Review: Elizabeth Alexander’s ‘The Light of the World’

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. Elizabeth Alexander. Grand Central Publishing. 224 pages. $26.
THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. Elizabeth Alexander. Grand Central Publishing. 224 pages. $26.

In a cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut, there is a gravestone of red India marble etched with words and images from paintings by the man buried there: “I wake up grateful, for life is a gift” and the likeness of an angel. Nearby is a bench of the same stone, also etched with words, these from Derek Walcott poem: “Oh beauty, you are the light of the world!”

The title of Elizabeth Alexander’s powerful and haunting memoir comes from that line and alludes to the beauty reflected in the paintings of her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, but even more so, in the beauty of the man himself.

We bury or otherwise inter our dead and erect gravestones and monuments for multiple reasons — to remember, record, honor, convey their lives and communicate our loss, anchor them concretely and geographically. Alexander does these things and more in The Light of the World, an extended meditative essay that is elegy, tribute, celebration and love letter to Ghebreyesus, who died suddenly just days after his 50th birthday.

For the reader, the book is a gift. Alexander shares the story of a remarkable man, a joyous marriage and a sustaining family life. She wrote the book shortly after his death and with a sense of urgency, because she wanted “to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.”

Alexander is a poet and scholar who teaches at Yale University, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who is best known for her turn at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, where she recited her poem Praise Song for the Day. However, her accomplishments are not her concern in these pages. Instead, she writes of how she and Ghebreyesus met, how they and their two young sons lived, how they interacted with and cared for and abundantly fed their large extended families and expansive circle of friends, and above all, how her husband chose to inhabit the world.

Shortly before they met, a friend took Alexander to see a psychic who predicted the meeting. He even correctly described Ghebreyesus’ origins, his paintings and the gender of their first child: “You better get yourself together, girl, Reggie said, because your man is on his way and you can’t stop this love from coming.” Alexander promptly dismissed his words. A few weeks later she met Ghebreyesus. By the end of their first week together, they had decided to marry. There was a profound and mutual sense of rightness and belonging when they met, which remained a hallmark of their time together.

Ghebreyesus was from Eritrea, which he left as a teenaged refugee. He made his way first to Sudan, then Italy, then Germany and then the United States. By the time Alexander met him he spoke seven languages well and was a beloved chef and part-owner with two of his brothers of Caffé Adulis in New Haven. He would paint after his restaurant shifts.

Much of his early art had to do with the turmoil of living in war-torn Eritrea and then being a refugee. In an artist’s statement, he wrote that “Painting was the miracle…through which I exorcised the pain and reclaimed my sense of place, my moral compass, and my love for life.”

The Light of the World is written in short sections, some of which are brief scenes or reflections, while others are more narrative-driven. Alexander interweaves memories of Ghebreyesus and their lives together with accounts of her life without him — her grief, her many dreams of him and the challenges of his absence.

A few days after his death, she delivered the final lecture in a course on African American Art, a lecture that carries a strong message about loss and the role of art: “Art replaces the light that is lost when the day fades, the moment passes. … Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us…”

In art, in poetry and in her community of friends and family, Alexander finds divinity. The memoir itself is, of course, art. Its eloquent, grief-struck gratitude draws the reader in, and we celebrate and mourn alongside Alexander. “Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss,” she muses. While Ghebreyesus’ death was indeed a tragedy, his life was a triumph and an inspiration. We have the great fortune of meeting him in these pages.

Andrea Gollin is a writer in Miami.

Meet the author

Elizabeth Alexander appears:

▪  8 p.m. Tuesday, Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; free.

▪  11 a.m. Wednesday, Temple Israel, 137 NE 19th St, Miami; a Brickell Avenue Literary Society event. Lunch $50; RSVP