Norma Farber's journal of the year after the death of her life's companion is in prose and verse. This formal doubleness turns out to be perfect for writing that is attentive as it is candid, cool as it is heartfelt, elegant as it is passionate.
—Robert Pinsky, Selected Poems
The music of Norma Farber’s Year of Reversible Loss is visceral, Orpheus singing the music of grief. “Let the meniscus moon hone its dagger against the sharpening dark.” Mixing brilliant essay with exquisite verse situated between haiku and pensee, Farber ignores no detail of the natural world that might ignite powerful insight. “My need is small/as the dusk under a lilac bush.“ Where Anne Morrow Lindberg and Joan Didion try for this lucidity, Farber succeeds again and again.
—Terese Svoboda, Bohemian Girl
In this rhapsodic meditation on the inevitability of the loss of the beloved, Norma Farber navigates toward the dignity that, with wisdom, she salvages with patient memory, nuanced language, and a forbearing heart. We almost feel we are witnessing her mind and hand at work as she composes herself and her book in prose and poems that combine the compassion and metaphorical flashes of Basho and Issa with the tender astringency of Dickinson. Farber grieves by testing the need both to be silent and to speak of the unspeakable. She tells herself, and us, that life, indifferent, not only continues without the beloved, it blossoms. A stoic sort of rapture is possible; longing and fulfillment embrace, in love with one another, in this rare, unforgettable book.
—Frank Stewart, Editor, Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing
We know Norma Farber as a strikingly original poet and musician, and Sidney Farber as a larger-than-life scientific and medical visionary. But they were also husband-and-wife for more than four decades. More than a marriage of art and science, theirs was a marriage of two unorthodox and complex minds. Written after Sidney Farber's death, this enthralling book is thus a journal of a partially amputated soul, with the rawness and urgency that only such amputations can bring, one of the most stirring chronicles of loss that I have encountered.
—Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies
Norma Farber’s unique memoir contains the most elegant nature poems ever written as an antidote to grief, and her precise journal passages also resonate as prose poetry. Year of Reversible Loss was composed immediately after the loss of her husband Dr. Sidney Farber. Envisioning the seasons through 50th floor windows, her text opens on a shocking wound: “Last night you died.” Next the first April poem: “Sing your name on the wind./Then I’ll know which way/to follow you.” For “How silent my body feels,/hush of my shoulders/upholding the weightlessness of loss.” Finally ending the cruelest month: “In the vast planting under sky,/whether I watch or not,/things bloom and die, or not.” This primal experience brings her face to face with mortality. Living through the stages of grief, recycling out of sequence and at will, she finds in universal rhythms an understanding of blossoming nature bound to inevitable passing.
Farber’s book ponders complex contradictions of death in the midst of abundant nature. In May “nature proves indifferent, whether to my reluctance or my rapture.” And yet: “The weight of love:/measurable/as the ponder of light.” By June she sees “How much of nature happens in silence!” She attempts “To make songs of loss,/and lose it,/ keeping only the music.”—alas, for “Someone I knew/now knows the noise of nothing.” July brings a fleeting measure of acceptance: “Knowing that I shall lose it/ over and over and over/I accept the universe,” and witnessing the river below, she knows that “A certain hunger/wants to be kept/going to sea.” But painful questions persist: “Can there be loss/worn so thin/the sun shines through?” In August she contemplates a Rembrandt anatomy painting and her husband’s autopsy report: “Whatever you were, you are no longer. This is the message of the funerary theater.”
