The Light of the World

By Elizabeth Alexander

(Grand Central Publishing, $26, 224 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth Alexander, who is Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and also teaches African studies there, was honored when she was asked to write and deliver an original poem for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. That poem was “Praise Song for the Day,” and it is among her many accomplishments that also include publishing six poetry collections and being the first winner of the Jackson Prize for Poetry. The Light of the World is the kind of book no author wants to write: it is a memoir about her husband’s unexpected death and its effect on Alexander and her children. The book became a New York Times and Washington Post best seller and was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and Amazon Best Books of the Month for April 2015, among other honors.

What is this book about?

Elizabeth Alexander, a much praised poet, and her artist/chef husband, a refuge from Eritrea in East Africa, had teenage sons, a happy marriage and artistic acclaim. And then it all ended, just like that, four days after Ficre Ghebreyesus turned 50, when he died of a heart attack while exercising at home. Stunned with bereavement, Alexander at first could only mourn; writing poetry suddenly came to a halt. Her memoir describes the heartbreaking process of coming to acceptance of great loss, yet is also a joyful celebration of the happy marriage that they had enjoyed for 15 years. Many writers have memorialized a lost spouse; few have done it with a lyrical command of language that transforms prose into poetry.

Why you’ll like it:

Sadly, it is not rare to hear of the death of a beloved spouse. What is rare is the lyrical beauty of this poet’s heartfelt memoir about her loving marriage and what happens when her husband suddenly dies. Not only is the language itself gorgeous, as only a poet can make it, this book is both achingly personal and welcomingly universal. There is much to admire here, as well as lessons, hard-won by Alexander, about learning to cope with the unimaginable while cherishing memories and moving forward with life. Reading this book may make you sad, but it will also uplift you.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “…Alexander…has written a meditative and elegiac account of meeting and losing her husband and great love…We live in a culture so preoccupied with happiness, so instrumental in its attitudes, that we forget grief is not something merely to get over, something over which we “achieve closure,” but a human undertaking, a slow, sticky process of allowing our love to take another, more remote, shape. In The Light of the World, Alexander discovers a warmth that will remind some readers of the deeper truth of grieving: It is a sign of love.

Says Publishers Weekly: Poet and Yale African Studies professor was devastated by the death of her artist husband, who died of cardiac arrest at age 50 while exercising in the basement of their home. This memoir is an elegiac narrative of the man she loved. Artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus’s death was as inexplicable as the spark of love between him and Alexander after they met at a New Haven café in 1996. Ghebreyesus was a thin, fit person who nonetheless smoked; and he was not without his mysteries. For example, in the days before his death, he was obsessed with buying lottery tickets. Ghebreyesus was a gentle, peace-loving East African who had come through the Eritrean-Ethiopian civil war and was a refugee in America; he became a fashionable painter and an inventive chef at Caffe Adulis, which he ran in New Haven with his brothers. Alexander, who grew up in Washington, D.C., describes her husband’s endearing traits such as sleep-talking or singing in his native Tigrinya, and the special rituals he made when their sons reached age 13. Fashioning her mellifluous narrative around the beauty she found in Ghebreyesus, Alexander is grateful, patient, and willing to pursue a fit of magical thinking that he might just return.

Library Journal’s stared review says: “Alexander’s marriage to her husband, Ficre, was a great love, one filled with his painting, her poetry, their cooking, and an extended family all over the world. When Ficre dies suddenly, the life she has built with him and their two sons in New Haven, CT, seems to disintegrate. This gorgeous, shimmering account from a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry is an homage to the 15-year partnership the author and her husband shared. Though Alexander’s story is deeply personal, readers who have experienced love and loss will relate to it easily. VERDICT While it’s impossible to avoid comparisons to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, this work is set apart by the fluid translation of Alexander’s poetic ability into sentences so beautiful they beg to be reread.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A distinguished poet meditates on the early death of her beloved artist husband. A Brooklyn psychic once told Alexander that she would meet a mate sooner than she realized. What the psychic did not say was that Eritrean-born Ficre Ghebreyesus would bring her a love and fulfillment that transcended anything she had ever known. Though hailing from different worlds—Alexander from Harlem and Ficre from East Africa—the two blended their lives to create a kind of trans-Atlantic “karmic balance.” Alexander firmly grounded the husband who had seen war and poverty in his nation, and Ficre gave his American wife an abundance of family while connecting her to a history of black warriors who had never known slavery. Together, they built and inhabited an extraordinarily colorful, multicultural space made of books, art, food and friends. But then, 15 years into their marriage and just four days after his 50th birthday, an outwardly robust Ficre died of a heart attack. Now a widow with two teenage sons, Alexander began the lengthy, often wrenching process of mourning the man who had been the “light of [her] world.” With tenderness and fierce poetic precision, Alexander recalls the hours, days, months and years after her husband’s death. Grief-stricken to the point she could not produce the poetry she loved, the author marked the passage of time by observing whether she or her children still cried over his passing. At the same time, she celebrates how the love she and Ficre shared helped heal “every old wound with magic disappearing powers” so that the descendant of slaves and the survivor of a tragic war could go on with their lives. In letting go of—but never forgetting—her husband, Alexander realizes a simple truth: that death only deepens the richness of a life journey that must push on into the future. A delicate, existentially elegiac memoir.”

“This is a gorgeous love story, written by one of America’s greatest contemporary poets. Graceful in its simplicity, sweeping in scope, this book is proof that behind the boarded up windows of America’s roiled marriages and ruined affairs, true love still exists, and where it does exist, it graces the world-and us-with light and hope. Elizabeth Alexander is a prose writer of deep talent and affecting skill. With ease, she peels back layer after layer to show the soft secrets of affection, the kindness, and the wide open generosity of a full hearted man and talented artist, who had more love to give in his relatively short lifetime than most of us will ever know,” says James McBride, National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and #1 New York Times bestseller The Color of Water

When is it available?

This elegiac memoir is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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