The Light of the World: A Memoir

By Elizabeth Alexander

Grand Central Publishing | April  2015 | 224 pages

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

Elizabeth  Alexander

To be in love
Is to touch with a lighter hand.
In yourself you stretch, you are well.
You look at things
Through his eyes.

By Gwendolyn Brooks

In this poem on the nature of love, poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks informs us that  when you are in love, “you look at things through his eyes.” We see this concept epitomized in Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, The Light of the World.  The memoir is a narrative recounting Alexander’s trauma and grief when she suddenly loses her husband of 15 years.  It is an experience that jars her sensibilities, interferes with a sense of normalcy and impacts on her emotional well being and sense of self.

Light of the World is also a testimony to Alexander’s deep and sacred love for her husband Ficre, an East African man from Eritrea.  As she recalls their life’s journey, we witness her go through the process that is necessary to regain a sense of well being and to heal herself and her sons. 

This is a compelling memoir, told through a poetic voice that blends prose and poetry as Alexander details the death, the loss and the grief that she and her sons experience.  As the events leading up to the death unfold, we learn that she could not write this memoir until she had undergone certain stages in the grieving process and had had the time to reflect and remember the special moments, the talks, dreams, celebrations, and meetings that came to her mind as flashpoints. 

Alexander divides the book into five sections, each a story in and of itself that provides a different portrait of Ficre and his relationship with his family from the perspectives of Alexander, her husband and her sons. Thus, we see the many sides of the impact of Ficre’s death on the family and we witness it from many starting points.  The result is a nonlinear narrative that reflects the psychological and dream states of Alexander and her sons

Her husband Ficre is an artist who lived each day as fully as possible and was conscious about leaving a legacy and his imprint on the world, his family and his friends.

Alexander notes that “he left us with his eyes on the world.”  And she ponders on what it has meant to live with an artist. “To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.”

Ficre has a studio and although he has a job as a chef to supplement his work, art is his passion. It is clear that he lives for this and his passion permeates all aspects of his life.  Although she encourages him to sell and market his art, he informs her that people would know his work after he was gone.  This is one of several visions and premonitions on death in the memoir.

We experience such statements for Elizabeth Alexander is a natural storyteller.  She begins the memoir with the words: “The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.  Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”   

This relationship between catastrophe, loss and love foreshadows the events in the memoir. One such moment, haunting in many respects, occurs several days before Ficre’s death; a giant hawk appears in their yard and she, Ficre and her friend Lorna observe it as it eviscerates and devours a squirrel. Alexander later finds among Ficre’s papers, an acrostic in which he exhausts variations on the word hawk.  It is clear that Ficre is moved by seeing the hawk. 

Other events guided by these premonitions or forebodings occur. Ficre dies on April 4, just before Easter Sunday, just after his birthday and on the anniversary of the tragic murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The painting on the easel that Ficre works on during on his last day on earth is of a horseman, who is racing off the canvas towards something unseen.  These incidents, which symbolize a foreshadowing of death, help to create a moving story of the grieving process, one that will resonate for many who have loved and lost.

Alexander is a poet who paints visual images in her poetry and prose. Symbols of food, art, music, religion and African culture permeate the pages and are recurring symbols throughout the memoir. This is captured through her remembrance of birthdays, holiday gatherings and dinner parties.  And in celebration of these events, we feel the loss.

One chapter opens with an excerpt on friendship and loss from Langston Hughes:

I loved my friend

               He went away from me

               There’s nothing more to say

               The poem ends,

               Soft as it began

               I loved my friend.

She shares Lucille Clifton’s poem, a meditation on the death of Fred Clifton, her husband who is also an artist in another chapter.  In the poem, Clifton tries to imagine what dying is like and Alexander reflects how she connects with Clifton, for she is “Ficre’s widow, clutching at his edges. . . She “cannot imagine what sight awaits. . . her.”   

We learn of the meals shared by her and Ficre and are given recipes for Shrimp Baraka, and Spaghetti with a Hundred Onions. As the reader moves through the narrative, the music of Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Ahmad Jamal, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and Randy Weston becomes the backdrop for many of the remembrances in this family that represents a blending of cultures.

There are lines that stand out in this memoir, almost in a haunting way.  “The day he died, the four of us were exactly the same height.”   At 5 feet, 9 inches, Alexander, Ficre and her sons Solomon and Simon were all the same height. 

In her first poem, drafted many months after his death, “Family in ¾ Time,” Alexander begins, with “We are now a three-legged table, a family of three, once a family of four.  We bring ourselves into new balance.  The table wobbles, but does not fall.”  These words reflect both the beginning and ending of this memoir.  Through telling her story and with the support of her personal friends, colleagues and family, Alexander has begun the slow, painful process of healing and of connecting to the larger community.  The Light of the World is a sensitively told rendition on the nature of love and loss.

The author of six books of poetry including American Sublime, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, two collections of essays, The Black Interior (Graywolf Press, 2004) and Power and Possibility (University of Michigan Press,  2007 ), Elizabeth Alexander is a highly respected teacher, scholar and mentor and Professor of Creative Writing at Yale University.  She composed and recited “Praise Song for the Day” at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Brenda M. Greene, Ph.D. is Chair of the English Department and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.

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