Swimming in the Rain by Chana Bloch


Chana Bloch. Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980–2015. Autumn House Press.

If the current American poetry world divides into “barrelers” and “lingerers,” as poet and critic Dan Chiasson has put it, then Chana Bloch’s Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980–2015, places her among the fine lingerers. She continues after some forty years to reflect on events and distill them into succinct, polished poems,.

Of course, there are many other ways to parse the poetry scene than distinguishing those who descend from the lingering Emily Dickinson from those partial to the barreling Walt Whitman. A collection that includes thirty-seven new poems and work culled from four previous books clearly reveals where Bloch stands and also what makes her stand out. For instance, her poems court emotion, yet she seems immune to nostalgia. She maintains her allegiance to clarity and frank statement, but she also elaborates with imagery. Her plain speech could be mistaken for simplicity, except that her work is remarkable for its wisdom. She’s both earnest and humorous, often amusing and wrenching in the same poem. She explores the domestic, but often with a broader interest, including the metaphysical..

So, in the title poem, she turns a swim in the ocean during a rainstorm into a meditation both on her life and on belief:

… 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.

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.

Even as it launches the book and the section devoted to new work, this poem reads as vintage Bloch: characterized by her precise word choice and enjambment as well as her playfulness. The Biblical allusion comes naturally to a poet known for her translation, with former husband Ariel Bloch, of the Song of Songs, and of Israeli poets Dahlia Ravikovitch and Yehuda Amichai. More surprising, her writing also reflects comradeship with the self-scrutinizing, witty, seventeenth-century cleric and poet George Herbert, the object of Bloch’s early admiration and scholarship.

A selected volume displays what changes and what endures over a writing career. Bloch’s striking consistencies assert themselves more than her evolutions, both in terms of poetics and concerns. She continues to be fascinated by “the dividing” with all its potential meanings, but especially with what joins or separates people.

So, in a poem from Blood Honey (2009), she describes chasing her young sons while pretending to be the wild woman Baba Yaga from Russian folktales, until the instant when one boy’s squealing delight switches to fright. He cries out in panic: “Eat him! / Eat my brother!” Titled “Brothers,” the anecdote amidst rumpled sofa pillows becomes an extended metaphor involving fear, brotherhood, and betrayal.

In the seething Mrs. Dumpty (1998), a collection about the bitter dissolution of her long marriage to a man with mental illness, she hints at his betrayals (“I’m practicing to leave you. / Each year I leave a little more / and you drive me.”) Even amid the trauma, in a poem called “Tired Sex” Bloch can amuse: “We’re trying to strike a match in a matchbook / that has lain all winter under the woodpile.”

An early poem about cancer, yet another type of division and betrayal, recalls her loss of control: “There’s a future loose in my body and I / am its servant: / carrying wood, fetching water.” She must yield first to the fact of her cells run amuck, then to the surgeon, until finally, in choppy lines that mimic her cautious return to life, she describes coming out from under anesthesia as “that ferocious / upturn— / I give myself to it. Why else / be in a body?”

Bloch has always posed stunning questions. Elsewhere, she interrogates her dead mother: “What have you taken with you / that I might have used?” Contemplating her father’s immigrant family and the way the Americanized children dismissed her grandmother’s old-world advice Bloch asks:“What does a full stomach know / of an empty stomach?”

If anything, as she ages, Bloch offers more questions and fewer assertions. This seems both a matter of poetics, avoiding the summary statement to allow for more mystery, and an acknowledgment of her continuing uncertainties. “I’m tired of living / in the land of answers,” she writes in “Chiaroscuro,” a new work. “My feelings know more than I do, / and what do they know?”

They know a lot. The brave eye she turns on herself (“Lately I’m so hard / people keep sliding off me”) allows her to scrutinize others with equal honesty. So, she deals face-on with the betrayal involved in the act of writing when she meets a new man after her divorce. He worries she will get him down on paper “stripped to his cotton socks, / with nothing but a fig leaf of metaphor / to keep him decent.” Don’t fret, she teases, she’ll protect his name, but she’s already taken mental notes. “I’ve been getting you / all along.”

Even when she’s coy, there’s an honest inquiry central to Bloch’s art: not just how to find truth, but the “real truth” as she calls it. In search of elusive truth, Bloch does more than linger; she revisits  old scenes and relationships again and again,.

This volume demonstrates why Bloch’s work rewards rereading. Her language brings pleasure. Her confusions are wise ones. Her poems resemble clear water: You may think you can see straight down to the sand, until you dive in and discover the deception. This water is deep. The bottom lies farther away than you thought, and Bloch swims beside you, still trying to reach it too.