Zainab Omaki on Thomas Farber’s Penultimates

Thomas Farber preempts his lyrical collection with an author’s note that alerts readers to the primary subject of the book: death. He writes regarding a previous memoir:

Acting My Age was published in early 2021. As I started to write again, one impulse was to avoid—as Ernest Becker (1924-1974) put it—The Denial of Death. As for what ensured...

                Glimpses, foreshadowings

               Antipathies, ventings,

               Qualms...” (ix).

Indeed, as Farber intimates, Penultimates is a deeply poetic exploration of the end of all our lives, the inevitable destination of all our journeys, but it is more than that. It is an exploration of life, of ageing— the beauties, vagaries and complexities associated with losing our youths. It is a laser-sharp commentary on the current political issues swirling in our climate. It is an adept corrective to a world and writing industry routine in its ageism. In this book, Farber calls into question our common views on what it means to be facing the end of our lives—if we give it any thought at all. He forces readers to pause and consider, the fact we all know but are capable of banishing: that we can’t and won’t live forever.

Written in beautiful, playful language and forms which straddle the line between prose and poetry, Farber observes the subject of death from multiple angles. Taking an almost 360 view to it, he examines it first from the vantage point of a person barreling towards the end of his life—he is seventy-eight, slightly older than the average life expectancy in America. Repositioning himself, he considers with deep empathy, what it means to be the other side—as a person surviving those who have passed on. He turns still and explores the not altogether kind gazes of others when trained on those approaching death.

In his consideration of the former, the subject of his own mortality, Farber delivers a poignant reflection on ageing. One cannot reckon with their own death without first considering what it means to die i.e. without considering what it means to physically weaken and be so far from the healthiest period of one’s life. In his meditations on the issue, he states: “one aspect of ageing for the curious or apprehensive: waiting to learn the next part to break down, malfunction” (32). Going forward, he draws on the work of Helen Small to make clear that there is a “loss of the felt value and sustainability of the life one has had and the person one understands oneself to be” (32). In only a few lines, he captures both the physical and psychological difficulties associated with death. But while he does not glorify this proximity to an ending, he doesn’t bemoan it either. Handled with delicacy, thoughtfulness and lightness of touch, his reflections ring true even for the uninitiated. 

Similar in its lightness, Farber tackles the death of loved ones. In one essay, he begins, “The list of people I’ll never see again keeps growing...” and he provides the names of many whom he has lost over the years and the various ways they have passed on. Heart wrenching in its subject matter, it is nevertheless conveyed with a subtlety that it is both deeply admirable and adeptly rendered. Embedded in darkness—because we can’t think about death without thinking about the dark—the list, nonetheless, feels like a statement of inevitability, of fact—again the final point we all end up— rather than a descent into something more ominous.

It is in Farber’s delineation in of the gazes of others on the ageing, though, that we are afforded something truly interesting. Penultimates, in many ways, is a book of observations. We are let in as Farber observes other people, as he observes nature, as he observes the world around him and even the art of others. But we come to the sense that this is only made possible because others are observing him less. Such is the blessing and curse of being a certain age. With the passage of time, a cloak of invisibility is thrown over most of us which Farber shows without always having to tell us in so many words. What it produces is a deeper sense of recognition of our culpability in dismissing the ageing as well as an awareness of who might be observing us at any given moment and why.

While death is undeniably the primary focus of the collection, it also tackles other issues. The author, for example, grapples with such topical issues as Trump, Covid 19 and climate change. He takes to task Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s misinformation scandal and condemns the hunting of pelicans as well as “habitat destruction, oil spills, [and] human overfishing threatening food” (23). The latter connects to the collection’s overwhelming interest in nature and the small beach on an island which Farber repeatedly refers to as his “church and office” (10). It is also strongly indicative of the book’s connection to life. For all its discussion of death, there is still a lot of life left to be discussed, appreciated, and fixed, which the book makes clear.

Perhaps the most beautiful and artful part of this text lies in its deep and abiding intertextuality. A book of voices, many voices, Farber pulls in the words and thoughts of a wide range of artists and critics. Hemmingway makes an appearance. As does William Blake, John Berger, Helen Vendler, Joni Mitchell, Jean Cocteau, James Merrill, Michael Lesy, Slyvester Stallone, Hannah Arendt, his own poet mother, and many, many more. This rich collage creates a sense of community, transcendent in its effect, even over death, as many of the contributors have now passed. Death is not final, this multiplicity of voices seems to communicate. In the way we live our lives, we have the potential to continually shape the world we leave behind. That knowledge might not take the sting out of death but, with any luck, it helps soften it.

Zainab Omaki is a Nigerian writer currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She has a masters in the same field from the University of East Anglia where she was the recipient of the Miles Morland African Writer’s scholarship. She was artist-in-residence at the University of Bayrueth’s inaugural creative writing residency and is an alum of the Tin House workshop. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Transition Magazine, The Rumpus, Isele, and others. She is an assistant genre editor at Prairie Schooner.