read Elizabeth Alexander’s account of her 50-year-old
husband’s death is to understand anguish.
medics rush him into the emergency room, and the doctors
usher me into a roomette where they work,"
Alexander writes in her memoir, "The Light of the
keep my hand on his calf the whole time. He is still
warm. They cut off his clothes. As his body is exposed,
a doctor in a turban closes the curtains."
what stays with the reader long after the book is shut
is not grief, but joy — in the couple’s love, their
children, the meals they prepared together, the family
gatherings, the joyous blending of African and
and her husband, Eritrean artist and chef Ficre
Ghebreyesus, were married for 16 years before he
collapsed and died of cardiac arrest while running on
their home treadmill.
death was sudden, unexpected. "The slim one who
eats oatmeal and flaxseed is the one who dies, while the
plump one who ate bacon unabashed stays alive," she
memoir of their marriage was a finalist for a Pulitzer
Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award and is
now out in paperback.
am really pleased because so many people have told me
how moved they have been by it," Alexander said
recently in a phone interview. "And that people
have entered a world of love in the details of family
and also have been surrounded by culture — which is
mostly black culture — from around the world. I love
the idea that quite by accident some readers might have
had their own worlds expanded a little bit."
Shotts, Alexander’s longtime poetry editor at Graywolf
Presss, read an early galley of the memoir, which was
published by Grand Central.
memoirs can be crushing," Shotts said. "And
what was so amazing about Elizabeth’s is that you come
out with a sense of celebration. You’re crying for joy
by the end of the book as much as you are crying for
54, was born in Harlem and grew up in Washington, D.C.
Her father, Clifford Alexander, was the first
African-American to be U.S. secretary of the army, and
her mother, Adele Logan Alexander, is a professor,
historian and writer.
and her younger brother, Mark (now dean of Villanova
University’s law school), grew up in a home
"where reading and education and culture and social
justice were very much in the air," Alexander said.
"My mother, especially, was and is a quite
has degrees from Yale, Boston University and the
University of Pennsylvania. She has taught at the
University of Chicago and Yale and is now at Columbia
University. She is a chancellor of the Academy of
American Poets, director of creativity and free
expression at the Ford Foundation, and earlier this
summer was elected to the Pulitzer Prize board (she has
twice been a finalist).
wrote as a child but did not know I was a poet until I
was in my early 20s," she said. "I loved
language, I loved reading, I loved scribbling, I loved
being in culture. At one point, I wrote fiction; at
another point, I was a newspaper reporter."
she went to grad school, at Boston U, where she studied
with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.
wrote what I would call — borrowing the poet Garrett
Hongo’s phrase — word clouds," she said.
"They were just these little clusters of really
energized and infused language, and I showed them to
Professor Walcott and he said, ‘What you’re doing is
writing poetry. It’s just that you have not learned
how to lineate. You haven’t made lines.’ He copied
out some of my work and he said, ‘You see? That’s
how you make a poem. And that’s what you’re doing.
So go away now and don’t come back until you have some
real poems.’ And that was that."
CALL FROM THE WHITE HOUSE
relationship with Graywolf began in 2001 with her third
collection of poems, "Antebellum Dream Book."
Shotts was familiar with her work from her first
collection, "The Venus Hottentot" (later
reissued by Graywolf). The title poem was named for two
sisters from South Africa who were brought to England
and displayed in European freak shows.
had a wonderful reputation, and very early on that first
book made a real splash," Shotts said. "I
think she was doing something radical and important,
especially in the title poem — a really important poem
in the last 25 years, talking about the black female
body and what it has come up against historically."
afternoon in late 2008, Shotts and the other Graywolf
editors were at a luncheon where they discussed the
lineup for 2009. "There’s always a moment when
[publisher Fiona McCrae] is asking, ‘What’s going to
be the next thing? What will define the next year?’?"
then we came back to the office and there was a message
… saying Elizabeth has been selected as the inaugural
poet for Barack Obama. And I think we all decided this
is going to be the next thing for the next year."
a poet to read at a presidential inauguration had
happened only three times before, and Alexander felt the
was an amazing thing to be asked to do," she said.
"I was so moved that the president wanted to have a
poem, and other art forms — he didn’t have to, as
you know. That he also had musicians — Aretha
Franklin, Yo-Yo Ma — and for him to say in that moment
that the culture would offer us a language that nothing
else could replicate, and that was absolutely necessary
to the day, that was a great and wonderful thing. I was
humble, and I was proud."
passion for culture is a crucial theme in "The
Light of the World." Her husband was both an artist
and a chef, and the book is richly sensuous with
dancing, painting, music, poetry, hunger, desire,
cooking. There are recipes.
did he and I do for each other? We fed each other,"
she said. "How do you learn about culture? One of
the great ways to learn about culture and share culture
is through food."
WRITING, BUT NOT EASY
began writing the memoir just a month after her husband’s
didn’t think I was writing a book," she said.
"I was just writing. I was grateful to have an art
form with which to process what was happening."
wrote at her dining room table — "I gave up
pretty early on the preciousness of place," she
said. "I take a lot from the poet Lucille Clifton,
who had six children, and who talked about how you write
at the kitchen table with all kinds of chaos going on
around you." She wrote the book swiftly, finishing
in about a year.
came without impediment, but it was the opposite of
easy. ‘Sad’ is not the word. It was so —
everything. It’s not just about the sorrowful parts.
It’s also about trying to re-create the beauty and the
love and the person, and that’s a different kind of
memoir reads almost like a long poem, with rich language
and white space and short sections and repetition and
cadence. One chapter is just eight lines. Writing it,
Alexander said, changed her.
book kind of emptied me out," she said. "And
so it will be really interesting to see what’s next,
but I think the change has already happened. What it
will continue to look like, we’ll see."