When does this story begin? Elizabeth Alexander muses in the opening of her memoir. She and Ficre Ghebreyesus were the great loves of each other’s lives but all of that was one in an instant when Ficre suddenly died of massive heart failure. And so, she wonders, does this story begin when they met? When they married? When he died?
Alexander — perhaps most famous for writing “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s first inauguration — contemplates all of these different beginnings. More a celebration of Ficre’s life than an elegy, each chapter feels like a vignette focused on important scenes from their lives. The two met in New York City and had a passionate romance that quickly led to marriage and the birth of their first son; they eventually grew into a family of four. Alexander is originally from Harlem, while Ghebreyesus fled his native home of Eritrea amidst violent upheaval and eventually settled in the United States; they found what they needed — culturally, emotionally, and artistically — in each other. She made her mark as a poet, playwright, and academic, while Ghebreyesus was a well-loved artist (that’s his work on the book cover) and a chef. The loss felt by all who knew him is palpable and acute.
This is one of the most beautiful — if not the most beautiful — memoirs of grief I’ve ever read. It’s a book of prose, but the lyrical nature of Alexander’s poetry background shines through:
Nothing was out of place or excessive about him. He looked like one of several variations on an Abyssinian “type,” which is to say large, wide-set eyes, broad, smooth forehead, a particular luminosity to his brown color, a carved nose. But he was, of course, only himself. His voice lilted across a pentatonic scale. “How are you?” D-sharp, C, G-sharp. There was chocolate in his voice, a depth, a bottom.
I also loved this quote:
“Oh beauty, you are the light of the world!” was the quotation we chose for the bench by the side of the grave, from a poem by Derek Walcott my teacher, whose words Ficre and I revered. The exaltation with which we met, and beauty itself, the thing we both chased and tried to re-create in our work, that which lights the world and its darkness that he understood so well.
With its ruminations on art, beauty, family, and life, The Light of the World is a great book to just savor and read through slowly. It’s a truly lovely book, and certainly one of my favorites so far this year.
The Light of the World was released in April 2015 by Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.