Chana Bloch, the poet, translator, scholar, and teacher who died last Saturday at age 77 of cancer, recalled once asking Grace Paley about Paley’s single mastectomy: “How did your husband deal with it?”
Paley told her, “Oh, Bob [Nichols] said he always liked the other one better.”
The poet told this story last year from Berkeley, Calif., where she lived with her husband and her “aggressive sarcoma,” which she wrote about with the same self-deprecating frankness that Paley used when writing about her own cancer. Here she is in “Buying Time”:
I pay with the hairs on my head,
each one numbered before it falls.
Eyebrows, lashes, the body hair
that made me a woman.
Unsexed I’m a wizened
child. My granddaughter pets
my fuzzy head. Pat the bunny.
A clock keeps
Time out of reach on the wall.
When I spoke with Bloch on the phone from New York, I read back to her a poem Paley wrote (“I had thought the tumors…”) that takes the body’s excruciating anarchy even further:
I had thought the tumors
on my spine would kill me but
the tumors on my head seem to be
extraordinarily competitive this week
Bloch enthused: “Isn’t that amazing! ‘Competitive!’ ”
I first came across Bloch’s death poems in 1984 after the death of my mother. Bloch’s poems dealt with the death of her father, Dr. Benjamin Faerstein, who came to America in 1921 after his own father was killed in a pogrom in Russia. They comprised the centerpiece of the first of her five volumes, The Secrets of The Tribe, from 1980. After a seven-year slog through the unforgiving aridity of Alzheimer’s, I welcomed poems about a dementia-free death.
I probably belong to the distinct minority of Bloch admirers who first came to know her as the writer of death poems rather than as the translator of Amichai and Ravikovitch.
She did not, in their final days together, talk to her father about his death, a forbidden subject, but about his past, with its many Jewish deaths safely taxidermied under the glass of history.
“At one point, I heard him say to the wall, ‘I am dying,’ ” she told me. “And in the next breath, he told the nurse, ‘Be careful. I may live.’ ”
His words served as the sinew for her poem “Watching.”
“I knew at that moment that was the heart of the thing,” she added. “I think that’s the Jewish attitude towards life. Everything is mixed, and there is always something funny happening even at the worst moments.”
Translator of Yiddish master poets Sutzkever and Glatstein, and an admirer of the “healthy, mordant,” death poetry of Moshe Leib Halpern, Bloch told me she wanted to write a poem called “The Yiddish Way of Death.”
“Yiddish has all these great Proverbs like, Shrouds have no pockets and A person should stay alive if only out of curiosity.”
In Bloch’s poems, dying and living entangle themselves in each other like two clumsy dance partners defined by the unshakable clarity of her lines. I commented on the comic, quasi-Talmudic objectivity with which she ruminated on her tumor in “Inside Out” from Swimming In The Rain (2015):
It is either serious or it isn’t.
The indeterminate mass, 14.8 cm long,
is either a cyst or a tumor.
If a tumor, either benign or malignant.
If malignant, either slow-growing
or aggressive, in which case
they may not contain it.
Bloch was surprised I found the poem funny. It was not meant to be funny; its history, she said, was in fact very unfunny.
“I had some tests. They weren’t clear. I was told to have an MRI. We got there and they said the MRI machine was broken. I was in a state. I thought this is serious. When I got home I just started writing, trying to figure out what was happening, what my chances were, what the hell was going on. Then, I found myself writing, ‘You managed to divert / yourself with words.’ That was the way, I realized, with this whole project. I had been trying to divert myself with words instead of thinking about what was happening.”
The more she thought about the specifics of her poetry, the more it revealed itself as a universal. “I had a sense from the beginning these new poems were not just for me. Everybody’s going to go there at some point. I want to be able to give them some glimpse as to what that experience feels like.”
Bloch asked me if I had a copy of Amichai’s Open Closed Open close by. It was at eye level in my bookcase. I had wanted to ask her about Amichai, snatched from the world by cancer at the same age Bloch was at the time, but I wondered how sensitive she was to always being linked to the poetry of a Jewish literary icon rather than known for her own poetry.
“Amichai,” she said, “is the poet I turn to. He has poems about dying that are serious, ironic and hilarious. His poem, ‘The Precision of Pain,’ from Open Closed Open, [which she translated] I will often read at readings. It’s about how people describe their pain in the doctor’s office: this one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain, or a dull pain, or a sharp pain.”
The pain in “Precision,” Bloch maintained, is transformative, reborn as joy through the sacramental Jewish practice of wholehearted immersion in woe.
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
“He didn’t write many poems about his cancer. He didn’t write many poems about the Holocaust either,” like Bloch did. “He did write a lot about his father’s death,” also like Bloch. “He told Chana Kronfeld, when he asked us to translate Open Closed Open, that he felt when this book was finished he would die, so he was reluctant to give us the manuscript.”
Bloch, too, felt sure she would die after Swimming In The Rain. Her voice, when she said this, was strangely robust, at odds with her narrative of tumors inevitably reborn after every chemo treatment. She had alerted me before we spoke that she was by nature cheerful, as if that might put a damper on things.
She spoke of an important change in her new poems, the poems she never thought she’d be writing.
“I realized I needed a new way of expressing what was happening to me as it was happening. The poems I began writing were not in retrospect like Inside Out, but minute to minute. ‘What’s happening now? What thoughts are surfacing now?’ In my poem ‘White Heat’ I talk about watching a bolt of lightning in the sky. I write, I want to see what can kill me.”
I asked if the new volume she was working on had a title. She said, slyly, there were two possible titles she’d been kicking around, Dying For Dummies and Provisions. Anti-gravitas meets gravitas. Bloch succeeded in balancing the two without being carried away by either.
“I think Provisions is the better title,” she said. “More appropriate. When I was considering Dying For Dummies, I discovered the existence of a book called Chemotherapy And Radiation For Dummies. I asked the Berkeley Public Library to get a copy for me. All books nowadays are self-help.” It amused her, the thought of maximizing her poetry’s marketing possibilities. “But I wound up rejecting Dying For Dummies as a title. Too funny for the book I am working on.”
Robert Hirschfield reviews books of poetry for The Jerusalem Report.