The Light of the World

Meg's reading challenge #1

By Elizabeth Alexander      Genre: poetic Memoir
Reviewed by Meg                 4.5/5 stars

“Ficre did not paint what he saw. He saw in his mind, and then he painted, and then he found the flowers that were what he painted. He painted what he wanted to continue to see. He painted how he wanted the world to look. He painted to fix something in place. And so I write to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.”

I didn’t realize it would be inauguration day when I reviewed this book. But the timing is perfect – because Elizabeth Alexander, the author of this memoir, was the poet laureate who recited “Praise Song for the Day” at Obama’s first inauguration 8 years ago.

img_8719As part of my personal “reading challenge” for this year, I began with a book very much out of my comfort zone of preferred literary genres – a poetic memoir, one that I serendipitously learned about in a free edition of our local newspaper. I’m thankful newspapers still review books. Now, before you just completely ignore the rest of this review, hear me out: this is not just a book of poetry, nor is it a really boring narrative of a person’s life (although if you made me try to describe the “plot” right now, you might not believe me).

Instead, what Alexander has done is capture both the sheer beauty and utter pain that was and is her grief in losing her husband, Ficre, unexpectedly several years ago – in carefully crafted prose that is both deeply insightful and wild with color and imagery.

She weaves in the narrative of their courtship and early married days within the slowly drawn-out description of her husband’s last few days on earth. It wasn’t until after I got done reading it that I realized the structure of the memoir worked so much like our brains do when something as tragic as an unexpected death happens. We’re slowly reliving the last few days/hours, yet it’s so painful that we keep jumping away from the memory by reliving happier, past memories. I’ve not personally lost someone as close as a spouse, child, or parent at this point in my life – but I felt her grief and confusion and longing, like acid in my stomach. It physically pained me to read some of it (not in a nauseating way, just hearbreak). Yet I came away from the book with a sense of joy and beauty – not pain. Because that was ultimately Alexander’s goal as well – to focus on the beauty and joy of an imperfect, but committed Love in their marital relationship.

“I wake up grateful, for life is a gift.” – Ficre

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There is still a place for poets and poetry in our world. Because they, like no others, can paint pictures in our minds and ignite feelings in our souls. Elizabeth Alexander has finally put into words the grief that so many silently carry the rest of their lives.

I know many of you may not be interested in something as seemingly mundane as a “poetic memoir.” But it’s good to stretch ourselves, to read the words of those who have learned to write well. And give ourselves the taste of a life that is probably very unlike our own. So step into someone else’s shoes for a few days, and smell the curry and watch the smoky brewing of spiced tea.

Purchase Light of the World here.
Read an online version of the original news article that grabbed my attention.

Favorite Quotations

lotwIn all marriages there is struggle and ours was no different in that regard. But we always came to the other shore, dusted off, and said, There you are, my love.” -76

“I suspect I have carried this angst and fear of imminent explosion within me to this day, but when I paint I am accompanied by dissonances, syncopations, and the ultimate will for life and moral order of goodness.” -18

“That was the interesting idea of us: East and West Africa married, descendent of slaves who survived, descendants of free people of color, descendants of freedom fighters never enslaved, the strongest of all to be coaching our children. Sometimes we talked about this. But mostly we just talked, the deepest thoughts, the sweetest thoughts, the questions we had waited to ask forever. He was a bottomless boat and the boat that would always hold me.” -53

“I thought of that phrase tonight. ‘Nobody cried today.’ It is 10 months, almost one year. I did not cry today. I cried yesterday. I may well cry tomorrow. But I did not cry today, and neither did either of my sons, though mostly I am the one who still cries.  It is not an accomplishment, just an observation, but one that marks the passage of time.” -150

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