Guilt shadows her September. “A strange, subtle increase: totality, generality of losses infiltrates my private mourning. Am I already losing you still further in a more diffuse awareness? A disturbing possibility. I have been entertaining my comfortable bereavement: a suspect comfort, focusing upon my single grief. . .” But there remains a “Strange residue: how large a portion of survival/remains in mourning.” In October she withdraws further inward, and “can’t help praising a certain fixity. Remaining strictly in residence, I keep my faithful lookout,” perceiving “travel as a pilgrimage” with “no desire to wander farther than thought itself can take me—far enough indeed.” However, “When I am most filled with the magnificence of these days of my life—suddenly I am most emptied of their meaning.” Yet, “Piercingly I recall an ecstasy shared. Implausibly, I search for a way to draw you back into my continuing time, to remember you vividly into my future.” The prose poem for November turns the multiple meanings of the verb LET—to admit, to allow, to suffer. “Let daybreak balance on chimneys. Morning’s a circus, sun a star acrobat./Let branches discount their leaf-losses, and compensate with buds.” And finally: “Let metaphor help me lift your loss on board.”
“So long as the rhythm of nature persists, you prevail,” she writes in December, believing that “Through the intervention of images I can touch you.” January changes her beloved into “dissolving shapes of clouds,” wherein “Longing and fulfillment identical—because ecstasy has merged their outlines in a momentous embrace.” February turns on the phrase “without you” as “the melody of the skies continues.” March, the last month of this heartbreaking inspiration discovers, “Now is the moment of reversal” and “What new discoveries are possible in reversal!”
Norma Farber (1909-1984)—poet, concert soprano, actor, children’s novelist— authored 35 titles. As I Was Crossing Boston Common was a National Book Award nominee in 1975 and her poems were inthe finest magazines and the “Poets of Today” anthology series. Year of Reversible Loss stands as an original masterwork—a seamless tapestry of essential romanticism necessary to experience deep longing and loss.
—Roberto Bonazzi (author of The Scribbling Cure), in The San Antonio Express, July 27, 2012
A posthumous memoir from longtime Monitor poet Norma Farber
After the death of her longtime husband, poet and novelist Norma Farber kept a journal in which she explored the landscape of grief. Now, almost three decades after her own passing, Year of Reversible Loss has been published, allowing fans to share that private journey. And what an unexpected journey it is. The first surprise comes from the unlikely title. Can the loss of a loved one be “reversible”?
Farber, who published more than 30 books, arrives at her answer slowly, beautifully, while weaving a seamless mix of prose and poetry. The distinctive approach reflects her changing moods and perceptions, right from the opening page. There, she announces that “last night you died” before shifting, a few lines later, to three haunting haiku:
Sign your name on the wind.
then I’ll know which way
to follow you.
How silent my body feels:
hush of my shoulders
upholding the weightlessness of loss.
A gaunt moon.
I need more light
to free the stone from its shadow.
The concentrated form allows Farber to express her feelings – and maintain some distance from them – at a time when her loss is numbingly new.
By the second page, Farber shifts her focus both outside her apartment window and inside, to a six-foot dogwood cutting she received from the complex’s gardener. The branch slowly blooms in its strange new environment, yet for Farber, who was also “pruned,” the process takes much longer.
Weeks pass as she ponders her loss through various lenses, including music, history, and mythology. In July, for example, she wonders about a woman who survived the siege and mass suicide at Masada, saying, “Take me to that cave, that close escape.” In September, she considers floods and says, through the mythical figure Pyrrha, “something fishy about survival.”
Such comments might provide catharsis, but nature is where she finds true solace, along with the growing conviction that her bond with Sidney has changed, not ended. Eight months after his passing, she writes: “Everywhere in my life I learn to know your conduit energy. You teach me – more than ever was possible while you had a name and a distinct location – to know you in natural recurrences of time and space: trees, grass, flowers, their lift and fall.”
“Conduit energy” defines Sidney’s presence in much of this thoughtful collection, and many readers will appreciate that perspective, which informs Farber’s ultimate conclusions.
Others will feel the limitations of Farber’s format— a journal—which serves the author’s needs but not always those of a reader. Perhaps that’s why Farber includes so few glimpses of Sidney and the life they shared. She, after all, seeks a reversal of loss, where “time moves so as to come back on itself.” Yet for this reviewer, the work is most compelling when Farber shows what Sidney was like as a person, spouse, or family member.
