In 2009, celebrated poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander, acclaimed author of six books of poetry and two collections of essays, scaled the heights of public poetic attention, moving millions of Americans with her poem, “Praise Song of the Day,” written for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. But her world was shattered in 2011 by the sudden death of her beloved Eritrean-born husband, painter Ficre Ghebreyesus, from heart disease. Now widowed with two sons, Alexander has managed to escape from the pit of her own personal despair to write The Light of the World: A Memoir (April, Grand Central), a moving tribute to her late husband’s memory and a deeply felt meditation on loss, love and literature. PW Spoke with Ms. Alexander by phone from her New York home about the making of the book and the healing power of art.
For me, this passage encapsulates the beauty of your book: “I am the wife. I am the wife of fifteen years. I am the plumpish wife, the pretty wife, the loving wife, the smart wife, the American wife. I am eternally his wife.” How is your memoir an extension of your poetry?
What you can see from the book in the small, concentrated sections, is that it started from a place of poetry. And then, as I wrote kind of one concentrated piece after another, I knew they weren’t prose poems, they were something else. Then, I could begin the work of seeing how they might work together as a larger whole.
You used your artistry to not only heal yourself, but also to create something of artistic value in the process.
I felt really, really lucky that I was a writer. I have a tool, a way to move through, and keep moving forward, all through the ongoing ways of grief. But I also realized—and this is in the book as well—that I had art by other people as my companion. I have always had jazz with me. That was something I shared with my husband. As you see in the book, in the sections where we fall in love, our soundtrack is [pianists] Ahmad Jamal and Randy Weston. We’re [also] looking at paintings, and we’re creating meals. Having that kind of art in my life to give it meaning and texture and beauty and resonance, is the way we lived, and continues to be the way I keep living.
Every writer has literary ancestors. Who were your influences in the writing of the memoir?
I read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, and Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast was a masterpiece. But I didn’t want to unconsciously borrow rhythms or tropes or anything like that, because I was in such a fugue state, that I wanted to be listening to myself.
But in many ways, the spirit that guided the book was Lucille Clifton: a poet who writes profoundly, essentially, truthfully, beautifully from the depths of woman’s experience. I write in the book about her poem, “The Death of Fred Clifton.” She lost her husband at age of forty-nine, and was someone who was profoundly acquainted with grief. But she also had profound access to joy. And in the many months when I felt couldn’t read after my husband died, I could always read Lucille.
What did you learn about her husband in the writing of this book?
I knew he was brave, but I didn’t know how brave, until I really started to tell his story. I knew that it took tremendous purpose and courage and fortitude to leave a war-torn country with death all-around you, and make your way through other countries and new languages. In telling that story on his behalf, I’m blown away by the courage and the life-force, the joy, that you could be someone who had been through so much, but who was fundamentally, essentially a force of joy and love. I’m awestruck by that.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story the word meditation was misspelled and Mark Doty's first name was misspelled.