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 my 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, where his name and his employer’s were stitched.
Such descriptions balance and enliven Farber’s elegant, meditative writing. They also help 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 reviews poetry for The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.