Karen An-hwei Lee

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.

Year of Reversible Loss
by Norma Farber
El Leon Literary Arts, May 2012
$20.00 paperback, ISBN 9780983391944
77 pages