The Light of the World, a memoir on love and death and grief by the prize-winning poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander, was published April 21 and quickly made best-seller lists. I have been reading memoirs by widows lately, and I wanted to compare Alexander to two literary giants a generation older than she, my contemporaries Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking) and Joyce Carol Oates (A Widow’s Story).
At first, I thought that Alexander’s story was too foreign to my experience, for she is an African-American woman who was married 15 years to an artist from Eritrea, in East Africa; and her grief was that of a 50-year-old woman with two young sons. Her descriptions of him and his culture, of their family life and their love are lyrical; so I was drawn into the story by her exquisite, descriptive language. But grief has a universality, and her ability to describe her grief resonated. My bed, the bedroom, the house, was suffused with sorrow. Sorrow like vapor, sorrow like smoke, sorrow like quicksand, sorrow like an ocean, sorrow louder and fuller than the church songs, sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go.
Alexander is also more hopeful than Didion and Oates. She found meaning in religious ritual and tradition, though she was not reared in the church. She discovered Negro spirituals, and she wrote:
“…I am listening to Mahalia Jackson in a whole new way. How I got over, My soul looks back in wonder. I hear it for the very first time. The gratitude in that song is what washes over me, the word thank repeated over and over. My soul does indeed look back in wonder; I had Ficre; I have Ficre; I have these extraordinary children; I have a village; I have an art-form; I am black; we are African; we come from survivors and doers; my parents are wise and strong; my body is strong; I was loved without bound or condition; I exist in time and in context, not floating in space; my troubles are small compared to some; my troubles are not eternal; my days are not through.”
Her list of things to be thankful for isn’t too different from mine. Gratitude is what gets widows over.
Beth Kephart on The Light of the World
I am still reading, and I may have more to quote later. Beth Kephart, a memoirist who reads and reviews others’ memoirs, read Alexander in view of the Charleston shooting. Her perspective is different from mine, but she captured the essence of Alexander’s book in a recent blog:
“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.”
Elizabeth Alexander. The Light of the World. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2015. (iBook)