To characterize Elizabeth Alexander’s raw, elegantly drawn memoir “The Light of the World” as an elegy would be far too narrow a classification — not just of its breadth but its intentions.
Alexander — the poet and essayist who stood before the world to deliver her poem of celebration “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration — led a life that had the loft and lushness of a fairy tale. There was the loving, intuitive partner, the Ivy League teaching position, her busy creative endeavors and the lively collection of friends whose names traced the spines of books or museum gallery walls. All that, then one spring day her husband of nearly 15 years, Ficre Ghebreyesus — an artist and chef, the father of her two sons — collapsed on the treadmill in the basement of their New Haven, Conn., home. Unrevivable. Dead, four days after his 50th birthday.
It isn’t simply the shock of the death itself — or the spreading stain of grief — that Alexander finds herself wading through but the landscape shifts that death initiates inside her head and heart; a survivor’s new place in an upturned world — when religion or ritual or easy platitudes aren’t the balm one can reach for.
To try to regain her internal compass, Alexander sorts through a series of fading after-images: vignettes, sensations, snatches of conversation, even Ficre’s recipes, laying each memory rough edge to rough edge. In so doing she tries to quantify the weight of emptiness and measure the breadth of absence: “The story seems to begin with catastrophe” or “It begins on a beautiful morning in April” or perhaps “It began when I met him, sixteen years before.” Reaching back becomes an inventory of beginnings, recalling promise — not endings.
How does one usher someone — their very meaning — back from the ether? How does one make the unreal real? These are the urgent rhetorical questions that loom over Alexander’s narrative: “Lost implies we are looking, he might be found,” she writes, “I lost my husband. Where is he I often wonder?”
Line by line, she begins to sketch a new path. The narrative evolves as a collage of memory — not chronological but associative. A jagged succession of asides, poems, fragments lie juxtaposed against heart-rending exclamations: “Do you see why I miss him?” Some chapters run pages long, others a mere sentence. Each memory jolt reveals a heart in tumult.
Much of the book’s vitality springs from Alexander’s early discursiveness, her effort of circling back from the wilds. The effect is not an unburdening as much as a recognition that each precise noun or verb is an act of reassurance; that what is now a void once had shape and meaning. A sunny East African man, Ficre survived the nightmare of Eritrea’s Red Terror, “literally walked across his country through killing fields to escape, when he was sixteen” — and decades later, in his hot pink shirts and orange tams, embodied the phrase “pop of color.” His bright canvases affirmed his embrace of life.
The specifics of discord we don’t hear here. “In all marriages there are struggles and ours was no different in that regard. But we always came to the other shore,” she writes. Love wins: The irony, not lost on the poet, is that his big heart is what gave out.
To call the book a riff would underplay its craft and exactitude. However, the power of Alexander’s narrative is in its volubility and the very vividness of her presence — unvarnished and vulnerable. Her voice lingers: Its haunting cadence pulls you through wreckage you may not want to see close up but must to — like her — get to the other side.
Alexander’s memoir doesn’t dole out reflexive aphorisms, nor does it pretend to prescribe a “follow me to wholeness” path. It isn’t stoic or stiff-upper-lip. Rather it deals with loss in a blunt, aching way. Her fragility is what’s most reassuring.
“The Light of the World” is Alexander’s travelogue back to herself. Art, she begins to understand, is a north star, it is as well “certainly my religion.” That fairy-tale life she was building wasn’t mere chimera; it has true heft and deep, sustaining roots — and so too her husband’s memory.
“Is the goal to no longer see him there? Or to always see him there?” she wonders late in her grieving. Is this act of remembering like trying to catch light — a spirit — in a bottle? Pen to paper, like his brush to canvas, she’s crossing toward something.
The comfort in her own sacred ritual — writing about him — is insurance, its own celebration. “Ficre did not paint what he saw. He saw in his mind and then he painted how he wanted the world to look,” she reflects. “He painted to fix something in place and so, I write to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember even though I know I will never forget.”
George is an L.A.-based writer and a columnist at KCET Artbound.
The Light of the World
Grand Central, 209 pp., $26