Essential Reading: The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
In Jewish tradition, after someone dies, it is customary to bring food to those left behind and to sit with them in a practice known as shiva. It shouldn’t be that surprising to find food associated with grief. Food is in its way a form of showing love and support that it may bring succor to the sorrowful. Named after a poetry quote of Derek Walcott’s, (“And I thought, O Beauty, you are the light of the world!”), the memoir Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander reads like a mixed media form of artwork. Interspersed within its pages, prose poetry sidles up against essay, reporting, and finally, recipes. In this chronicle of the life of Alexander’s husband, the chef and artist, Ficre Ghebreysus, his untimely death comes across as punctuation out of place.
A few years ago, I attended a lecture Alexander gave on Lucille Clifton’s poetry just after Kevin Young’s tome of Clifton poetry had been published. While Alexander describes writing World bit by bit and then threading it together as one story, I am struck by the poetic influences that she turned to during its writing, namely Clifton and Rilke. But also, the acknowledgements section names her editor’s initial suggestion to write this story.
When I first heard about the release of World, I knew I wanted to snatch it up immediately, both interested in how a poet would approach memoir and wanting to see how food wove into a memoir about loss. This book is an anthem of her husband’s vivacity to live. It also is a chronicle of what it looks like to come out of the fog of grief in hard won healing. Alexander comments that she didn’t want to give into nostalgia. She says of writing World,
“I believe that poets write ‘as poets,’ with utmost attention to each word, the rhythms of the writing, and its musicality.”
Her sections written in parts of one poem feature prose poetry so evanescent that it took a deep amount of restraint not to highlight the entire passage. Every word is essential.