Review by Melissa Fredrick
Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir The Light of the World is a story told in pieces—a written collage, or whatever the literary equivalent might be of Russian nesting dolls. At the center of the book is Alexander’s husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died of heart failure shortly after his fiftieth birthday. His sudden departure from the world launches Alexander on an extended meditation, both on the completed arc of his life and on the necessary steps she and her two sons must take to continue living. At the foundation, Alexander’s narrative is a basic one: how someone survives a loved one’s loss. But because she lays out her book in fragments, the shape that mourning so often takes, she manages to construct a tale of surprising breadth and scope—a tableau of stories within stories within stories, all exploring the history, idealism, and community surrounding a single man.
Alexander is perhaps best known as a poet and the author of “Praise Song for the Day,” which she read at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. In The Light of the World, her prose hums with a poet’s efficient ear. Short, self-contained chapters create a landscape of memory far greater than the sum of its parts. Clearly, Ghebreyesus’s life was not easy to quantify, even while he was living it. He was an Eritrean who fled a war in his home country and came to the U.S. via Sudan, Germany, and Italy. He was an acclaimed artist who had a day job as a professional chef. He wore pink shirts and planted a flower garden every year. He was a connoisseur of music and books, spoke seven different languages and was teaching himself two more at the time of his death. My mind reels at the specifics I need just to attempt to represent Ghebreyesus in a handful of sentences. Yet Alexander’s book not only explores her husband’s rich history, it delves deeply into their shared life and relentlessly plumbs the depths of her own psyche. With the delicacy of a miniaturist, she places excerpts from poems next to his recipes, records of her dreams next to details of their lovemaking, discussions of death rates among African-American men next to sweet parables of her own courtship (told in the third person), next to statistics on illnesses the couple watched their friends endure, next to one-sided conversations with an absent companion.
At times, the sheer variety of descriptive minutiae threatens to burst the seams of Alexander’s work. The book begins with a hint of imminent catastrophe—Ghebreyesus’s death—yet there are six chapters separating the first mention of disaster and its specifics. This strategy allows Alexander to toy with reader expectations, but it can also be a source of frustration (especially when all you want to do is orient yourself in a new book). There are moments, too, when the density and complexity of Alexander’s prose overwhelms. Still, more often than not, her style rewards the careful reader. One evening, she relates, Ghebreyesus drives off and buys one hundred lottery tickets. This happens during his final days, and Alexander never learns exactly what made him act so impulsively. Yet she does hint at an explanation later in the story, when an answer seems to come fluttering out of a book. These are the kinds of connections that Alexander laces throughout her memoir—subtle, graceful epiphanies that lighten the mood but never negate the pain of her bereavement.
And there is pain in Alexander’s book—a naked, white-hot core of pain that beauty can soothe but never extinguish. One preoccupation of The Light of the World seems to be the vacancy that death leaves behind. How can you be gone, the narrator implies, when there’s still so much of you here? I’m not sure that Alexander answers this question so much as sits with the heartbreak that compels her to ask and waits until she can leave it alone. But that, I think, is a big part of what makes her story so powerful: no sentiment, no false sense of healing. Nothing but a beautiful brokenness that follows you into the future.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Melissa Frederick is a writer and blogger from suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, including the Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Strange Horizons, the Mid-American Review, Helen: A Literary Magazine, and Moon City Review. Her poetry chapbook, She, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @msficklereader.