For author and professor Martha Cooley, the tombstones in a charming Tuscan village cemetery serve as a touchstone to a pair of seemingly incongruent truths: that grief can be at once imprisoning and liberating.

Cover of 'Such Sweet Sorrow' article.Travels to rustic Italy took the guesswork out of grief

As landmarks go, the small cemetery in Castiglione del Terziere, Italy, is a relatively nondescript (if surprisingly colorful) feature of a charming Tuscan village that juxtaposes natural beauty with modern amenities and a timeworn medieval castle. For Martha Cooley, award-winning author and professor of English at Adelphi, the cemetery’s tombstones serve as a touchstone to a pair of seemingly incongruent truths: that grief can be at once imprisoning and liberating.

“They’re not your dead, I said to myself, as the stories, inadvertent and uninvited, began piling up in my head,” Cooley writes in Guesswork: A Reckoning With Loss (Catapult, 2017), a just-published collection of 16 essays recounting the passing of eight close friends and forecasting the challenges around her parents’ failing health. “You don’t have to grieve for them, you don’t know a soul here, it’s not your job.”

The book has garnered praise from reviewers of all stripes. Diane Cole of The Wall Street Journal notes that Cooley provides a “contrasting calm” to those who wax pedantic on a subject all of us must face sooner or later. As a meditation on losses past, present and future, the professor’s first nonfiction book is an emotionally intimate, ultimately uplifting reflection on seeing with clarity, coming to terms and moving forward.

“In our media-saturated times, people need opportunities to be still,” said Cooley, who considers the book, which she wrote while on sabbatical, a “happy accident.” “They need to simply watch the emotional weather come and go and observe their emotional landscape—as well as their physical and social surroundings—without judgment, but with keen attention.”

Keen attention is clearly deserved in this case. In an “open letter” to the author in the literary journal The Common, Adelphi English Professor Judith Baumel marvels at the “Cooley wisdom and wit and wonder”—a knack for weaving deceptively trivial stories and cultural artifacts into a rich, heartfelt tapestry. Herself a contributor to The Common, which adapted her first-year seminar lesson plan requiring students to propose a viable literary magazine, Cooley recently won a 2017 O. Henry Prize for her short story “Mercedes Benz,” which will be published in an anthology in September. She has also co-translated several works of poetry and fiction by Italian writers, most recently Time Ages in a Hurry (Archipelago, 2015) by award-winning author Antonio Tabucchi.

As a novelist, essayist and translator, Cooley’s work spans genres, geography and time (her best-selling first novel, 1998’s The Archivist (Little, Brown, 1998), is on a New York Times summer reading list for 2017 and is a fitting mirror of her life. She and her husband, Italian author Antonio Romani, split their time between Forest Hills, in Queens, New York, and Lunigiana, Italy, and their languages between English and Italian.

Before joining Adelphi in 2005, Cooley was a core member of the Bennington (College) Writing Seminars for 15 years and taught creative writing in the M.A. programs at Boston University and Manhattanville College. She also serves on the membership committee of the PEN American Center, where she was a judge of the 2011 PEN Poetry in Translation Prize; was cited in The Best American Essays 2013 (Mariner); is a contributing editor for the literary magazine A Public Space; and sits on the board of directors of Archipelago Books.

In Italy, Cooley has lectured and led fiction workshops in Milan, Siena, Certaldo, Cremona and Cortona, where she also curated literary events at the Tuscan Sun Festival of the Arts for four years. She is a consummate host, and an enthusiastic virtual tour guide who blogs about a Florentine library that boasts an almost accidental collection of fine art, the olive-pressing process that separates the great oil from the merely good, and the neighborhood cats who nap upon cozy beds of sun-warmed roof tiles.

Above all, she maintains a steadfast understanding that life is to be observed—and lived. “Jiggling an hourglass,” Cooley notes in Guesswork, “doesn’t alter the sand’s flow.”

Who knew a rumination on death could expose such joie de vivre? Those who have attended Cooley’s classes or read her work already do.

Novelist, essayist and translator Martha Cooley won an O. Henry Prize in 2017 for her short story “Mercedes Benz” and her debut novel, The Archivist, was included in a New York Times summer reading list. Her nonfiction book Guesswork: A Reckoning With Loss, also published this year, has received praise for its insightful take on mourning. She has been at Adelphi since 2005, where she is currently a professor of English.

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