Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1980-2015
Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2015
Paper, 221 pp, $19.95
Chana Bloch's new collection, titled Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1980-2015, offers a welcome retrospective of her distinctive poetic voice. The volume opens with thirty-seven new poems, followed by contents of previous titles, beginning with the earliest. Such an arrangement provides pleasure in witnessing the progress of themes and imagery over a period of thirty-five years. While many of the poems deal with autobiographical material, these offer far more than “confessional” narrative. Informed by a philosophical view of human interconnection, compassion and self-awareness, the poems speak of clear-eyed observation unblurred by sentimentality.
Certain themes are threaded throughout the progress of Bloch's poetry publications: generational effects of cultural/biblical history, especially as seen within her Jewish immigrant family; phases of marriage; sex; motherhood. Vivid sensory images bring the textures of flesh, even the smell of a baby's mouth on a milky breast. Yet already, a grandfather's skeletal legacy holds sway, as she gazes at her newborn:
In his bald faceI can see my father looking back.The bones of the dead light up his transparent fleshas in an X-rayof everything that will become of us.
Early on, Bloch shows a gift for metaphor with economy of diction:
The man who makes coffins knowsthey could have been ships,they are built so final.When the dead set sail in them,the waves of earth reach up andcollapsein the old rhythms.The hiss and spray of the dirt.
Lines tend to be short, the language precise and straightforward. The marriage theme evolves as her husband begins to succumb to mental illness. Her first book presents a poem titled “Happiness” which places the young couple in an Edenic rural locale:
I am hanging wash on the line.Like Adam in his firsthappiness,you come outand pee in the garden.
Life lessons have been learned by her second collection twelve years later, evidenced by the intriguing title, The Past Keeps Changing. Bloch is a poet of unflinching insight into the dynamics of personal grief and anger, her own as well as others. After serious surgery, she ends up “Alone on the Mountain” absolved by Nature: “Blue liquor / of distances: one sip and I start to lose / size, anger, the sticky burrs / of wanting. If only, what if—let the wind /
carry it away.”
Six years later, the title of Bloch's next book, Mrs. Dumpty, works as a metaphor for agonies of a marriage breaking up as she and her young sons cope with her husband's worsening mental illness, imaged as the Humpty Dumpty figure broken from his fall. She must struggle with all aspects of the situation, recognizing that “My hard carbuncular anger / scares me. This jackhammer rage.” Powerful images of the man's parental background in the poem “Mother Hunger” touch the reader with knowledge of fear and pain: “The child a palimpsest of his parents' / losses, each one slapped over / the last—wet paint of / swastikas on the windows.”
Left out of this book is reference to the couple's extraordinary collaborative accomplishment—a highly praised co-translation by Chana and her then husband, Ariel, of the biblical Song of Songs. Ariel Bloch, a brilliant scholar of Semitic linguistics, classical and modern, had been an award winning professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of California in Berkeley. In an afterword, the biblical scholar Robert Alter describes “Chana and Ariel Bloch's translation [as] a rare conjunction of refined poetic resourcefulness and philological precision.” While the poems in this impressive collection offer the reader image and language of significant life discovery, Chana Bloch's work as definitive co-translator, with Chana Kronfeld, of the modern Israeli poets Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch should also be mentioned as part of an overview of her outstanding poetic achievements. None of the translations are included in this substantial collection focused on Chana Bloch's own poems.
Her fourth book, Blood Honey, takes an elegiac tone, always with appreciation for others, such as the late paralyzed poet Mark O'Brien, whose friend she became, and a poet-colleague. In this book, a new phase of her life invites the man who will become her current husband. Again we find language leavened by humor. “Sex is a brisk new broom. Tough, efficient. / It knows all the corners.
The new poems of Swimming in the Rain show Bloch at the top of her form, in fearless control of emotion and language. She can think independently, able to handle past and present difficulties, open to direct experience: “Half the stories / I used to believe are false. Thank God / I've got the good sense at last // not to come in out of the rain.” Each poem surprises with original organic concept. “The Joins” cites the Japanese art of kinsugi where precious pottery is mended with gold. “What's between us” may shatter, but in the couple's daily work of repairing, “Sometimes the joins / are so exquisite.” Chana Bloch's poetry continues to mature with wisdom and skill.
Charlotte Mandel's ninth book of poetry, Through the Garden Gate, poems in response to photographs by Vincent Covello, is forthcoming from David Robert Books. Awards include the 2012 New Jersey Poets Prize. She recently retired from teaching poetry writing at Barnard College Center for Research on Women. Visit her at www.charlottemandel.com.