In the funniest scene, Farber recalls the time she injured her back, and Sidney, a dedicated physician, raced up to Maine to examine her himself. He left so quickly that he forgot his license and had no ID to show the police officer who pulled him over for speeding. Sidney’s solution was to show the waistband of his underwear, her audience understand why she was so determined to find some enduring connection to the man with whom she had shared her life for nearly 50 years.
—Elizabeth Lund, The Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 2012
Karen An-hwei Lee, in the Iowa Review, August, 2012
Illuminating the inner life of a remarkable Bostonian woman of arts and letters, Norma Farber’s slender collection was gathered and published posthumously by her son, the Berkeley poet Thomas Farber. Married forty years to Sidney Farber, the oncologist pioneer of chemotherapy, Norma Farber (1909-1984) was a poet, concert vocalist, and translator.Year of Reversible Loss is the year-long journal composed in the months after her husband’s demise. Now available nearly three decades after her passing, this elegant book presents a record of Farber’s lyric meditations from April, the month of her late husband’s death, through March of the following year.
With the heartache of a widow’s grief, Year of Reversible Loss encompasses a full range of emotions associated with loss: “In what sense are you mine, love, / since nothing in my possession / can detain you?” In the spirit of Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson, Farber creates a detailed record of natural and domestic imagery: “Each bract’s a little chute, a pitcher mouth,” to material objects touched by her spouse while alive: “Closets cleared / drawers emptied of haberdashery. / Every millimeter crowded with reminiscence.”
Rhapsodic yet austere, at times reminiscent of Denise Levertov’s later work, Farber invites her absent soulmate to “sign your name on the wind.” With delicate restraint, the poet conveys grief without melodrama: “A gaunt moon. / I need more light / to free the stone from its shadow.” Veering away from pomp, she chooses the ordinary over the mythic or exalted: “Who needs a phoenix? / In the right season of listening / a robin sings so roundly.” Signs of grace mixed with the blessing of trial—in the Puritanical tradition, refining the faithful—emerge with nature’s procreative imperative while Farber wonders how it is possible to be “green, green, green, even without you?” The blooming progresses from “unfolding of fern from snail to fringe” even as the beloved’s absence belies the opulence: “The meaning of loss is what haunts these wealthy May phenomena. Loss of focus? For I can’t find you there at the center, or precisely anywhere.”
With a keen poet’s eye, Farber traces the regeneration of the sycamore, the hyacinth, the dogwood, and other botanical flora in praise of a New England garden’s triumph over winter. Farber uses metaphor and memory to haul loss aboard unfamiliar waters of solitude: “Let metaphor help me lift your loss on board. The burden lies above sea level, a ready anchor. Too heavy to raise by hand, it’s wound by marvelous image of rope and drum. It moves with me anywhere I sail. It frees me to move. For I am the windlasser.” Rich and transparent in emotion, Farber wisely resists stylized, sentimental verse. Her record of days eschews morbidity and takes risks with the confessional lyric without maudlin excess. With a disciplined eye, she recalls the exquisite yet tender irony of watching her husband Sidney perform an autopsy on a child: “And you, radiantly alive as you traced the secret inroads of death.” In New York City, she shares a revelation with stark yet transcendent insight: “Here at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the way to honor the dead is not to die with them but to live. To try to live.”
Farber’s journal also works as a collage. Versed in the classical erudition of a Bostonian woman of letters, Farber is conversant with the language of medicine and human anatomy as well as Biblical allegory and archaeological excavation. An excerpt on “THE HEART” is quoted straight from Rembrandt’s Anatomy of Dr. Tulp along with a brief survey of memento mori, or images created to remind the living of their own mortality. In her own words, “Portraiture as an art form has been closely linked with death.” Of course, this poet’s memento mori are images of her spouse.
