Interview by Wendy Barker
Persimmon Tree readers need no introduction to the wonderful poet and translator Chana Bloch, who was instrumental in the journal’s founding and served as its first poetry editor. But for those who don’t know the work of this amazing writer: Chana is the author of five books of poems, most recently, Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015. She is co-translator of the biblical Song of Songs, The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai and his Open Closed Open, and Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and The Nation, and included in The Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. Among her awards are the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry, and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She was Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Mills College.
Wendy Barker: Your marvelous new collection Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems includes poems written from 1980 to the present – a span of almost 35 years! Can you say something about the scope of the book? How have your poems changed over the years? Have the subjects changed? The style?
Chana Bloch: Thirty-five years: that’s almost half my life! Actually, I’ve been at it – poetry and translation – for over 50 years now, so it makes sense that history would be a central concern in my new work. I’m writing about human history, biblical history, European history, personal history: a hominid couple crossing the African plain three million years ago, the death of Socrates, the Little Ice Age, the pogroms that brought my family to this country from Russia, Jewish life in New York, tourism to Auschwitz, and my own story, from the perspective of a woman in her seventies. I see the terrors of the political arena rooted in the dynamics of family life. A recurring theme is the violence and pain in public and private lives.
After the new work come the poems I selected from my four books. The Secrets of the Tribe (1980), my first book, is the happiest and most innocent, written when I was a young wife and mother, a daughter who had finally made her mother smile: poems about my family of origin, my new family, and the book of Genesis with its enduring commentary on the human family. From the title of my second book, The Past Keeps Changing (1992), it’s clear that the process of reappraisal had already begun: “If we were so happy, / why weren’t we happy?” There is a sequence of poems here too about ovarian cancer in 1986 and my astonished recovery: “To have died and come back again / raw, crackling, / and the numbness / stunned.”
In Mrs. Dumpty (1998) I took on a single daunting subject: the impact of my husband’s mental illness on our marriage and children. When that marriage of twenty-four years ended, wanting to understand what had happened, I wrote the poems – first the ones fueled by repressed anger, then finally the tender ones with which the book begins. I know that writing those poems enabled me to regain my sanity.
I was opening to a new life in my sixties when I wrote Blood Honey (2009), and my subject matter opened up as well. I wrote about a poet who lived fifty years in an iron lung, an artist who worked in flour and ash, a Harvard student who claimed to be the Messiah, an uncle of mine who killed a man and was proud of it. Beginning a new relationship, I was thinking about sex and marriage, and beginning to think about aging and death, “draw[ing] up contingency plans / for a war we’re preparing / to lose.” The title poem is about a close friend who, even as he is dying, is “scooping sweetness from the belly of death / —honey from the lion’s carcass,” an allusion to Samson. As I get older, that seems to me more and more an image of the life force.
WB: Can you say something about your style? The sources of your imagery?
CB: One reason I write is to achieve clarity in my life and in some measure help others find clarity in their own. I value clarity – an old-fashioned virtue – and concision. I like poetry that appears to be clear on the surface, with something complex astir in the depths. I want my poems to be spare, precise, distilled, with humor and irony to leaven the often dark subject matter. My still-valid mantra (a repurposed campaign slogan) is tacked up on my bulletin board: “It’s the language, stupid.” My language springs from the demotic idiom I grew up with in the Bronx, infused by the irony of the Hebrew and Yiddish poets I’ve translated, the sarcasm and wit of Jewish discourse. More and more I like to follow the thread of the poem where it leads me, often to a surprise twist in the ending.
As for sources: I have stolen unabashedly from my children. Item: a child’s Theory of Everything, hardly inferior to grown-up theories about the world: “A baby’s head is all stuffed / with hair. It keeps growing out, frizzy, / till it gets used up. That’s why / old men are bald.”
The Bible has been a rich source of images and allusions. I have always found Genesis intriguing because it reveals how we are formed and deformed by family. I have written poems reimagining the tales from Genesis, but have also drawn on Job, Judges, the Song of Songs, and rabbinic teachings. From my study of George Herbert, and translations of Israeli poets Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch, I learned how the Bible could amplify what I was saying about my life by relating it to an ancient human story.
The biblical poems in The Secrets of the Tribe were inspired by Chagall’s 1930s biblical gouaches – the first time I drew upon art in my work. I came upon the paintings by chance in a museum show at a time when, not caring much for Chagall, I was startled by their freshness; I scribbled notes in the margins of the catalogue, impatient to get home and start writing. Over the years, art and artists – Rembrandt, Courbet, Van Gogh, Rothko, Claes Oldenburg, Anselm Kiefer – and photographers like Helen Levitt have become increasingly important. They “bring back something from / the brink of nothing / to make us see.”
WB: What about the title of your most recent book?
