For the cover of The Light of the World: A Memoir, poet Elizabeth Alexander chose one of many hundreds of paintings by her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus. The buoyant abstract is titled “Solitary Boat in Red and Blue.”
“I chose that particular painting because I think there’s something that is haunting about it,” she says. “The boat is alone. There’s nobody in it. It’s an unpeopled picture. The boat is going somewhere. Maybe it’s going from one station of life to another, maybe it’s going from one area of the world to another. Maybe it’s going from this life to whatever the next one may be—but we don’t know that.”
Ghebreyesus passed from this life to the next just days after his 50th birthday in 2012. The Light of the World is Alexander’s rich remembrance of a man who was much to many: beloved son, brother, husband, father, and friend; Eritrean emigrant, prolific painter, polyglot, and the celebrated chef of Caffé Adulis in New Haven, Connecticut. It is the story of grieving his loss.
“I lost my husband. Where is he? I often wonder. As I set out on some small adventure, some new place, somewhere he does not know, I think, I must call him, think, I must tell him, think, What he would think? Think what he thinks. Know what he thinks,” she writes.
Alexander, who was recently named Yale University’s Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry, is the author of six books of poetry, two essay collections, a play, and the poem “Praise Song for the Day,” which she read aloud at President Barack Obama’s 2009 Inauguration.
The Light of the World is her first memoir, presented in concise chapters fitted into five precise sections. One entire, elegiac chapter reads:
He who believed in the lottery.
He who did not leave a large carbon footprint.
He who never met a child he didn’t enchant.
He who loved to wear the color pink.
He whose children made him laugh until he cried.
He who never told a lie.
He who majored in physics, who knew the laws of the universe.
He who wanted to win the lottery for me.
“They’re not prose poems, but they are, I think, a poet’s prose,” Alexander says, “and, in my experience of writing it, a brief prose. I wrote these little intense things for as long as I could sustain them. I don’t think I could have written in longform at the time.”
That she would write about mourning Ghebreyesus was never in question. “Writing is how I move through life, it’s how I process the world. I didn’t—I couldn’t not write,” she says. But the desire to share their intimate love story was a surprise. And it would not have happened without the blessing of the couple’s two sons, Solomon, now 17, and Simon, 15, to whom the book is dedicated.
“I never, never ever would have published it without sharing it with them in the way that I did, at select stages: because it’s their family, because it’s traumatic loss, because they’re in it, and all of this was new to me,” Alexander says. “We had some intense conversations at various stages, about the different ways that people can remember things and both be right—and that’s true of traumatic memories, but also of beautiful memories—one may remember it green, and the other remembers it yellow. What’s important is what’s emotionally true.”
“They’re proud of the book,” she says, “and—I want to choose the exact right word—they’re excited that it’s going out into the world.”
In February a small piece went out into the world when The New Yorker published an excerpt titled “Lottery Tickets.” Since then, Alexander has received hundreds of emails, from all types of readers with whom the story deeply resonates.
“I believe in the power of the beauty of the everyday, and I think that’s why I make art,” Alexander says. “Assimilating what’s around me and offering something back to a world that, yes, doles out so much pain and suffering, but also doles out so much joy—I think that’s what artists do. I want [The Light of the World] to be a companion to people, because I know how art and music and poetry help and enrich me. I humbly offer it in hopes that it will do that for others.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.