It's ironic that I, who have been unhusbanded for more than half of my adult life, seem to have a thing for widow's memoirs, this being the fifth I have read in the past few years. But Elizabeth Alexander is a different writer than Didion, Braestrup, Oates, and Jamison because she is a poet and her memoir, while mostly written in what appears to be prose, feels like an extended poem. The poetic language made me care little about the order in which she took on events and emotions surrounding the death of her husband Ficre, an Ethiopian-born artist and chef, shortly after his 50th birthday. Indeed, she plays with time from the very first chapter of her book, starting it "The story seems to begin . . ."; several other chapters in the book's first section start similarly, with "The story begins." The multiple starting points allow Alexander to weave together the stories of their mothers' coterminus pregnancies, their childhoods, their meeting, and their life with their two sons, leading up to Ficre's sudden death.
After his death, Alexander's story is not notably different from that of other women who have lost their life partners--deep grief, dislocation and confusion, and pain, so much pain. She often dreams of her husband and believes she sees him in their yard or house; she hopes he might return; but she knows he will not. The short chapters and powerful language make the reader feel not just the loss but the unmooring she experiences. Yet, joy flows through the book as well, memories of the joy she and Ficre shared, sustaining joy within the circle of her family and friends.
If you, too, are drawn to this type of memoir, whether husbanded or not, I recommend The Light of the World.
Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy, he [Frederick Douglass] famously wrote. Song raises and bubbles up as the only apt expression of this sorrow, the only possible bulwark against eclipsing grief.
What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? . . . I am not a black Baptist who will fall out in her grief and be lifted by the hands of her fellow parishioners. I am not an Eritrean woman who goes through the house keening, Ficre hawe, Ficre hawe, which means, Ficre, where are you? But I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.
How much space for remembering is there in a day? How much should there be? I think about this in my poetry. I don't want to be a nostalgist. Yet I feed on memory, need it to make poems, the art that is made of the stuff I have: my life and the world around me.