What It Means to Be Human: The Moon is Almost Full by Chana Bloch

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Autumn House Press released Chana Bloch’s final collection of poetry a few months after her death in mid-May of 2017. The Moon Is Almost Full is a fine, spare, smart, and moving collection. It is also a powerful capstone to Bloch’s extraordinary body of work, which consists of six collections of poetry, including the award-winning Mrs. Dumpty and Bloch’s selected poems, Swimming in the Rain; translations of the work of Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch; and, with her former husband Ariel Bloch, a gorgeous rendition of “The Song of Songs.” Bloch also published many essays and a critical volume on George Herbert.

Bloch accumulates power in The Moon Is Almost Full in part through juxtaposition. She opens the collection with a poem titled “Yom Asal, Yom Basal,” an Arabic phrase which means “one day honey, one day onion.” “Yom Asal, Yom Basal” contains four spare couplets with slant rhyme. It is electrifying in its precision and concision, in its careful balance of plenitude and spareness. In each stanza, Bloch captures and extends the juxtapositions of honey and onion concluding with, “Unto every plan God’s ringing laughter. / Unto every death a morning after.” The sensual contrasts in the phrase and those explicated through the four couplets capture the dualities of life, its invariable ups and downs. By mobilizing a metaphor rooted in juxtaposition, Bloch invokes the vibrancy of life and its dailiness. Some days our mouths and minds are filled with sweetness; other days we only taste the bitter, the sour, the fragrant. The juxtaposition of the flavors seems right, even expected, in the bloom of life, and when the images confront death, the sweet and savory evoke increasing aromatic intensity. Bloch’s poems are piquant.

This prefatory poem suggests the enormity of Bloch’s project in The Moon Is Almost Full: to document her own death and write poems that will be appreciated only in the mornings after. Poetry is a gesture to capture what it means to be human—and loss and death are inextricably bound with humanness. Bloch’s particular gift is the distillation of the human condition using the objects and experiences of everyday life. In “Instructions for the Bridegroom,” she writes:

Never forget
you were put on earth to gather joy

with melancholy hands.
Now you may kiss the bride,

your rose of Sharon, your darling
among the shards.

Here, Bloch mingles joy and pain in a single body—and in a single life event. She exposes the power and meaning of the human condition, which unites joy and pain in a single gesture.

While this collection documents and observes Bloch’s path toward death with poems like “Three Wishes,” “Bucket List,” “Dying for Dummies,” and “Plan B,” The Moon Is Almost Full also celebrates the quotidian and the vibrancy of life. In “Safeway 24/7,” Bloch writes, “Cherries and plums on special today,” and notes the purchase of sunflower seeds, “for our little sisters the sparrows, / who are always hungry.” In another poem, a breast-feeding baby brings a meditation on new life, “a mouth in search of a nipple,” and the discovery that “[t]he big new world has teeth.” In this collection, the specter of death and illness is diminished only by the presence—and insistence—of life.

Poetry is the touchstone throughout The Moon Is Almost Full; it is what sustains Bloch. In the poem “Provisions,” for example, Bloch writes of asking an “aging poet” when she was thirty, “What’s left for me to write?” Rather than mocking, the poet responds, “Life will provide,” and Bloch notes the answer was “Delphic, though her tone / was maternal.” Writing many years later “Life” provides “the endless thread, / the poem.” I imagine her delight in crafting her experiences in the last months and days of her life into these well-wrought poems. In “Case Closed,” Bloch links listening with writing on the occasion of hearing a Beethoven symphony. She writes:

You must listen closely to hear
__________________________the timbre of silence
________which has its own music

________________and like a poem—or a death—
_______may have
something unsettling to propose.

One of the unsettling realities of these poems is that they are the last we have from Bloch. Yet the proposal of poetry—that it offers sustenance through the end, up to and including death—is the ultimate hope that Bloch provides readers. In “The Will,” she bequeaths her worldly belongings concluding with this quatrain:

_________________All my loved ones I leave
to this life, which will change them
just as it changes you. And you—if you can use it,
I leave you this poem.

There is much to use in Bloch’s final collection The Moon Is Almost Full. These poems are equal to the task of navigating illness and death, while celebrating the life that remains the morning after.

Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. Her book manuscript, A Fine Bind, is a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2009. Her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ, and Frontiers. She is the author of four poetry collections, Avowed (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), Lilith’s Demons (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2015), Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010). She is editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker (Sinister Wisdom/A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2016), which won the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011), which was a finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. Enszer edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the The Rumpus and Calyx. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com. More from this author →