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After her husband’s sudden death, Elizabeth Alexander writes their love story

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now: A poet finds the words to tell her own story of grief.

    Jeffrey Brown has our conversation, fresh off the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "The story seems to begin with catastrophe, but, in fact, began earlier, and is not a tragedy, but rather a love story."

    Those are first lines of a new memoir by poet Elizabeth Alexander titled "The Light of the World."

    The catastrophe occurred in 2012, the sudden death of her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, of a heart attack just days after his 50th surprise birthday party.

    ELIZABETH ALEXANDER, Author, "The Light of the World": There's just a strangeness of absence.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's just so unnatural that he's not coming to dinner.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    Unnatural, and also someone's things are around, someone's smell is around, someone's garden is coming up that he planted, finding a book and seeing the page marked where he was reading, all of that trace is — was what I found. You know, it takes a while, even though, of course, you know, sadly, you know that they're not coming back.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The love story is the one they shared for 16 years, raising two young boys, Solomon and Simon, now 17 and 15.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    A happy marriage is hard-won. So we worked to make our marriage and our family. But did I feel awash with fortune even as we struggled through the struggles of the day? Absolutely.

    "Praise Song for the Day."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Elizabeth Alexander came into the national spotlight in 2009, when she read her poem "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's first inauguration.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    She's the author of six books of poetry, one of them, "American Sublime," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she's a professor of African-American studies at Yale University.

    It was in New Haven that she met Ficre, an immigrant from Eritrea who had fled war.

    One of the things that gives the story such resonance is such an American story, right, a black woman coming, a descendant from slave families, immigrant man, right, escaping war, starting his life anew.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    Well, I'm so happy that you see it that way, because I wasn't aware of it in the writing, but it is absolutely true, the Americanness of it, the Americanness of, you know, immigrants at what stage in the American story.

    And also many American marriages are mixed in some way that you wouldn't expect, you know, not just straightforward religious mixing or a black person and a white person coming together, but mixing cultures with some kind of baseline of understanding that draws you to the person who is your partner.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In addition to his family, Ficre had two great passions. There was cooking. He was a chef and had a restaurant in New Haven.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    This is an early watercolor.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And then there was his painting.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    And then this painting, which I love, which I see every day when I open my eyes, is called "Visitation." And it is an allegory of our first meeting in Ficre's studio in New Haven.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The walls of Alexander's apartment — she moved into Manhattan last year — are filled with his work.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    I was very surprised that I started writing almost immediately after Ficre died. I didn't think it was anything that was going to become a poem or become a memoir. I just knew that I was keeping track of things in some kind of way, not even looking at what I did, not even thinking much about it, but just doing it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Keeping track of what, your feelings?

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    I wouldn't even call them feelings. I would call them perceptions and living and surviving. Writing was actually my feet on the earth. It felt like that was how I knew that I was anchored to something and that I needed to track what I was moving through, even though I wouldn't say it was cathartic or it helped me move through my grief.

    It wasn't like that. It was actually, now that I look back on it, more profoundly about processing the world through art and writing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There's a line where you say, how much space for remembering is there in a day?

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    Mmm.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That struck me because much of the book is sort of remembering little things.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Even a recipe of his.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    I feel that it's a book of praise that's a poet's prose, because it came from…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A poet's prose?

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    A poet's prose, in that I felt that it came from the same visceral place that poetry comes from. It came word first and word by word and always with attention to music.

    The chapters are — they not prose poems, but they're short, they're condensed. They have the economy of poetry, because that's kind of how I'm wired. I knew I could not undo what had happened. I knew I couldn't really fix anything in time, but I think that in writing we do try to fix moments so that somehow they're captured, and that's — I just wanted to be very careful. I wanted to be precise and precisely ask myself what I saw and felt and knew and remembered.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You must have now become part of a conversation of grief in a sense. Do you tell people that you learned, or is this an offering of learning?

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    Grief is so singular, even as it is our universal.

    We have all been through it, or we will all come to it. That is the truth. So I wouldn't presume to say I did it this way, so you should do it this way or anything like that. Every family, every person, we all know our griefs and our challenges. They just come at different times in different ways. So he and I had each known them in different ways at different points.

    His loss was the biggest one, the most consequential one, but, in that, honestly, was the blessing of having known him. No one is guaranteed love. No one is guaranteed children. No one is guaranteed the synchronicity that we had. So I was very aware always that that was something that was indelible.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The book is the "Light of the World."

    Elizabeth Alexander, thank you so much.

  • ELIZABETH ALEXANDER:

    Thank you very much for the conversation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Elizabeth Alexander shared two of her late husband's favorite dishes with us, spicy red lentil tomato curry, and spaghetti with a hundred onions. Find those recipes on our home page, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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