In this collection of poems and autobiographical sketches, a man explores the tenderness, humor, triumphs, and disappointments of both youth and old age.
The subtitle of this volume reveals that its 18 poems and 22 stories were written during the author’s “octogenarian and nonagenarian years,” phrasing that foreshadows the book’s engaging blend of Old World courtliness and perceptive humor. Farber (I’ve Always Been a Dancer: Poems Written in My Octogenarian Years, 2012) is at his strongest in the detailed vignettes about his family and his early-20th-century upbringing in a middle-class, Orthodox Jewish family in Chicago. His tone is both affectionate and frank, as he reveals not only the simple joys of a 1920s childhood in a large, spirited clan, but darker family secrets as well: his father’s bullying anger; his mother’s emotional dependence on her young son. His portraits of his dashing uncles are compelling and personal: charismatic Uncle Dave, whose shady double life leads to prison; handsome Uncle Eddie, whose rise to baseball stardom is cut short by a knee injury and who keeps his non-Jewish wife and children hidden from his family for 10 years; and dutiful Aunt Bluma, “a Cinderella figure with no possible slipper to rescue her.” Many of the prose pieces are recounted in the present tense, which lends immediacy to the narrative. Farber’s poems are more uneven. In some, the rhythm and rhyme are so original as to be distracting. “Two Elders of Paradise in Downtown Los Angeles” employs an unusual ABCDED rhyme scheme, and while Line 5 in Stanza 3 is the compact “A fanciful afternoon,” the corresponding line in the next stanza is the rambling (and a few syllables longer) “Where sparkling chandeliers opulently hang.” Others, however, hit the emotional mark with deftness. “On Becoming a Nonagenarian” approaches “a delicate chapter / In the stages of human life” with both vulnerability and exultation, and “Forever” becomes a gently succinct celebration of sensuality.
A vividly drawn, episodic account that traces the author’s life in prose and poetry, from his family roots to his vigorous later years.