Meghan O'Rourke Reviews Elizabeth Alexander's Grief Memoir

At The New York Times, Meghan O'Rourke reviews Elizabeth Alexander's grief memoir The Light of the World. O'Rourke meditates not only on Alexander's book but also on the social importance of grief memoirs in a secular culture.

Loss is the flip side of love. The two are stitched together by time, which takes what it gives — meaning, of course, that when a loved one dies loss is part of us forever. In her new book, “The Light of the World,” Alexander — a professor of poetry at Yale, who is probably best known for reading her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration — has written a meditative and elegiac account of meeting and losing her husband and great love. In fragmentary, sometimes repetitive, interlocking essays, “The Light of the World” touches on politics, race and the transformative nature of art, but mainly it is what’s become known as a “grief memoir.” Its points of overlap with similar books lead the reader to a conclusion: Without secular rituals to guide us, such memoirs have become our primers in the logic and ethics of mourning. They are what we turn to when we are not sure where else to turn.
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Writing a memoir about loss — elegizing the dead — can be a powerful act of ritualistic mourning in its own right. Not surprisingly, Alexander begins in despair: On Easter, two days after his funeral, she tells us: “I call out, to no one. Will I remember everything? What am I meant to keep?” Over time, she figures this out: One keeps what one can. Alexander’s ultimate answer to death is spiritual and ethical, if not religious — letting go of a loved one requires us to find very real reasons to continue. Alexander, long unable to write or read, begins to do both once again. She watches her sons grow taller than Ficre ever was. She hears the things he would have told them. In the end, she is able to leave behind their home in New Haven for New York City, a new stage of her life. When she wakes there, she finds that “the room is flooded with pale yellow light.” It’s a small thing, to borrow Raymond Carver’s formulation, but a good one.
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Further Reading
The New Yorker - "Mourning a Husband" by Elizabeth Alexander

Salon -  “Sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go”: Elizabeth Alexander on losing her husband and writing through grief