About Chana Bloch (1940-2017)
by Richard Silberg
Three memorial events for Bay Area poet and translator Chana Bloch:
CHANA BLOCH MET the cancer that eventually took her life in the kind of gut to heart to brain honesty with which she met everything else. Her new book of poems, The Moon is Almost Full, according to her Israeli friend and translation-mate Chana Kronfeld, is the result of four years' work, the years of her sickness, in which she wrote into death, eyes wide-open.
She died on May 19, 2017, at her home, age 77, with her family at her bedside.
Born Florence Faerstein, in the Bronx, to Ukrainian shtetl, Yiddish-speaking, immigrant parents, she brought her Jewishness into both her poetry and her work as a translator. She earned a master's in Judaic studies and English literature at Brandeis and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.
Her books of poems—the just published collection will be her sixth—which are very much the books of her life, first person lyric poems, are distinguished by clarity of form, warmth, humor, gutsiness, and some—I'm thinking particularly of Mrs. Dumpty, a collection detailing the disintegration of her first marriage to Ariel Bloch—by stylishness and wit.
Her extensive work in translation is both from Hebrew—she lived in Israel at two different times in her life, in the 1960s with Ariel Bloch, when she changed her name to Chana, and then later with her sons Benjamin and Jonathan—and from Yiddish. She co-translated The Song of Songs with Ariel Bloch and the modern Israeli poets Yehuda Amichai, his selected poetry with Stephen Mitchell and his Open Closed Open with Chana Kronfeld, and Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch with Kronfeld. From Yiddish, the language she spoke as a little girl with her parents, she translated poetry and prose by Jacob Glatstein, Abraham Sutzkever, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
She taught at Mills College in Oakland for thirty years and directed the Creative Writing Program. Among her many honors are the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry, two Pushcart Prizes, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
I'd like to share this memory of her expectant smile and twinkle whenever we met, usually at readings or after reading parties at her home, her zest for poets among poets, people among people, and with this poem from the new poems section of Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems:
for Benjamin and Jonathan
My father stirring sugar in a glass of tea
and I at his bedside, asking
little questions that fit inside
the big ones I didn't dare ask.
He might have figured out he was dying.
I'm dying. Not to worry: not any time soon,
I hope. But just so you know.
I keep asking myself,
Should I burn my journals?
Such a quiet man, my father.
As a child I learned to read
the blanks between the words.
More blanks than words.
What was he taking with him
into his death?
I sat there day after day translating
his unquiet eyes.
What narrow conduit
between parent and child,
cramped as a mail slot.
It's a wonder anything gets through.
My father woke from agitated sleep.
Cossacks pounding at the door.
In the terrified silence of the hospital room,
I heard him crying for his mother.
I saved a picture Jonathan made at six:
black hair bristling, the face bright green,
legs planted apart like stanchions,
the belly a fiery furnace.
"That's what you look like when you're angry."
He was right about that fire.
I burned a lot of things in secret.
I wanted to save the two of you
from the deadness that lived in our house.
Even smoke-blind, I could always see you.
It was you that saved me.
Would it help you to know
the scope of my confusions?
Night after night, I recorded
the unabridged version of the day,
black ink on blue-lined paper,
then hid it away.
The key to the safe is under the sugar bowl.
Richard Silberg is Associate Editor of Poetry Flash.
—POSTED SEPTEMBER 2017