In the poem she wrote for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, “Praise Song for the Day,” Elizabeth Alexander asked, “What if the mightiest word is love?” In The Light of the World, her memoir about the sudden death of her husband in 2012, the poet, essayist and playwright renders her own exquisite response. Using her medium of words, she illuminates and lyricizes the life of her mate—the painter and political refugee Ficre Ghebreyesus—and the shattering grief that follows his death at age 50. Her tool is the brush of poetic sensibility, casting her words through the filtering lenses of the African diaspora, the couple’s Eritrean and African-American ancestors, and her own sustaining community. Alexander creates an intimacy that coaxes a transformative empathy from her reader, and she rewards with a profound understanding of love and loss.
Yet, as sudden as Ficre’s death is, Alexander describes her grieving as mercifully graded, an evolution that allows her and their two young sons time to retrieve Ficre’s essence. First, there is the gut-wrenching physicality of the moment of his death, all senses erupting as she sees her lover leave his body behind. In the aftermath, she looks for him in what was once the familiar: Ficre in his garden, among the peonies he planted to bloom on her birthday; Ficre in his studio, where brushes still hold his touch; Ficre in the dishes he created as a popular chef. These comforting remainders—intensely sensual—carry her through that first aching year of widowhood. Finally, she moves her family from suburb to the city, not to flee memory’s hold in the house they all had shared, but to resume the plan the couple once had for their future.
Ficre too will live on because, as promised in Alexander’s poem, “Love beyond marital, filial, national . . . casts a widening pool of light.”