Over time, however, as she contemplates his photographs, Farber carefully questions the accuracy of those representations: “I’m tempted to discard all your photographs. They no longer resemble you, my remembrance of you, which is changing as certainly as I change.” As the poet faces a widening meridian of loss, she gradually accepts a new presence in form of intense spiritual hunger for her soulmate: “A certain hunger / wants to be kept / going to sea.” Ultimately, Farber poses an essential question about the process of mourning: “Am I abandoning you, occasion of my grief? Is your name now grief?” Indeed, a double-edged risk of erasure comes with names and naming, as the inchoate quality of loss eludes definition; grief is not easily confined to a single experience: “I waver constantly between desires: for the substantial; for the imperishable. My days are confrontations of alternatives.”
While Farber explores the stark imperative of survival, to try to live, she marvels at the unbridled blossoming of her garden after winter: “Of the cleistogamous touch-me-not: // These lesser jewel-blooms, / nunnishly closed to bees:/ yet, in their season, bearing.” These succinct lines imply the absence of one who can no longer touch her except through remembrance. There is no obvious antidote to loss except time. With the onset of winter, Farber still writes vividly of passion, nearly Hopkinsesque in its sprung rhythm: “Let Venus, unseen lovelight, tinder-seed, drift its fiery thistle-down into my cold dark. Let my bed take deep the imagined tuft of ember-grain, my soil stoke up sparks.”
Through life-affirming domestic rituals such as bread-baking, Farber creates a poetic reversal of the Song of Solomon: “While you lived, I made your bread, an emblematic lovemaking. To make bread now is a memorial act.… The baking loaf you will not share, floats its aroma throughout the apartment.” In this version, the lover of the Song of Songs invites the beloved to a feast of famine instead of plenty: “…Famished for want of you, I must feast / on want. Survival is my spread / surfeit….” The image of redemption comes in form of a miraculous tree of life, inviting the deceased to partake of the new season: “Participate with me in my survival of you. Be the leaves of my tree.”
Ending in response to her own question, “How to live without a hearth,” Farber houses the fires of marital passion in language, mediating loss with the warmth of remembrance, addressing her late husband as an intercessor: “Through the intervention of images I can touch you. And through this conjunction you can reach me, even intercede for my life. Through this obdurate transaction. This insistent nevertheless.” Farber’s eloquent journal is collected by her son Thomas as the Year of Reversible Loss, embodying a lush, image-laden recovery of the lost beloved from spring to spring. A gift of hope through language: Not all loss, even a human one, is irreversible.
Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo Press, 2012), Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004). The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, she lives and teaches in southern California, where she is a novice harpist. She earned an MFA from Brown University and a PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley.
SYMPATHETIC AND LITERARY CURRENTS
By Zara Raab
Norma Farber,Year of Reversible Loss, A Deux Frères Book, 2012, 77 pages, cloth.
“Last night you died.”
As openers go, this one is hard to beat. Farber goes on to describe, calmly, a brief telephone exchange with her husband that evening, the last of March. She has prepared the evening meal and awaits his return. He says he will be home soon….
Grief and genius are often bedfellows, and no genius is as expressive, no grief as keen, as that sparked by mourning the beloved, as Norma Farber does in Year of Reversible Loss, published 30 years after the poet’s death. The book follows the calendar of mourning, the cycle from the loved one’s death to the first anniversary, verse and prose moving in tandem through the months. This commingling of verse and prose made the manuscript particularly difficult to publish when it was written 40 years ago, even for a poet and children’s book author as prolific and well-published as Norma Farber. Publication now results from many changes in the literary and publishing climate.
“Last night you died.” The coolness of these opening words acts as a compress on the bruise of a sudden blow. “I put the roast in the oven. By the time it is done, and well done, you have been discovered unconscious at your desk. By the time I have told those who should be told, you are no longer ill.”
