By Emily J. LordiJune 4, 2015
The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
ELIZABETH ALEXANDER'S MEMOIR about her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, takes its title from a line by poet Derek Walcott — “O Beauty, you are the light of the world!” Later in the book we learn that same line is inscribed on “the bench by the side of [Ficre’s] grave” in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery. The bench recalls Toni Morrison’s description of her novel Beloved as akin to a “bench by the road,” a memorial to the countless enslaved dead and misremembered. Like Morrison’s novel, which Alexander invokes to describe the ubiquity of black American death (“not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief”), Alexander’s memoir is a monument to loss. But quite unlike Beloved, it is not a tale of haunting or needful exorcism. There is no remorse in Alexander’s remembering, no “I wish I could have” or “I wish I hadn’t”; there is only the wish for more time. The bright, empty boat on the book’s cover, painted by Ficre himself, evokes grief in the daytime, grief with the lights on. This doesn’t make it any less painful; Alexander writes of “sorrow like vapor, sorrow like smoke, sorrow like quicksand, sorrow like an ocean, sorrow louder and fuller than the church songs, sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go.” But there is also deep pleasure in remembering, and a need to remember well and quickly, before her memory of her beloved fades.
Ficre Ghebreyesus was born in Asmara, Eritrea, two months before Alexander’s birth in Harlem in the spring of 1962. The Eritrean war for independence made Ficre a refugee at age 16. From his home country he moved to Sudan, then to Italy, Germany, and finally the United States. Years later, he and Alexander, a poet, playwright, and professor, met and married in New Haven, Connecticut, where Ficre and his brothers owned a legendary Eritrean restaurant, and where he discovered painting — “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,” as he explains in an artist’s statement excerpted for the book. For 15 years Ficre and Alexander made a home and a family, until Ficre’s death, sudden as lightning from an undiagnosed heart failure, in the spring of 2012. He was 50 years old, and “he was not tired,” writes Alexander. “He was not done.”
Still, as she makes clear, the book “is not a tragedy but rather a love story,” with all the accompanying connotations of the word “story.” Light of the World is a tale of beautiful people who made a beautiful life together — a life of delicious food, fresh flowers, music, and friends. He was the “woman-worshipping monogamist,” big-hearted lover of life, art, and family, “never a child and always a child”; she, the brilliant black American poet-academic, epicurean matriarch, recorder and keeper of kin. In this story, no one says an unkind word, and no one uses a microwave. This is not a critique but rather an acknowledgment of the sacred space in which Alexander has assembled the cherished details of her private world. Here, she refers to friends by first name only, downplays her role as a public figure, and foregrounds her identity as 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.” She portrays this identity, and her role as a mother, not as limiting but as deeply expansive.
Over the past 25 years, Alexander has created a rich, poetic, and essayistic oeuvre that pulses with life — defiant life, unlikely life, life of infinite variety and interest. This is the “tutto” aesthetic that art agent Amy Cappellazzo identifies in Ficre’s art: the “unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness,” as Alexander writes, “the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.” In the cool vibrancy of his paintings and her poems, the tutto is quiet but insistent as breath. It traverses what Alexander, speaking of the work of ancestor-poet Lucille Clifton in an essay, has called “the porous scrim between life and death.” In Alexander’s writing and Ficre’s art, the presence of death, dreams, and ancestors renders aliveness precious, tenuous, and touched. If “every goodbye ain’t gone,” in the words of the black vernacular, then goodbye might always come too soon. These are the lessons of black life.
Throughout Light of the World, Alexander evokes the fullness of this life by “consciously synchretiz[ing]” many voices and modes. A great shape-shifter, impersonator, and literary collagist, she moves from art historical survey of her husband’s painting to the no-frills genre of recipe to prayerful apostrophe: “You of all knowledge, you of all curiosity, […] Ficre Ghebreyesus, ghost of all bookstores.” She quotes interviews with Ficre as well as a poem he wrote to his eldest son. She includes emails from friends, song lyrics by Mahalia Jackson and Esperanza Spalding, poetic excerpts from Walcott, Clifton, Langston Hughes, Melvin Dixon, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Kabbalah. In this way, her memoir extends an argument about black life in and as diaspora that Alexander has been making, in various ways, throughout her career. Blackness is an all-encompassing site of origin: her family’s particular African diaspora, she writes, includes cities from Nairobi to Geneva to Washington, DC; and while one might trace Ficre’s use of pastels to Monet’s water lilies, she tells us, they in fact “came from Africa, and from his mother.”
