To read Elizabeth Alexander’s account of her 50-year-old husband’s death is to understand anguish.
“The 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 World.”
“I 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.”
But 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 African-American culture.
Alexander 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.
His 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 writes.
Her memoir of their marriage was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award and is now out in paperback.
“I 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.”
Jeff Shotts, Alexander’s longtime poetry editor at Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, read an early galley of the memoir, which was published by Grand Central.
“Grief 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 grief.”
A bookish childhood
Alexander, 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.
Elizabeth 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 voracious reader.”
Alexander 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).
“I 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.”
Then she went to grad school, at Boston U, where she studied with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.
“I 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.”
A call from the White House
Alexander’s 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.
“She 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.”
One 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?’ ” he said.
“And 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.”
Asking a poet to read at a presidential inauguration had happened only three times before, and Alexander felt the responsibility keenly.
“It 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.”
Alexander’s 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.
“What 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.”
Fast writing, but not easy
Alexander began writing the memoir just a month after her husband’s death.
“I 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.”
She 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.
“It 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 hard.”
The 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.
“That 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.”
ELIZABETH ALEXANDER AT TALKING VOLUMES
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 15.
Where: Fitzgerald Theatre, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $23-$50; 1-800-514-3849 or at the Fitz box office.
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302 • facebook.com/startribunebooks • @StribBooks