October 18, 2018

Chana Bloch’s new poems on art, life and the old world

Great anticipation and much pleasure always accompany the release of a new book of poetry by a major poet. This certainly is the case for Chana Bloch's “Swimming in the Rain, New and Selected Poems 1980-2015” (Autumn House Press). The book includes 29 new poems and includes selections from four previous collections.

There are a wide range of themes in the section of new poems, from those about art: “Late Self-Portrait” after Rembrandt, and another on Courbet, to those about everyday life, Berkeley rain and an animal “scrabbling up in the rafters,” to “Hester Street, 1898” and  a poem describing the Bronx in the early 1970s. A number of the poems are looking over the shoulder at the “old country,” while the persona firmly stands in the 21st century. In “White Heat,” Bloch quotes her grandmother saying, “If you feel a storm coming, cover your head /and pray” which comes before a wonderful line in the last stanza, “I’m afraid of safety.”  

The title poem, “Swimming in the Rain,” moves from the narrative of a day's outing to a broader metaphor “Half the stories / I used to believe in are false.” In many of Bloch's poems, there is a biblical echo, as in the end of the poem:

… and sunlight


falls from the clouds

onto the face of the deep as it did

on the first day


before the dividing began.

These poems are never afraid of danger or honesty, of examining stories and myths, whether biblical, historical or personal. Many of the new poems examine a future which, inevitably, is also an ending. However there is a delight in the every day, in nature and in unexpected new love.

In poems from “Mrs. Dumpty” (1998), included in the new book, Bloch reimagines the story from the wife’s perspective, but there is a broader metaphor here about women's role in society and a chronicle of a man’s mental illness and marriage falling apart:

And now he’s at my door again, begging

in that leaky voice,

and I start wiping the smear

from his broken face.

People tend to read to poetry as autobiographical. That is a mistake, because there's always imagination, invention, attention to language and metaphor at work. Still, it's tempting to look for insight about a poet’s life. In “Twenty Fourth Anniversary,” Bloch writes, “There is that other law of nature / which lets the dead thing stand.” The first section ofMrs. Dumpty” seems to celebrate romance, but there is often an ominous cloud hovering nearby. In “Act One,” Bloch contrasts newlyweds with Hedda Gabler: “We are just-married, / feeling lucky. // But Hedda—how misery /curdles her face.”

“Blood and Honey” (2009) is well represented here, as well. A mix of humanity and intimacy infuses that collection. One extraordinary poem, “Brothers,” reimagines the Russian fairytale figure of Baba Yaga, a witch with the legs of a chicken. Here the persona is the poet stalking and chasing her two young sons: “They shivered and squirmed my delicious sons / waiting for a mighty arm / to seize them.” The contradiction is what makes the poem so powerful. The undertone of a mother's protection and the danger in the familiar, as well as out in the world, is ever present.

As a scholar, Chana Bloch taught for many years at Mills College in Oakland and was director of its creative writing program. She is one of the preeminent translators of Hebrew poetry: “The Song of Songs,” with her first husband, Ariel Bloch; Yehudah Amichai’s “Open Closed Open” with Chana Kronfeld; Dahlia Ravikovich’s work, and others. In her own work, her ear for language is always sharp, and her word choice often surprising. A reader never wishes she had chosen a different noun; her imagery is always fresh. Bloch is a poet well aware of her place between the immigrant generations with their superstitions, fears and stories and a younger generation raised neither with the richness of Yiddish nor with the collective memory of  that life. The Holocaust, too, provides an often-unspoken background in Bloch’s work, as in “Flour and Ash”: “Footprints grime the snow. / The about-to-be-dead line up on the ramp/with their boxy suitcases,/ashen shoes.” 

“Swimming in the Rain” is a book full of affirmation and playfulness, especially in the new poems, as they celebrate the surprise of new love in later life. It is a book to dip into and go back to again and again, reading older poems, new poems and seeing the fullness of a collection that spans so many decades.

Poet Carol V. Davis is the poetry editor of the Jewish Journal.