our mothers and fathers were strangers
to each other! (From Chana Bloch’s poem “Bequest”)
Imagine that what seems so familiar, so intimate, so known, was once strange. Chana Bloch renders this transformation from the unfamiliar to the familiar and back again with extraordinary aplomb in her collection of selected and new poems, Swimming in the Rain.
Bloch’s gift in this collection is her deft hand at capturing the moment of human discovery through transformation. For example in her poem, “The Converts,” the poet looks at the six converts singing “every syllable” on “the holiest day.” She wryly notes, “If they go on loving that way, we’ll be here all night.” These muses on why these people converted. She wonders, “did they think / we were happier?” and
Did someone tell them we knew
the lost words
to open God’s mouth?
This sharpness, the speaker’s skepticism of the religiosity of the convert permeates the opening of the poem. Then, through close examination, the speaker is transformed. Bloch writes, “I covet / what they think we’ve got.”
Similarly, in the title poem of the collection “Swimming in the Rain,” the speaker “swaddled and sleeved in water” dives “to the rocky bottom.” The poem begins with an evocative description of swimming, but then Bloch reveals that there is more than just the concatenation of rain and swimming in this poetic moment. The speaker is swimming “back to the beginning” too learn “the forecasts were wrong” and “half the stories / I used to believe are false.” The swim is about knowledge and transformation. The poem concludes:
The waves open
to take in the rain, and sunlight
falls from the clouds
onto the face of the deep as it did
on the first day
before the dividing began.
Dividing in Bloch’s world is the dividing of the human from the divine, the dividing of the day from the night, the dividing of the life together—the marriage—from the life apart—the divorce, the dividing of the self from the other, the dividing of the sacred from the secular. Divisions permeate these poems. All divisions become a moment for examination; all fissure exposed for celebration or repair.
Interleaved throughout the five collections that make up the corpus of the book are Bloch’s poems on marriage and divorce. These poems are a moving subtext of the collection. Swimming in the Rain contains the powerfully devastating poem, “Divorce,” which opens, “I choke him in a dream and woke up / choking.” As well as the poem, “Twenty-Fourth Anniversary,” where the marriage becomes shellacked like a “neoclassical façade” and the speaker remembers “that other law of nature / which lets the dead thing stand.”
Bloch’s 1998 collection Mrs. Dumpty gathers poems about the disintegrating marriage. The title poem begins “The last time the doctors gave up / I put the pieces together” and concludes
And now he’s at my door again, begging
in that leaky voice,
and I start wiping the smear
from his broken face.
When Mrs. Dumpty first came out, I read it, but, I am embarrassed to report, I did not love it. I was too young, too new to marriage, too new to life. Mrs. Dumpty is a book for adults who can understand the irony and pathos of its central conceit playing on the nursery rhyme of Humpty Dumpty and hold the complexities of love and loss, children and mental illness.
Some of Mrs. Dumpty is in Swimming in the Rain, but for those interested in the delicacy and grace with which Bloch turns our inner lives into poetry, the full collection of Mrs. Dumpty is worth reading—or rereading. What this collection of new and selected poems does is gather together poems on marriage and divorce over the lifetime of the poet. Collectively, these poems remind readers of the fragility of our words, of the precarious relationship between intentions and actions. Bloch appreciates the fragility but continually reaffirms the significance of the words we say, of the promises we make to one another as humans.
My most beloved work by Chana Bloch is her translation of The Song of Songs with her former husband Ariel Bloch. At our wedding we read these words, which open one of the songs:
Come, my beloved,
let us go out into the fields
and lie all night among the flowering henna.
It was difficult to choose one poem for the wedding from the many gorgeous translations. The Blochs’ translation of The Song of Songs reminds readers that these verses are the original songs of seduction and erotic delight among humans. Bloch is also a translator of Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch. With a significant part of Bloch’s work as a translator, it is important to have this selection of her own poetry to read and revisit.
I hear echoes of the cadence of Song of Songs in all of Bloch’s poems. Bloch seems to have absorbed the cadences of the Hebrew Bible and those cadences infuse her poems. Plain-spoken, yes. But more: gravid with meaning.
There is a particular pleasure in reading collections of new and selected poems. If a collection of poetry is a single object with meanings that emerge not only from individual poems but also from the book as a whole, selected poems evoke meaning not only from the book but also from the life of a poet. Over a lifetime of work, what comes together and stands out in selected work? The poet has an opportunity to shape the selected work; edit, craft, consider through careful inclusions and exclusions a gathering of poems that stand for a poetic career. These selections are fundamentally hers, reflecting her vision of her oeuvre. Unlike collections of complete poems, often compiled posthumously as a concordance and meant to convey the entirety of a career, selected poems intimate the best, the first gesture to a vision of future immortality.
Swimming in the Rain is Chana Bloch’s gesture filled with poems that speak in a singular voice alone and that speak to one another across the life of the poet. Imagine once we were strangers. Then we met. Now we may be “Nursing a Grudge.” Bloch reminds readers of the choices we make to be angry, jealous, unhappy. She writes, “You made it, so it’s yours / to cradle, swaddle.” Like a good grudge, Swimming in the Rain is now a book for readers to cradle and swaddle. And where, at the end of the poem, Bloch implores, “Don’t give it up, oh no, / not yet,” we might say the same to her in anticipation of her future collections: Don’t give it up, oh no, not yet.