Alexander’s insistence on the vastness of the particular — what she calls “the infinity of […] interior space” — explains how her memoir can be at once inclusive and private. Yes, she builds a world for readers, the details of which she reinforces through repetition. But her use of narrative recursion does not only shore up the unity of this known world; it also attunes us to all we can never know. There is, for instance, the matter of the three-dozen lottery tickets that Ficre bought just days before his death. As Alexander demonstrates, there are many ways to spin this fact into metaphor — yet even she cannot know what he was thinking. So the tickets signify her search for meaning, while also intimating how even the man who told her everything, who “was never not thinking about us,” remains private and apart. Yet this unknowing is a condition not of failure but of possibility. Alexander discovers that her memories of Ficre are not “finite”; rather, she “com[es] to know him again and again in the paintings, and in this writing, and in [her] mind.”
“What will I remember?” she asks. “What am I meant to keep?” A related, compositional question: how did she choose what to tell? To ponder the book’s principle of selection is to perceive its deep, half-hidden system, a crystalline web whose logic is there and not there. Light of the World is arranged in five parts, each comprised of 11 or more chapters. Part III seems governed by an especially “poetic logic” having to do with numbers, those assuringly fixed and yet mystical things: its eighth chapter consists of an eight-line poem, its fifth chapter of five paragraphs; chapter two begins “two days after the funeral.” But does one short three-sentence passage in which Alexander describes taking baby aspirin “to prevent heart attacks” get its own chapter, chapter four, because of the heart’s four chambers? Do its 50 syllables denote Ficre’s age at the time of his death? The book invites this seeking of signs, a search for meaning that reflects Alexander’s own.
Alexander tells us that the Sunday before he died, Ficre was listening to “The Plum Blossom,” by composer Yusef Lateef; Ficre played the song “over and over,” she writes, so that it became “the warm and human breath in our house that Sunday.” She notes that you can hear Lateef “actually breathe into the bamboo flute and hear his palm on the drum.” If one listens closely, one can also perceive a whistling overtone an octave above some notes. These ghostly notes appear and reappear unexpectedly, a function of the instrument not wholly controllable by Lateef himself. Light of the World is about what it means to be accompanied by those notes just above your head: how to survive the fact of surviving, how to be expanded instead of contracted by grief. The goal, as Alexander frames it, is to “become gleaners of what life has set before us,” both “our beauty and our terror.” What makes this possible is friendship, memory, art, and children.
Light of the World is dedicated to Alexander’s sons, Solomon and Simon. But it is also intended for them. The book is meant to preserve his memory for them and across generations. “If they have children,” Alexander said in an interview in The Washington Post, “this is the person who would have been their grandfather.” The memoir’s status as family heirloom partly explains why, despite its investment in the visual, it contains no photographs of Ficre, which the public might desire but which the children will not need. Indeed, only one picture of him has been made public over the years. It features Ficre’s face, his bald head “brown like a chestnut, clear brown, like topaz or buckwheat honey,” his profoundly kind eyes and quiet smile.
This is how he looked when I met him, once and very briefly, at a late-summer garden party at their home on Edgehill Road in New Haven. I was just learning how my date (and future husband) preferred to hover at the edges of such gatherings when Alexander came and ushered us into the midst of things. Soon Ficre joined us; he was warm and welcoming and wearing a bright pink shirt. Hours later, we didn’t want to leave — and this isn’t much of a memory but only a demonstration of how Alexander makes you want to, as Morrison writes in Beloved, “put your story next to hers”; to enter the frame and call back the vision of the painter who “left us with his eyes on the world.”
Emily J. Lordi is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature and a forthcoming 33 1/3 book on Donny Hathaway Live.
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