with Louise. I thought about Edi’s loss and pain, imagining how deep it would run. I sent condolences to her and she suggested I write about Louise for the tribute planned in Ovunque Siamo. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to say. I’d loved reading Vertigo because of Louise’s honesty and clarity, her questions and rumination. But I was moved by the writing to a great extent because I shared many biographical similarities with her. That take seemed more about me than Louise. I felt narcissistic rather than celebratory of her life.
I read Vertigo the second time hoping I’d be better able to write a tribute with the book fresh in my memory. The parallels struck me once again: born in the same hospital, Italian-American working class, a love for our Hoboken childhood coupled with longing and sadness for the city when our parents moved us away, headed for a “better environment.” We were both asthmatic, too. Even our mothers rhymed, their birth dates three days apart, and sharing their maiden name, Calabrese. How strange it all was, compounded by the fact that we ended up academics, working in cultural fields, endeavors well beyond our families’ parameters. While so much about our lives was common, so many differences existed, too.
But what came to me as I read during a week of winter nights, huddled under a blanket, deep in Louise’s words, in her life, was that as I burrowed into it I was getting to know her. I was with her running around downtown Hoboken, with her making out in the movie theater, drinking too much; with her when she was dropped off at college by her parents, a poignant but explosively liberating event for her and me as well. Those identifications are what good writing does, of course. I believed, though, that I had a more vivid sense of Louise and her journey because I’d been in the same spots, many times literally. Her writing let me into her psyche, into her fears and sadness, into her joys, her confidence, her triumphs and defeats. Louise’s writing was alive through the strength of her recollection and her forthright revelations. She invited and I went along, thrilled to do so.
I became upset with myself for not reaching out earlier, while she lived. It was a selfish thought, in some regard, because I imagined I’d lost an opportunity that might help me professionally, perhaps, or to bring notice to my own story. I did wish, though, that I’d been able to know and speak with Louise, to share our stories while learning more about her life. Still, I didn’t recognize her suffering, the struggle she had with her health. Not until I read the eulogy, though, did I understand. I felt the great loss of Louise DeSalvo. She had died. Her presence in so many lives irrevocably changed. I mourned specifically for the daily sharing Louise and Edi nurtured. I felt the pain of their lost love; a love which is so rare, especially as we age. Friendships like that are so intimate, and so hard to maintain, but damn powerful when preserved.
I wrote Edi a message of condolence, one specific to her. A few sentences from it are ones I think of often when a loved one dies: There is no replacement for any love, no closure when it is ripped away, no salve that can alleviate the burn. Rather, I must always remember the person, I must always mark the loss, and I must always hold them in the nether-region of my mind, my soul, and my body, which they once occupied.
There’s nothing good I can say about dying, nothing magical or mystical I believe in. To leave behind evidence of a life that holds significance for others, though; well, what a legacy that is.
I wouldn’t dare to suggest how or in what manner Louise stays with Edi or any other relation. Her words and her writing will resonate differently for each. But I thank Edi, my dear colleague, for her suggestion to read Vertigo. By doing so I felt Louise’s blessing, received for what I’ve done and am doing. I heard her Hudson County accented encouragement.
A simple gesture made without a second thought or any agenda led me to reading Louise’s words. I treasure the gift, happy and thankful I share in it. This is not to say that reading the book makes me comfortable or alleviates anyone’s loss. Rather, it reminds me of the second by second passing of life, each moment encumbered with the slow drip that diminishes all we’ve understood, all we’ve expected to remain forever, all we must desperately try to corral and keep close before it vanishes.
Mauro Altamura was an exhibiting visual artist for over thirty years, teaching at New Jersey City University, where he was an Associate Professor. He also taught at John Cabot University, Rome. He has an MFA in Visual Art from SUNY Buffalo/Visual Studies Workshop. He returned to grad school in 2007 and received a second MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers, Newark. He lives and writes in Jersey City, NJ.