Light of the World: A Memoir of Loss and Continuing Love

This amazing memoir begins with tragedy—Ficre Ghebreyesus, husband of renowned poet Elizabeth Alexander, dies suddenly of a massive heart attack while on a treadmill at their home just four days after his 50th birthday party.  Although it may be categorized as a “grief memoir,” Light of the World is not a book that dwells solely on the actual death, but rather celebrates the absolute and deep love that leads up to this point and continues past it. Alexander has written this book for their sons, Solomon, 17, and Simon, 15. As poet and friend Terrance Hayes writes:  “The book is an elegy, with the quality of a fable so the boys would be able to grasp the richness of their relationship.”

Elizabeth Alexander and Ficre Ghebreyesus (essence.com)

Elizabeth Alexander and Ficre Ghebreyesus (essence.com)

To begin, you must understand the incredible serendipity of these two people ever meeting and falling in love—two people from such different cultures and backgrounds—it seems an impossibility.  Elizabeth Alexander, poet, Yale professor—Ficre Ghebreyesus, Eritrean refugee, chef and painter.  They were born in the same year 6,000 miles apart— and met 34 years later. From that first moment in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1996, each knew that they had found their life partner.  Within a week, they decided to marry and started sharing not only love for each other but love for creativity and learning.  Their two sons were born in quick succession, and as Alexander puts it:  “Every beautiful day we lived, every single beautiful day.”

Ghebreyesus would work all day at his Eritrean restaurant in New Haven, then retire to his small apartment to paint all night.  He loved experimenting with color and form in his artwork, then creating something interesting with flavors when cooking—the book is filled with his recipes and memories of guests and enjoyment of wonderful food.  He was a generous, giving, intelligent man, always opening his home and heart to others, enriching many lives.  For example, after his wife called to say she was bringing home an unexpected visitor, she arrived to find  “the house . . . lit and glowing.  The kettle is hot and tea is brewing in the black Japanese cast-iron pot.  Ficre has put raw almonds in a small, celadon bowl.” There was such an elegance to the way he lived his life.  Alexander sums up the things that made him special:

He who believed in the lottery

He who did not leave a large carbon footprint

He who never met a child he didn’t like

He who loved to wear the color pink

He whose children made him laugh until he cried

He who never told a lie

He who majored in physics, who knew the laws of the universe

He who wanted to win the lottery for me

When Alexander went to the apartment following his death, she found 882 paintings that had never been sold, and she had them digitized.  The painting called “Solitary Boat in Red and Blue” is the one she chose for the cover of the memoir because, she says, “He was a bottomless boat and the boat that would always hold me.”

Author James McBride comments:  “This is a gorgeous love story, written by one of America’s greatest contemporary poets.  Graceful in its simplicity…this book is proof that…true love exists, and where it does exist, it graces the world—and us—with light and hope.”

Elizabeth Alexander reads from "Praise Song for the Day." (AP Photo)

Elizabeth Alexander reads from “Praise Song for the Day.” (AP Photo)

Alexander has achieved great acclaim as a poet and teacher.  She has written six books of poetry, including American Sublime, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, she is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies at Yale University. She is one of only five poets invited to compose a poem for a Presidential inauguration. In 2009, at Barack Obama’s first inauguration, she recited “Praise Song for the Day,” excerpted below:

Each day we go about our business, 

walking past each other, catching each other’s

eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

 

All about us is noise.  All about us is

noise and bramble, thorn and din, each

one of our ancestors on our tongues. . .

 

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,

others by first do no harm or take no more

than you need.  What if the mightiest word is love?. . .

 

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

 

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Alexander had what most would say was an enviable marriage—one built on profound love and creativity, and her memoir of their 16 years together is an apt tribute to this special man who sharedlight of the world her life.  I had the good fortune to attend a reading of this memoir at the 2015 Decatur Book Festival and came away touched and impressed.  Like Alexander, I have personal knowledge of the death of a husband at an early age, as my husband also died at age 50.  Her book is like no other I have ever read on the grieving process because it is more about the love these two people shared—not an emphasis on the dying, but the living.   It is a special gift to all of us who share the loss of those closest to us. Alexander and I spoke briefly as she signed her book for me. In it, she wrote:

“To the road forward….always.”

 

What poet speaks directly to you and your life?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Light of the World: A Memoir of Loss and Continuing Love

  1. I don’t read poetry for it to speak to my life. Rather, I read poetry for its mixture of lush imagery and ideas. It’s no surprise then that my favorite poets are Dylan Thomas (“Fern Hill”), T. S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), and John Keats (“Ode to a Nightingale”).

  2. Haven’t read poetry in ages, but recently a friend of mine with beginning Alzheimer’s has written a book of it called, Blue. River. Apple, which I think is excellent. After her diagnosis, she began waking up in the middle of the night, writing of her feelings.For anyone touched in any way by the disease it’s an excellent book, and for others it’s enlightening.

    • It does seem that sometimes poetry will speak to us in different
      ways, depending what our life experience is. It sounds as though
      your friend is coping with her illness by expressing herself in
      poetry–what a lovely idea.

  3. I love reading and writing poetry. I am not all that familiar with Alexander’s work, but this makes me want to read it! I love all kinds of poetry, from Shakespeare to Maya Angelou to Shel Silverstein. I find I can gain from all of it.

  4. Poet I first loved—-A.A.Milne—thanks to a gift of “And Now We Are Six” for my sixth birthday. Then Longfellow, because my mother quoted him all the time. Nowadays, Naomi Shihab Nye—and I’m with you about Mary Oliver. I heard Alexandar on NPR talk about how intimidated she was about being commissioned to write Obama’s inaugural poem. Comforting, to say the least….

  5. I will have to check out Nye–not familiar with her work. There are
    so many wonderful poets out there today–I would need to read
    24 hours a day to keep up with them all! I’ll bring Alexander’s
    book for you to borrow–it moved me in so many ways, and I think
    you’d be touched by it, too.

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