CB: I was taught that swimming in the rain is strictly forbidden, but when I tried it as an adult, I found it an almost ecstatic experience, a feeling prompted by my breaking of the rule and the pure rush of sensual pleasure. And I couldn’t help thinking of the first chapter of Genesis, when God divides the waters under the firmament from the waters above, which stands in for the many divisions in the world we know – parents and children, men and women, gender and class, thinking and feeling. Immersed in the primal waters, I imagined myself back in a world “before the dividing began.” I had already decided that “Swimming in the Rain” was a good opening poem. And then, as I read through the manuscript, I noticed that it happens to be raining in a lot of my poems, the rain sometimes a welcome presence, sometimes a biblical Deluge. And so, on one of the few stormy days in drought-stricken California, the title chose itself.
WB: Family figures prominently in your poems. Over these years, do you see attitudes toward these changing?
CB: I always felt close to my father. He grew up in abysmal poverty, in a mud hut with a thatched roof; when he got himself to this country after a pogrom, he worked pressing shirts in a laundry by day, and he became a dentist. His journey seemed heroic to me. When he was dying, I sat at his bedside and “interviewed” him, then ran into the next room to scribble it all down. Much of what he said made its way into my poems.
My attitude toward my mother changed only after she died. For years I was put off by her fantasy “satin, chiffon, gold lamé / America” and her dismissive “books don’t know everything.” Now, remembering how she hobbled around with a cane as I do, I have come to appreciate what she might have called her moxie, and am able, at last, to grant something heroic in her as well.
WB: What about children and childhood?
CB: My children have taught me more than anyone. They opened new ranges of feeling inside me that I would otherwise not have known. Their edible cheeks! I wrote “Eating Babies” because baby fat melts all too quickly and I needed a way to preserve it. I wanted to testify to the unsuspecting innocence that renders them blameless. The candor of their instincts, which show us frankly what we are. To confess that we can’t help inflicting our miseries on them. And to acknowledge the redemptive joy of a grandchild in Act V, new life in the closing scenes.
WB: The body is a subject of much of your poetry, even in the earlier books. How has your view – your experience of – the body been expressed throughout the poems? How has it changed?
CB: A reviewer connected my openness in writing about sex with Philip Roth. It’s more likely to come from having translated the frankly erotic lyrics of the Song of Songs – “All that fury / of bloom when we started / singing love, love, to each other / sap rising in the trunk and streaming, / streaming in the branches” – though for the most part my poems are far from the Song’s poignant innocence.
I’ve come to question the male/female divide I grew up with, to recognize that we are equally exposed to the demands of the body: “Sex is a brisk new broom. Tough, efficient. / It knows all the corners.” I write about the vulnerability of a male: “A man’s got to wear his susceptibility / out in plain sight. / No wonder he’s keeping his soul / zippered up.” About the “phallic” desire of a woman: “Sometimes I want to sink into your body / with the fever that spikes inside me / to be a woman / who can open a man.” And about the power of a woman’s body: “A woman’s got that rock of a belly, / that baby cave, / breasts swaggering erect / when they swell with milk.”
Finally, since my sixties, I’ve been writing about the ill or aging body, “governed …by the laws /of slippage and breakage.” And the key lesson it offers, which I learned from quadriplegic Mark O’Brien: “If I’m only a body, I’m up shit creek.”
WB: What did you learn in the course of putting together Swimming in the Rain? What surprised you?
CB: When Autumn House suggested a New and Selected, I welcomed the opportunity. I was already deeply absorbed in thinking back over my life, an exercise familiar to most of us over sixty. With the diagnosis of an aggressive sarcoma two years ago, the project took on a greater urgency.
I was surprised that some of my persistent concerns manifested themselves early on – the way my father’s death from cancer, which I see as my initiation into adulthood, led me to think about death even in my youthful poems. I was surprised that I was preoccupied with my father’s death again before I knew that I was ill. And that I was writing about the fault lines in my marriage long before I was able to acknowledge them.
All along, I was writing about friends who had to meet difficult challenges, like Mark O’Brien, who lived most of his years in an iron lung – what I called “studying the soul”: “I watch him slyly, I check out / the way he does it.” As if preparing myself unwittingly for what was to come.
WB: Finally, how has being a cancer patient affected the poems?
CB: I was aware of my diagnosis as I worked on Swimming. I knew: if I don’t survive, this is what I will leave behind me – a powerful incentive.
I chose poems that would show the range of my work – poems about family and children, intimate relationships, sex, language, art, memory, aging and death, noticing how I kept circling around those, coming back to explore them from a somewhat different perspective in each book. I rewrote some of my unfinished poems; new images became visible when I read my drafts through the lens of cancer. And I revised some of my older poems when I could re-enter them easily and find better solutions.
The poem in which I write most directly about my experience of cancer is “Inside Out,” one of those rare poems that arrives almost finished. What strikes me is that it was written in real time, the day the MRI machine was broken, with the diagnosis still in abeyance. And that even as I was parsing the possibilities (“It is either serious or it isn’t”) – searching for a sign in the sky, in the trees, trying to master the indeterminacy – I was managing “to divert [myself] with words.” With words.