The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Wow. That was my response by about 30 pages into this book and then all the way through the end. Wow. Leave it to a poet to find a unique way to explore death, grief, and life after losing one that you love.

In The Light of the World, Alexander deals with the sudden loss of her husband at the age of 50. She loses the man she loves and not only needs to help her two teenage boys through this process, but has to find her own way in the world. The book addresses some of the things all people with grief deal with — going back to work, cleaning out the belongings of the one who died, learning to do things the other person did for us. But Alexander does this with a different voice than most, tying in recipes (her husband was a chef and artist and they express their love through food), poems from other poets, and even her own first attempt at a poem after her husband dies.

Alexander and her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus

Why do we write about death and grief? As someone who writes a blog on grief, and was recently accused of “not giving it some rest,” what is this need to explore all this through writing? For some of us, it is because writing is how we think and even how we feel. As Alexander explains: “I write to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget”(147). What a wonderful phrase, “to pass time in his company,” because that is one of the things Alexander achieves in this book. We come to know and love her husband as we watch her spend time with him in her writing. From this we can focus on our own journeys of grief. It seems paradoxical that in writing about a particular person that Alexander can reach so many of us, but she succeeds. “I wanted those particulars to radiate outward and be meaningful in ever-widening circles. For loss is our common denominator” (206).

Because of the death of my youngest son at the age of six, I read a lot of books about death and grief. As a Christian, I wonder why the atheists write some of the best books on grief (see my review of Julian BarnesLevels of Life). Alexander may not define herself as an atheist as she clearly has a spiritual bent, but there is no belief in an afterlife. Perhaps since they don’t have any hope of an eternal reunion, the atheists or agnostics do a better job of focusing on their current situation. Plus, they don’t have to wrestle with how a loving God allows us to suffer (since there is not a good answer to that).

Alexander’s exploration of grief is one of the best I’ve read and I recommend it without hesitation. And not just for those grieving, but anyone who values excellent writing on topics of depth. As a poet, Alexander says she thinks in short segments so most of the chapters are quite short and her mix of writing (recipes, poems, prose) make this a unique reading experience.

If Alexander is a new name for you, then you are in for a treat. She is an excellent poet and her 2006 work, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as was The Light of the World. You can visit her site to learn more about her.