Poet mourns late husband in one of the best books of the year

Poet Elizabeth Alexander's memoir of her late husband evokes how people really behave when they grieve

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD: A MEMOIR

By Elizabeth Alexander

Grand Central Publishing/Hardback/ 209 pages/Borrow it from the National Library Board under the call number English 811.54 ALE or order it from Books Kinokuniya at $55.75 with GST

In 1978, Ficremariam Ghebreyesus, then 16 years old, walked to freedom across his parched and war-torn motherland, Eritrea, in Eastern Africa. "It was a medieval vision of hell incarnate," he recalled in 2000 of its killing fields.

Ghebreyesus, whose first name means "lover of Mary" and whose last name means "servant of Jesus", was a Coptic Christian who had wanted to fight alongside his compatriots in Eritrea's war with Ethiopia for independence.

But his mother, having lost her first son, Kebede, to the war, did not want to lose another. So, heeding her pleas, he made his way to Sudan and then Europe where, among other things, he waited tables in Italy, studied physics in Germany and opened the Caffe Adulis in the eastern American county of New Haven.

There, he cooked the Eritrean dishes he missed so much, such as his signature shrimp, date and coconut delight.

The son of an incorruptible judge and a housewife stricken with Parkinson's disease, he could speak seven languages, including his mother tongue, Tigrinya, by the time he opened his cafe. He gave that up later to paint full-time, teaching himself Mandarin and French along the way.

  • FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS

    1 How should one reflect on life to heal the soul?

    2 How might you best understand another person's culture?

    3 What do you need most to get through a tragedy?

    4 How best could you comfort those who are grieving?

    5 Why is it so hard to let a person go?

The reader will, however, learn little of his epic efforts to adapt to his new life beyond Eritrea in this book by the African-American poet Elizabeth Alexander, which is a stirring, sometimes salty, and sublime tribute to a man who was apparently a paragon of virtue and whom friends and family miss so much, they can still only talk about him in the present tense.

For 15 years, Ghebreyesus was Alexander's husband and the father of their two sons, Solomon and Simon. Alexander, a professor of poetry and African-American studies at Yale, is not widely known among readers. But United States President Barack Obama chose her to create and read out a poem specially for his inauguration in January 2009.

Alexander and President Obama are old friends, having known each other since their days teaching at the University of Chicago in the 1990s.

She and her husband, whom she called Ficre, were born 71 days apart and connected instantly in the late spring of 1996 so much so that they decided to marry within their first week together.

"Lightning struck and did not curdle the cream but instead turned it to sweet, silken butter," she recalls in this book. "Lightning turned sand into glass."

Then, on April 25, 2012, four days after his 50th birthday, he died suddenly while jogging. "His big heart burst," she says of his heart attack, after which his doctors discovered that almost all his arteries had been clogged.

She wonders repeatedly at how he, who loved yogurt and yoga, should die before her, a lover of all things fat and flavourful.

Then again, she muses, his heavy smoking did not help. But in the end, a cardiologist told her that his stress of war and being a refugee in Europe likely wore out his heart.

As Ghebreyesus said in his artist's statement in 2000: "I suspect I have carried this angst and fear of imminent explosion within me to this day, for when I paint I am accompanied by dissonance, syncopations and the ultimate will for life and moral order of goodness."

In reminiscing about their deepest moments together, Alexander evokes precisely how people really behave when they exult and mourn.

For example, after their first date, she would listen again and again to the first message he left on her answering machine so she would say his name right: "Fee-kray Geb-reh- yess-oos".

When emergency room doctors gave up on reviving him, she clambered atop his cold body and bawled her eyes out.

As she insists at the start of this book: "I am the plumpish wife, the pretty wife, the loving wife, the smart wife, the American wife. I am eternally his wife."

The shock of his passing turns her hair coarse and grey. She sees his spirit ambling about her lawn about a month after his death.

A year later, the most gorgeous flowers she has ever seen blossom in cream and apricot in her garden. "That's Daddy saying hullo," she tells her sons.

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Much of this book, however, is a celebration of his life rather than a meditation on his death. She remembers him as sure yet shy, courtly and curious, trim and of medium build with bright white teeth and a shaven head which looked like "a chestnut, topaz or buckwheat honey".

He would lay out hot treats for late-arriving friends in the wee hours and buy and stash stacks of lottery tickets in the many books he read because he wanted so much to win the lottery for her.

For a long time after he dies, she cannot bring herself to enter bookshops because he was "the ghost of all bookstores", spending hours among their shelves reading anything from the Khmer Rouge to gardening to what causes sinkholes.

Thus is the blessing that was her husband, whose first name Ficre means love, also her burden today. He died almost as suddenly as they wed, with her cheeks "burning with our secret" of their first child already "quickening" within her.

Days before Ghebreyesus' death, they watched, frozen, as a hawk ripped a squirrel apart. He then told her that he had seen that same hawk ravage another rodent the day before. In hindsight, she muses, it was an omen of doom.

This book is now a US bestseller, which is surprising for one as modestly known as Alexander. But it is not hard to see why, seeing as what she writes is so exacting, deep and true.

In fact, she never set out to pen prose about her late husband.

As she told National Public Radio's Michele Norris in August: "When I sat down to write, I didn't sit down to write this. I simply wrote as an extension of my hand, as an extension of my body trying to stay absolutely grounded in my hand on a table, with my feet on the ground, planted on an Earth that had so suddenly seemed unstable."

As she quotes from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's The Book Of Hours: "Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror/Just keep going. No feeling is final/Don't let yourself lose me."

Eventually, Alexander and her sons have to leave their picture-perfect home in New Haven, where Ghebreyesus died while running on the treadmill, and resettle in New York City, where she was born.

Towards the close of the book, she muses: "Today, we look out our window at the Hudson River and wait for another hurricane as the sky turns lavender and orange. Ficre colours. When the rain is most dramatic, we feel him close."

You will likely find it hard to hold back your tears as you turn each page and this story of rare love will stick in your craw.

But you would do well to bear the discomfort; this sturdy, heartfelt effort is one of the best books of the year.


Just a minute

The good

1. This first memoir by African-American poet Elizabeth Alexander is elegiac, a thing of quiet beauty. It is made up of essays that do not unfurl chronologically, but in snapshots and snatches of memory as she recalls the sudden death of her beloved husband. Alexander wrote this book in four months, crying through the experience. But as deep and painful as her experiences with loss are, you will want to keep turning the pages of this book and not stop till the end. It takes supreme skill to evoke emotions so deftly and sparingly and, dare I say it, Alexander's prose may well be finer than her verse.

2. Every word will resonate with anyone who has loved and lost deeply. But she is never cloying, perhaps because she resolves to describe happenings as they are, without the glazed tint of nostalgia. In fact, every so often, she splashes cold water in the reader's face with surprising narrative jags, such as how she regarded her husband sexually.

3. She also gives readers enlightening glimpses into an ancient culture, that of the Eritreans of East Africa. Examples abound in this slim volume, from how they brew coffee - painstakingly enough to rival the tea ceremony of Japan - to how they define a homely, faithful man, that is, one who "has drunk his water".

The bad

1. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that her late husband, Ficremariam Ghebreyesus, could do no wrong. While she does not frame him in flattery or platitudes, she should have delved deeper into his darker days and greyer decisions, such as wanting to be a freedom fighter in the 1970s.

The iffy

1. There is not a single picture or photograph in this book, save for Ghebreyesus' painting Solitary Boat In Red And Blue on its cover. Wouldn't most readers want to know what her late, great artist husband looked like?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'What lies beneath the mourning '. Print Edition | Subscribe