Death was the kind of news Norma Farber’s husband would often hear, he being Sidney Farber, MD, the pioneering cancer researcher for whom the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston is named—the kind of news often heard despite the many lives saved. He died in his office, his cells rejoining the cosmos, while everything around him was budding into spring. As the widow tells us:
Secret in the bud:
the hidden fury to be single, self,
Through the mesh of city noises,
the single crow-throat:
I caw, I am!
“Last night you died.” Not another word here of death—just as kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, does not mention it, preferring to dwell on life, to “joyously salvage the living” by remembering the dead. Experiencing a profound dislocation of her world, the end to many shared years, Farber turns to the natural order around her, to spring, “nature’s skill / belittling the surgeon’s” as she wrote in her 1979 book Something Further. She notes the recurring sun, the moon, shadows, the incipient spring flowers, and a branch of dogwood from the grounds of her Boston high-rise. Her husband’s presence, not mentioned, is implicit even and especially in the imagery of the season of rebirth and renewal. Some humorous finger
tickles the crease of the bud,
teases the folds
into twin shingles overlapping.
Like another, more recent widow, Joan Didion, whose memoir The Year of Magical Thinking decorated the book-shop windows for more than a year, Norma Farber is benumbed by her loss. The phrase “reversible loss” is one that Didion uses to describe her own magical thinking. Bereft lovers for whom such loss is incomprehensible continue to search for the beloved. So the English poet Thomas Hardy asks of his dead wife Emma, “Can it be you that I hear?” In May of her diary of grief, Farber, too, searches for her beloved:
I can’t find you there at the center, or precisely anywhere. Not bound, are you, all parts of you, into the old purpose, the plan?
Like Didion, Farber finds her memories evoked at odd moments, when, like shadows, they lie flat on the street,
angled to their tree or post. They may look lifeless…. But watch the way those shadows refuse to be run over! They rise up….
Yet Farber, unlike Didion, is not primarily a magical thinker; she experiences reversible loss as a paradox, shiny as a coin on the pavement—death on one side, life on the other, each minted irreversibly with the other. “Feelings should keep in touch / with natural law,” Farber wrote in “The Nightingales of the Ruhr” (Something Further). If the juxtaposition of pleasure and death is dark, she says in this volume—echoing her New England foremother Margaret Fuller’s acceptance of the universe—“Accept it as the night.”
“Anguished-consumed,” Farber records her husband’s death with a calm achieved through her compressed, densely woven style, the formal verse bracing her against panic, much as Penelope’s loom steadied her hand. Such compression and dense knitting of sounds and meanings work against confessional tropes. Rather than rooting around in the psyche of loss, Farber insists that we look at suffering “only askance with the side of our eye.” A no-nonsense intelligence informs her description of her husband’s autopsy: “The innermost secrets are brought to light. Heart, lungs, liver, spleen, stomach, kidneys, all parts yield their lesson to the living.”
It’s been said love operates at a higher frequency after the death. Farber, trained as a singer, often turns in Year of Reversible Loss to music—her “first food,” shared with her mother, “music of the blood rivering through me.” Now that her husband is gone, she writes: “…still I search for the sound of you, / the note that names you.” And then, “Death is the beat of clapper on bell… / And I am listening.”
Her friends urge her to travel, but she associates a journey classically with death. She takes an imaginary voyage instead, her craft fitted to the river “as a kiss to lips,” to Masada, that high place famously defended by a band of Jewish warriors against a Roman army. Rather than surrender, they commit mass suicide—all, according to legend, but the Woman of Masada. Farber vows to make her own mourning “infamous in survival,” girding “her losses.”
The form of Farber’s book—alternating prose and verse, as she moves through the calendar year—is a prism casting hues of various tones, sometimes dark, other times a lyrical blue or stoic earth tone. In September, the poet wonders how she can grieve for her husband at all, blessed as he was in life. Instead, she writes, “I must grieve for them, the deprived.” As a memorial sacrament in the harvest month of October in this year of loss, Farber bakes bread,
“an emblematic lovemaking.” But by November, the poet’s acceptance, present from the start, has deepened. “Let November come in without knocking,” she writes, “For the year is a turning stile.” Farber’s mind, too, is a turning stile, letting imagery enter gracefully, without knocking. In December, she writes:
You keep me, and I call my life the day.
