Four days after his 50th birthday party, Elizabeth Alexander’s husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, dropped dead of a heart attack while exercising on a home treadmill. His death came as a total shock; “eminently strong of body and spirit,” he was “slim and energetic and . . . [had] passed stress tests with flying colors.” Alexander, an acclaimed poet and Yale professor best known for the piece she read at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, had enjoyed a deeply fulfilling marriage to Ghebreyesus. “The Light of the World” is her memoir of love and loss.
As a former Yale professor, a poetry lover, and a memoirist of loss myself, I expected to like Alexander’s book. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of reading “The Light of the World.” It riveted me, rent me, sent me reeling. It flooded me with ineffable joy.
In the spring of 1996, Alexander met Ghebreyesus in New Haven; it was “an actual coup de foudre, a bolt of lightning, love at first sight.” Engaged after a six-week courtship, they married, had two sons, and created a life together, filled with delicious food, jazz music, natural and man-made beauty, ebullient gatherings of family and friends. So rich and colorful was their relationship that a relative once exclaimed: “Your life is just like a foreign film!”
Ghebreyesus was an exceedingly courageous, curious, and creative person. As a teenager, he fled Eritrea during its war for independence from Ethiopia and grew up to become a chef at the highly acclaimed Caffé Adulis, a New Haven restaurant that he founded with his brothers. He was a talented painter with an MFA from the Yale School of Art, a gardener who planted “lush and romantic” trees for his wife, and an eloquent writer. Alexander both describes and shares his art in her own book: One of his paintings adorns its cover, his writing is quoted extensively within, and many of his recipes are included.
In the deliberateness with which he wooed Alexander and nurtured their “sacred love” and in his tender, imaginative parenting, Ghebreyesus created “an indelible family culture” for her and their sons, crafting “days [she] . . . can only call divine.” Alexander chooses just the right details to convey her husband in all his singularity and complexity: “He who believed in the lottery . . . never met a child he didn’t enchant . . . loved to wear the color pink.” He was “beautiful, and utterly without vanity,” “a profoundly peaceful and peace-loving person, forged in the crucible of war.”
Their supportive marriage bolstered the couple’s artistic and professional productivity: “Each of us made it possible for the other . . . Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.” In one particularly sweet anecdote, Ficre urges Alexander to attend a poetry reading: “You have to hear the sacred poetry of the Kabbalah! . . . You are an artist, and you need it — I will take the children to the orthodontist!” So vividly does Alexander bring this remarkable man to life that none of her wifely compliments, none of her admiration or adoration, seems undeserved.
Without bitterness or rancor, Alexander underscores the unfairness of his passing: “Some who do evil live to a hundred. Ficre lived to exactly fifty, he who never did wrong and never told a single lie.” “He was not tired. He was not done.”
The book manages that most difficult of feats for personal writing: It is both raw and exquisitely crafted, mercilessly direct and sometimes lavishly metaphorical. Lines heartbreaking in their simplicity — “[h]is big heart burst”; “I miss my friend, plain and simple;” “Oh my darling where did you go?” — alternate with rich dreamscapes and free-floating harbingers and symbols.
“The Light of the World” is divided into five sections with elliptical titles — “Honeycomb,” “Ghost of All Bookstores,” “The Plum Blossom’’ — and chapters that vary greatly in length, some only a sentence long. But every formal decision feels well-executed; the placements have all the sense of an inevitable unfolding.
This reminiscence is, as Alexander makes clear, “not a tragedy but rather a love story.” Alexander describes Ghebreyesus’s art as defined by “an unshakeable belief in beauty . . . the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.” Her book is a fitting enactment of that same faith, braced by and against and for the world, for all its wounds and wonders. It is a howl of protest, a lament for the dead, a hymn of praise, a song of love, a reminder of the splendor of what remains behind.
For though nothing can bring Ficre back, her life with him, she discovers, with “joy overwhelming, and . . . gratitude,” is not over. He is still with her, still in conversation with her, still visiting her in dreams, still teaching her, influencing her, loving her: “I walk forward knowing I was loved, and therefore am loved.”
As I re-read the book, thought about it, marveled over it, I kept returning to a sentence from Ficre’s own artist’s statement. “Painting was the miracle, the final act of defiance 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, quite simply, a miracle.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’