I/our

The poet wakes in a dark wood – or, as he puts it, in ‘una selva oscura’. I don’t speak Italian but the sounds of his words call out to me. ‘Mi ritrovai’, says the poet, ‘per una selva oscura’. In that phrase, there is wave is breaking. I hear it fall forward but we are, I think, in its undertow. Mi ritrovai. I find myself. I come back to myself in a dark wood. Even though the wood calls on my attention (wild and frightening and irresistible is the wood), I claw my way back to a point of grammar in the first line:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

‘In the middle of the journey of our life,’ says the poet, ‘I find myself in a dark wood, for the straight way is lost.’ Only a return can help me relate the pronoun here. In the middle of the journey of our life, says the poet, I awake. These are the words of Dante Alighieri at the beginning of his vast fourteenth-century poem, the Commedia. I turn them over and over, searching out their meaning. Perhaps, as some have suggested, this is just a move from the individual ‘I’ to the universal ‘our’. That would certainly make sense in a poem that slowly winds its way through visions of hell, purgatory and heaven. The poet’s journey is, in this sense, our journey. But the currents of the poem do not let me stay there. They pull me back into that moment of waking. Mi ritrovai. I wake and I talk about you. I address myself to you, as I am doing now. I come back to myself only in relation to another (that is to say, you). I awake (in the only way I really can awake) in our life.

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