You deepen, and I live the night. I live
in time a bowl you cup my being with.
“Not to fear dissolution,” she writes: “yours, or mine, or the world’s. To take pleasure in dissolution, as one enjoys beholding the dissolving shapes of clouds.”
People read books for reasons relating in part to how the author experiences the world. I read Farber for her rigorous thought, historical understanding, and musical verse, and for the example she sets as a poet who came late to her calling, after fulfilling other roles and leading another career as a classical singer. I discovered her through her son Tom Farber, a writer himself, known around the San Francisco Bay Area for his publishing house, El León, and for his encouragement of other writers. With her staunchness and classical ear, Farber has taught me much as a poet about craft and compression.
She has taught me about integrity and commitment, as well—for I discovered in her a poet who, against the grain of the times, refused to gain entry to literary circles by composing terse, angry missives disguised as political asseverations. Other writers fill their books of remembrance with shared memories––or tell-all vindications. Not Norma Farber. She guarded her privacy fiercely (“Look away, inquirer,” she wrote in Something Further)—and as a result, for doubtless she had much to tell, lived the literary chapter of her life in obscurity, at least as far as her poetry was concerned. (In Year of Reversible Loss, she does share one early memory, a charming folderol of cops and laundry tickets and a motor trip by a young doctor intent on rescue.) After writing the manuscript of Year of Reversible Loss, Farber published three books of poems before her death in 1984. This final work completes the seasons of a poet’s life, her calendar of love and mourning.
For Farber, the reversibility of loss is transformed, as the months pass, from denial to a desire to name the remnants and hear the music of an instrument no longer material. Contemplating a family photograph of her husband with an infant grandson, Farber writes, “what remains…is the interchange between man and child, the movement, the music, back and forth, like no song ever heard sung…. The flow is what I’m after. A current between us. Is it possible?” When she died, her son, Tom Farber, acting as her literary executor, found New York publishers for several other posthumous works, but to this manuscript publishers turned a cold shoulder. Last year, when Andrea Young Arts of Berkeley offered to publish his mother’s book, Tom Farber stepped in to co-publish through El León Literary Arts. Thus publication of Year of Reversible Loss sustains the flow—the very current Norma Farber sought to sustain with her dead husband—and forms a bridge between past and present, and between literary generations.
ZARA RAAB’s newest books are Fracas & Asylum and Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name? Swimming the Eel was a finalist for the Dana Award. Her poems, reviews, and essays appear in Crab Orchard Review, Evansville Review, Nimrod, River Styx, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor of Poetry Flash and The Redwood Coast Review.
This review appears in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Poet Lore available for purchase at poetlore.com.
"An exquisite cornucopia of meditative insight and poetry, Year of Reversible Loss ponders the trajectory of grief, capturing its changing rhythms through gemlike poetry and sustained passages of remembrance and reflection. In this journal of the year following the death of her husband Sidney Farber, dedicated pioneer in the field of pediatric oncology, Norma Farber traces the turning of the seasons as a deeply-felt metaphor for the journey of the grieving heart.
Where once a leaf clung,
the ashtree wears a scar,
a moon halted at half.
Her observations of the natural world as well as the hidden recesses of the heart are startling, fresh, and brilliant, at once keenly personal and sublimely transcendent.
Sign your name on the wind.
Then I'll know which way
to follow you.
This is a book to be savored for its insight and surprising humor, and for its passionate, astounding beauty."
--Lillian Howan, author of The Charm Buyers
Year of Reversible Loss
By Norma Farber
Published: El León/Andrea Young Arts,
Poet, concert singer, actress, novelist, translator; wife, mother, grandmother, widow, Norma Farber (1909-1984) was the author of more than thirty books. Her poems appeared in periodicals including The Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.