CHANA BLOCH’s distinguished oeuvre spans decades: The Secrets of the Tribe (Sheep Meadow Press, 1980), The Past Keeps Changing (Sheep Meadow Press, 1992), Mrs. Dumpty (Wisconsin Press, 1998), and Blood Honey (Autumn House Press, 2009). In addition to her poetry, Bloch has translated The Song of Songs (with Ariel Bloch), as well as collections of poetry by Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch. Bloch has received the Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcart Prizes, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and other prestigious awards. Now Bloch’s beautiful, poignant poems appear together in Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1980-2015 (Autumn House Press, 2015).
Comprised of five collections, Swimming in the Rain allows readers to trace Bloch’s concerns backwards, forwards, and across time. She revisits love and sensuality, bearing and raising children, family life (warm and fraught), gender, divorce, physical and mental illness, death, Jewish texts and traditions, and memory. She often skillfully intertwines these themes in a few short lines: “Let a living man sing what he pleases, / a wife inherits / riddles and stone” (“A Mantle”). It is a pleasure to read Bloch’s commentary on each of these facets of life.
The intriguing paradox of Bloch’s poetry is that she employs clear narratives, all the while questioning her own reliability in the act of narrating. The question of reliability has everything to do with “truth” in general, and truth in poetry in particular. Poetry is sometimes thought of as a vessel for truth, vaguely carrying the essence of an event or experience, and poets presumed to know and tell the truth. Muriel Rukeyser, for instance, wrote “women and poets see the truth arrive” (“Letter to the Front”). Of course, for each poet, what he or she means by truth varies. In Bloch’s documentation of her life in verse over many years, her sense of truth is continually and explicitly made up, messed up, revised, erased.
“The Memory Artist” exemplifies Bloch’s interrogation of truth, as well as indicates with an ironic wink how the reader is to trust (or mistrust) her. “The memory artist has a brutal aesthetic: / delete, delete.” Bloch makes us consciously aware of how truth escapes the poet, and that meaning is constructed, broken down, and coerced into shape.
She understands everything backwards.
That’s why she foreshortens the past,
gives it an elegant taper
that looks like Fate
She’s an artist, you understand — gifted
but troubled. Don’t trust her,
not for an instant,
not with your life.
If the speaker can be considered this kind of “memory artist,” we cannot turn to her for truth. But admitting her own flawed memory is partly what makes the speaker exceptional. Bloch highlights that memory is a construction, writing with acute awareness that poetry is merely an attempt to convey this construction, rather than the life itself. Bloch recognizes that all human narratives are invented and, to some extent, deserve to be mistrusted. This contributes to the wisdom and, paradoxically, truthfulness of Bloch’s words.
Bloch’s questioning of truth and memory emerges in Blood Honey. In the poem “Blue,” she writes,
The sky isn’t really blue, it just looks blue
the way we looked happy in the family album.
Who could be happy in a life like that?
I was. It’s true.
The real truth, as we say, to distinguish it
from the other one.
The poem highlights the duplicitous nature of truth, even when it seems to be right in front of our eyes in the blue sky or a photograph. Scientifically speaking, the sky is not blue, and only appears to us that way. In this poem, the scientific leads to the personal — the sky pretends to be blue, and the family pretends to be happy for the album. The distinction between “real truth,” and “the other one” presents truth as gradational.
In a poem about cancer, entitled “Inside Out,” Bloch writes about a day when a “mass” was discovered, with its severity not yet known.
It is either serious or it isn’t.
The indeterminate mass, 14.8 cm long,
is either a cyst or a tumor.
If a tumor, either benign or malignant.
If malignant, either slow-growing
or aggressive, in which case
they may contain it. If not ….
In these lines, the mass is presented as a story that may go in one direction or another — the mass is “indeterminate”; it exists, but the extent of its truth is not yet revealed. Later in the poem, Bloch describes waiting to hear which direction it might take.
The leaves held still
in the almost imperceptible breeze
though at the tips of the branches
the first buds of spring
were so closefisted
you couldn’t be sure
whether you saw them, or not.
The speaker questions the truth of her perception: the breeze, which she is hardly sure she feels, and the buds of spring, which are so closed she is not sure if she sees them. The speaker thus goes from questioning the veracity of the actual illness, to questioning the veracity of the symbol for the tumor, the buds.
Poems such as “The Messiah of Harvard Square” and “Rosh Hashana,” suggest that her approach towards truth may be rooted in the Jewish penchant for doubt. In the former, Bloch writes about a rabbi who attempted to help students who began to believe they were the Messiah.
The rabbi was a skeptic.
Years ago he’d been taught: If you’re planting a tree
and someone cries out, The Messiah has come!
finish planting the tree. Then
go see if it’s true.
Perhaps this is what compels Bloch: the Jewish elevation of doubt to the status of imperative. Time and time again, Bloch teaches us to question even the strictest truths given to us by authorities in religion and society.
In other poems, Bloch masterfully creates for the readers a similar sense of doubt. Stylistically, she introduces a discrepancy between the simplicity of the narratives, and the opaqueness of some of the storylines. “Swimming in the Rain” demonstrates this duality. She writes of being immersed in water, in a moment of joyful rebirth.
Swaddled and sleeved in water,
I dive to the rocky bottom and rise
as the first drops of sky
find the ocean. The waters above
meet the waters below,
the sweet and salt,
and I’m swimming back to the beginning.
The forecasts were wrong.
Half the sky is dark
but it keeps changing. Half the stories
I used to believe are false.
Bloch returns again to the idea of truth, proclaiming that the “forecasts were wrong,” and the narratives she held fast to no longer exist: “Half the stories / I used to believe are false.” However, Bloch does not reveal to us which stories they are, nor how to differentiate between true and false. This indeterminacy gets filled in by the reader’s stories, themselves both true and false.
The collection Swimming in the Rain splendidly represents Bloch’s intellect, depth, sensuality, and wit. At the core of her work, Bloch accepts that truth is not found, but created, and her poetry honors this creation. In “Tell Me,” she writes,
Tell me the story where you hit your father.
Tell me that story. I wait for the part where
your whole hand
pronounces a single word
there’s no way to take it back.
It’s a story from hell
but I like it. Lie down with me, love,
and tell it from the beginning.
For Chana Bloch, the story itself is prized. In Swimming in the Rain, truth may be elusive, but the act of telling is brave.