Reading The Light of the World (Elizabeth Alexander) in the wake of Charleston

Monday, June 22, 2015

This morning I woke early to read The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander's embrace of the sixteen years with the man she loved from the instant they met until his sudden death, at the age of fifty.

It begins with a simple sentence that is not a simple sentence, studded twice, as it is, with "but," once with a suggestive "seems," configured so that the words "tragedy" and "love" stand within near proximity. The book begins as a tender warning: "This story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story."

And then Alexander, the poet many of us first saw during President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration ("Praise Song for the Day"—I remember, do you remember?), begins her search for other beginnings. Begins to tell us about her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus—a chef, a painter, a man of endless curiosity, a truth teller, a traveler come all the way to New Haven, CT, from his homeland of Eritrea. The man Alexander was somehow destined to meet. The man who gave Alexander her two tall beautiful sons. The man who grew her peonies, who cooked her angel food, who painted what his mind saw, who could be found in most smart sections of a book store.

The Light of the World is a crescendo, moving through history toward loss, arcing away from loss. It is a quest to understand whether memory is finite, whether a soul remains tethered, whether joy is possible—again. Its language grows more complex as the book evolves. Its repetitions become refrains. Its hope breaks like light breaks, though light is tremulous and fickle.

To have loved. To have lost. We cannot truly lose, Alexander reminds us, what we have not loved.

I was thinking of Charleston as I read this book. Of the families whose loved ones went out one evening to pray and who did not return. I was thinking of the terrible mourning that is upon that community now, the long stretch between now and the coming light for those who loved those who were taken. I was thinking of how essential it is to love out loud, to love in the moment, to look beyond the small infractions so that we spend the time we do have together, have been given, well.

I was thinking that this is not just a book for those who mourn specifically, with knowledge of a particular soul, but for those who recognize (we all recognize) that mourning is in our own futures and that the only defense (and it is not a defense, but it is an urgency) is to give of goodness now.


  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by 2008

Back to TOP