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Book Review: The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

The Light of the World is a memoir that Elizabeth has written with rare elegance in which she reminisces about her marriage, her grief, and how her art helped her transform her loss into a gorgeous treatise of love. Her poet’s aesthetics shine incandescent in passage after passage that is nothing short of a miracle.

“What if the mightiest word is love?” Elizabeth challenges in the poem that she recited at the Presidential inauguration. We now know that in their short life together, this indeed was the case; from the “visceral torque” that she felt the first time that she saw her husband Ficre, to that final moment when she tried to breathe life into his already dead body minutes after he fell on the treadmill exercising in the home gymnasium barely four days after he turned fifty. Their life together was touched by extraordinary love.

Ficre was born into a large family in war-ravaged Eritrea from where he fled to Sudan, then to Europe, before he found his way to the US. He settled down in New Haven where he ran an Eritrean restaurant with his brothers and created legendary dishes. Elizabeth fondly remembers it as a “…gathering place where people ate food they’d never imagined and learned about the culture and history of a country that most of them had never heard of.

He was also an artist who painted brilliantly abstracted spaces, figures, landscapes, and icons. His color palette was decidedly African as he displayed the cultural influence of Eritrea on his craft, but at heart, he was a conscious synchretist – an unambiguous Eritrean American. Theirs was a relaxed, rewarding relationship that shines forth in the quotidian details Elizabeth provides about her marriage and two sons that they raised together.

Her memoir circles around in time flitting from one early period of their coupledom to her bereavement, and then back in time again to those years when they were still together, raising a family, vacationing, and reveling in each other’s presence. In lesser hands, these time jumps could have been disorienting for the reader. However, Elizabeth’s narrative fluidity is such that she is able to portray seamlessly the contours of a relationship as it grew and evolved into a lifelong friendship.

She begins the book by emphasizing that this is not a memoir steeped in a catastrophe or a tragedy; it is a love story, and through riveting pages of sheer brilliance, gives a glimpse of the love she shared with her husband.

Elizabeth provides details about Ficre’s generous nature, his love for friends, and families from both sides of the marriage. This generosity spills over into their own family as they open their house not only to their close ones, but also to strangers, often discussing art, and culture, and food into wee hours of the morning.

The thought of death, yours or that of your partner, often produces fear that is so intense, so pervasive that it is staggering and at times disabling. But, then, there are moments of sheer brilliance such as those found in Elizabeth’s memoir that help you to understand it, and perhaps also prepare you for the inevitable.

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