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Memoir Chronicles The Joy And Loss Of 'The Light Of The World'


There's something otherworldly about the way poet Elizabeth Alexander describes her connection with her late husband, right down to their first interaction.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: I met Ficre Ghebreyesus in 1996, as if by magic.

MARTIN: She lived in Chicago, but she was in New Haven Conn., writing a play for the Yale School of Drama. Ficre's family owned several cafes in the city. Elizabeth was in one of those cafes waiting for a friend.

ALEXANDER: And she mysteriously did not appear. But who did appear but this lovely, shy man who said to me, I saw your play and I wonder if we could talk about it? So he sat down and I felt a visceral torque that wasn't like anything I had ever felt before.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Alexander knew she wouldn't be in town for much longer, but she wrote down her phone number anyway. And when she got home...

ALEXANDER: The phone was ringing. He asked me to come for coffee the next day. And the real truth is that I never left.

MARTIN: You came from such different worlds. You grew up in New York and later Washington, D.C., and he grew up in Eritrea. The way you wrote about him, he seemed to have lived several lifetimes before the two of you came together.

ALEXANDER: He certainly had. And I thought often how interesting it was that our mothers were pregnant with us at the same time halfway around the world from each other but that somehow we found each other. He grew up in the midst of a long civil war, left the country as a refugee when he was 16 years old, and this all the time when I was going to high school and going to college and going to ballet. But despite growing up in the midst of war, he always described his upbringing within the compound of his home as having been a magic garden with love and food and music and ritual and family. And that was what we tried to build and what we shared with our own family.

MARTIN: You describe such a beautiful life together. The two of you ended up living in New Haven, Conn., raising your two boys. You're this very well-regarded teacher at Yale, and he, this amazing artist who worked out of your home. And it was this life full of love and food and community.

ALEXANDER: It was. You know, we certainly had the usual ups and downs of married life, but I felt I had no one who believed in me more than Ficre did.

MARTIN: You write in great detail about the day that he died. If you don't mind, I'll just kind of recount some of how that happened. You had just gotten home. Ficre was downstairs running on the treadmill. Your son Simon went down to get him and instead found him collapsed. He had had a heart attack. You had no indication that he had any health problems, right?

ALEXANDER: None whatsoever. It was actually cardiac arrest. Even more intense than a heart attack, I suppose. He was, in certain ways, a very, very healthy man. He was yoga and blueberries and long walks and all of that. He was a smoker. He tried so hard to stop. He didn't want to be in its grips. And, I think, also, you know, what do we know about how stresses accrue over a lifetime? You know, what do we know about what it means when you're a young person and soldiers break into your house and your friends are disappeared from school and you walk through killing fields and you survive? And then you make your way in not one, but several new places. I've wondered often about, you know, carrying that lifetime of stress and what it does to someone's health.

MARTIN: A loss like this is so hard. You are trying to navigate your own grief but you have two sons who've just lost their dad. Can you talk a little bit about how you had to parent through this kind of grief?

ALEXANDER: My children - my beautiful, beautiful children, they were built strong. Ficre would - he was very tactile. And he would say, you have to put your hands on your children. Your children will always remember your hands. They will always remember your touch. You're putting something into them.

And so I think that that strength and sense of self and sense of literally their father in them is something that bolstered them. I will still say sometimes, what would daddy say in this situation? And we always know or can imagine in a way that feels comforting. In that way, he really is indelibly with us.

MARTIN: When it comes to your poetry, obviously this is a direct outgrowth of your thoughts and your life and your experience. Has it changed dramatically - your work?

ALEXANDER: Well, I never imagined I'd write a memoir. I'm actually quite private. This book came from the same depth, the same true place and the same language motivation that poetry comes. But then it became something else. I know I can fix Ficre in time. I know I can't fix our family life in time, but I can fix it in art. And I wanted to do it quickly before it moved into a place of nostalgia. And I wanted to write through the rawest periods. You know, grief doesn't move in a straight line.

The poet Linda Pastan wrote grief is a circular staircase. You keep climbing and it keeps going and you - maybe you reach a little plateau and you think you're fine and you go back down a little bit, but there is, I think, a time-bounded intensity to the year afterwards. And I just felt I had to say what was happening then.

MARTIN: May I close by asking what is a very personal question? You write a lot in the book about how you feel him, how you see him in dreams, in his art, in nature. And I wonder at this point in the grief for you, where he is most present?

ALEXANDER: What an interesting question. I see him in my children, who are becoming men. And they are their father's sons. And I see that in them every single day. And that is very, very powerful. So I think that that is where he's closest.

MARTIN: Poet Elizabeth Alexander. Her new memoir is called "The Light Of The World." She joined us from our studios in New York. Elizabeth, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

ALEXANDER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.