Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Homage to Chana Bloch

The world lost a wonderful member of the literary community in 2017—Chana Bloch, poet, translator, and teacher of generations of creative writers and students of literature. I attended her memorial on October 8, 2017, at Mills College, where Chana taught for more than thirty years. It was moving to see women who had studied with Chana decades ago returning to campus to recount how Chana had changed their lives, including professionals who did not end up as writers but were still profoundly shaped by the experience of working with her.

Chana Bloch
Chana had a fantastic sense of humor, and she was a modest person, free of pretention, despite her numerous accomplishments. Chana collaborated on some of the best contemporary translations of Hebrew poetry. The English version of Yehuda Amichai’s collection Open Closed Open that she created with Chana Kronfeld is to me one of the finest literary translations of contemporary poetry into English. A friend told a story at Chana’s memorial about this book: Amichai was terminally ill while the two Chanas were working on the translation. The poet was pressuring them to finish so he could see his best collection in English before he died. According to the speaker at the memorial, Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld resisted the demands of the great Hebrew poet, knowing they would probably only have one chance to get the translation right, since books of poetry in translation rarely go into multiple editions. As it turned out, the Chanas finished their work to their satisfaction, and Amichai lived to see the book in print.

Chana Bloch’s translation in collaboration with Ariel Bloch of The Song of Songs is one of the most beautiful renditions of a biblical text into English. Their version brings out the freshness of the language and the imagery, and returns the romance and the raunch to The Song of Songs:

Let me lie among vine blossoms,
in a bed of apricots!
I am in the fever of love.           

This book of the Hebrew Bible is often bowdlerized in translation till the sensuality becomes only symbolic or veiled. Chana was determined to create a nakedly beautiful Song of Songs, and she succeeded. 

Chana Bloch’s own poetry is full of tantalizing complexity. The poet Judy Halebsky spoke at the memorial, recalling that she had asked Chana when she was a student at Mills College about an emotion that she was trying to express in a poem, which had not yet come across as she’d intended. Chana told her, “Every emotion is actually two conflicting emotions.” That’s not only true in life, it’s true in Chana’s poetry as well.

In Chana’s poem “The Joins,” included in her collection Blood Honey, she refers to the Japanese art of kintsugi, a method of repairing broken pottery where the seams are sprinkled with gold dust to create a gorgeous pattern out of the breaks. From the first line of the poem, Chana makes clear that she is speaking in metaphor:

What’s between us
often seems flexible as the webbing
between forefinger and thumb.

Seems flexible, but it’s not;
what’s between us
is made of clay

Human relationships are almost always Chana’s subject. Even though she’s talking about a technique in pottery, the poem is clearly about breakage—emotional, psychic, global:

We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.
Scar tissue is visible history

In Chana Bloch’s poetry, she begins with the assumption that we are all wounded. But by recognizing those injuries, by learning from the pain, we can reach a state that might even be better than innocence:

Sometimes the joins
are so exquisite

they say the potter
may have broken the cup
just so he could mend it.

A couple of times Chana visited a class I taught regularly on contemporary world poetry at a college in San Francisco, where she spoke about the writing of Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch that she had cotranslated. I have to confess I was a little jealous of how instantaneously my students bonded with Chana, a stronger connection than I’d been able to weave during an entire semester. I think that ability to win the trust of students came from Chana’s piercing intellect, her genuine warmth, and her disarmingly frank comments, delivered in her Bronx accent. It just wasn’t in Chana’s constitution to be anything less than completely honest, as a professor, a poet, and a friend. I miss her. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

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