How poet Elizabeth Alexander overcame the loss of her husband through writing

Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander

Author Elizabeth Alexander became a widow at age 49 when her painter-chef husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, suffered a heart attack while running on a treadmill in their home. The Light of the World, Alexander’s bestselling memoir, retraces that traumatic evening and its aftermath as she and the couple’s two sons come to grips with an uncertain future.

Grief is not an easy thing to get through, much less write about, but Alexander does so exquisitely in this book. Dreamy memories flood these pages, from the moment the couple met to Ficre’s surprise 50th birthday party days before his death. The narrative, in all its rawness and immediacy, perfectly captures the beauty and resiliency of love as well as the agony of loss. (Spoiler alert: Love wins.)

Alexander is an acclaimed poet and professor who read “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. She answered our questions via email in anticipation of her appearance at the Talking Volumes series with Kerri Miller.

City Pages: Who or what motivated you to write The Light of the World? Was it a way of processing your grief? A way for your sons to remember their father? A way to help others going through similar losses?

Elizabeth Alexander: All of the above! I wrote, mostly, to know what I was feeling in the face of unprecedented loss, and was surprised to find it becoming a book. I am glad that now there is a book that memorializes my children's father, even though they need no help remembering him.

CP: You seem to focus on finding the light in a dark time. Is grieving a “glass half full/glass half empty” experience, wherein one can choose to stay positive or let it destroy them?

EA: For me, the intensity of my grief was matched by the bounty of the love I have been shown. That love never dies.

CP: The way Simon processes the loss of his father seems very practical (rating his sadness) and magical/mystical (taking you to “visit” Ficre in heaven). How did your sons’ grief differ from each other and/or from you? What did you learn from them about grieving?

EA: Each grieves in his or her own way and grief is an ongoing process. To lose a father, as a child, is different from losing a partner — not better, not worse, just particular. In our grieving, you see our personalities and Simon is someone who sees the magical and mystical in life.

CP: Does grieving ever end? If not, what happens to it as time goes on?

EA: In my experience raw acute grieving ends. It is a fire and human beings can pass through it. But I have been very interested to find how aspects of the process, less searing, carry forward for years and appear sometimes unexpectedly. My eldest son just left for college and in that leaving, I feel again a version of the loss of his father, for example. But it is not the same thing that it was four years ago. It is the way we human beings move through the challenges of life inflected by our experiences.

CP: “How much space for remembering is there in a day? How much should there be?” you ask in the book. Is there a point at which remembering is detrimental? Or is it okay to indulge in it as often as we please?

EA: I wouldn't prescribe but I know that I am always balancing the richness of memory, which is also history, with the importance of moving forward in life. They go hand in hand for me.

CP: Is poetry in particular a form of healing? If so, what is it about poetry that heals? What “powers” does it have that prose or other genres of writing do not?

EA: Poetry is as close as we get to song. It is the work that most clearly emanates from the body. It is the human voice, stylized. So if we do a good job, it has the powers of music and a quality of deep human intimacy.


Talking Volumes with Elizabeth Alexander
Fitzgerald Theater
7 p.m. Thu., Sept. 15
$23 to $50
All ages