At the heart of two prominent poets' memoirs lies a loss that shakes the writer's faith in the solidity of the world. But in tone and tempo they are quite distinct. Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith's "Ordinary Light" (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95) is a slow-burning chronicle of family life and her mother's death from cancer. By contrast, "The Light of the World" (Grand Central, $26) is a cri de coeur, in which Elizabeth Alexander, the poet best known for her recitation at President Obama's 2009 inauguration, records the raw aftermath of her husband's unexpected death at the age of 50.
Smith's mother has been gone two decades, and her quiet, questioning memoir is an act of recovery and devotion. In the prologue describing her mother's last hours, she finds herself "both frightened and reassured," and "both crushed and heartened" that death does indeed look and feel the way it's described in the hospice literature, even as it remains a mystery and a miracle. Throughout the book she often returns to this kind of paradox, revolving all sides of an idea and remaining open to reversal.
Her deeply religious mother bore no such doubts. Smith is the youngest by almost a decade in a strong and loving family of seven -- "God's perfect number," according to her mother. Her father, an engineer at the nearby Travis Air Force Base in suburban Northern California, is a storybook hero to his young daughter, someone who has "fled a humble past and made himself anew." Both her parents have left behind the Jim Crow South, and from their neat home in a mostly white suburb, refuse to look back. Smith's father holds his children to relentless standards of excellence, while her mother binds them close in an all-consuming faith; neither talks much about race or injustice. But the past isn't so easily broken with. When a middle-school classmate asks Tracy, "Don't you wish you were white?" her question is part of a lifelong drip feed of curiosity, condescension, hostility and hate. It's not until college that Smith finds in literature a voice for her own experience. "I'd gone militant," she says, half-jokingly, of her newly race-conscious speech and incipient dreadlocks, which unsettle her family, who have learned a quieter way of being in a white world.
Smith's journey from childhood to Harvard and to poetry is also a journey from her mother's version of God to her own more expansive and characteristically questioning concept. "Is God each of the many different things we seek in the course of a life?" she asks herself after the birth of her own daughter. "Family for a short time, and then unfettered independence, and then love?" Her book is full of such questions, always reaching across the gap from daily life to the eternal.
How do we calculate the meaning, the shape, and the length of a marriage? Halfway through "The Light of the World," Elizabeth Alexander tries to reckon it up: How many weddings, funerals, jobs, surgeries, wars, trips, books, babies? It seems longer than it really is, "that much struggle, that much jubilee." And where does the story begin -- with her and her husband's African ancestors? Their chance meeting? The 50th birthday party they threw four days before he died? Not, surely, with his sudden, impossible collapse.
Ficre Ghebreyesus was born in Eritrea, just two months before Alexander was born halfway around the world in Harlem. His joyful childhood was shadowed by war until, as a teenager, he fled to Sudan, as a refugee, then to Italy, the colonial power in his small country, whose language he spoke along with six others. Eventually he arrives in New Haven, Connecticut, where he meets Alexander, a professor at Yale and almost immediately his partner for life. He was an artist and a chef, creative pursuits that demand both curiosity and patience. Throughout the book, food is a source of comfort and a cause for celebration: Alexander invites us to the feast with a recipe for Ficre's locally legendary shrimp barka ("Women called for it . . . after they'd delivered their babies"), along with other dishes that require long simmering, patience, anticipation.
Patience is also the only way through grief. Eventually there's a day without tears, eventually a new poem. Alexander's sons, Simon and Solomon, 12 and 13 when their father dies, shoot up taller than their parents: "Simon's anklebones appear shiny at his pants' hems." Eventually grief mellows into gratitude for having spent time in the company of such love, an emotion that overwhelms the reader, too, throughout this gorgeous and intimate tribute.