Interlitq: Why do you write? Why poetry?
As a young girl I was ready to be a writer even if it meant risking divine retribution: “Shame on you! / God will punish you, my mother would say, / if you write on Shabbos. / When I wrote, I pulled down the shade” (“Furniture”). I wanted to preserve all I could of the vanishing world by securing it in words, tracking “the real truth, as we say, to distinguish it / from the other one” (“Blue”). By my twenties I was committed to poetry, the intensity and concision, the purposeful play of sound and rhythm. Although my poems reflect my life experience, they are hardly True Confessions. The raw material is subjected to a rigorous process of selection, given form and resonance through metaphor, phrasing, and precision of language. I have always allowed my imagination free rein to alter the facts in pursuit of the truth.
Interlitq: Last year you published Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015. How does this collection represent your work over thirty-five years?
As I began to work on a New and Selected, I was shaken by the diagnosis of a sarcoma, an aggressive cancer—a powerful incentive: “If I don’t survive, this is what I will leave behind me.” I selected poems that would show the range of my work—poems about family and children, sex, language, art, memory, aging, death—noticing how I kept circling around those subjects, coming back to explore them from a different perspective in each book.
Swimming in the Rain begins with 37 new poems, many of them about history—from a hominid couple crossing the African plain three million years ago to my parents fleeing pogroms in the Ukraine in 1921—and my own story from the perspective of a woman in her seventies. The title poem moves back in time from an exhilarating swim to the laws that governed my childhood and then to the biblical Creation story. I was taught as a child that swimming in the rain is a punishable offense, but a few years ago, immersed in the primal waters, feeling the pure rush of sensual pleasure, not to speak of the pleasure of breaking a rule, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t help thinking of the opening verses of Genesis, when God divides the waters above the firmament from the waters below:
Swaddled and sleeved in water,
I dive to the rocky bottom and rise
as the first drops of sky
find the ocean. The waters above
meet the waters below,
the sweet and the salt,
and I'm swimming back to the beginning.
The forecasts were wrong.
Half the sky is dark
but it keeps changing. 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.
—“Swimming in the Rain”
After the new work come the poems I chose from my four earlier collections. The Secrets of the Tribe (1980), my first book, is the sunniest and most innocent, written when I was a young wife and mother, a daughter who had finally made her mother smile. From the title of my second collection, The Past Keeps Changing (1992), it’s clear that a sweeping reappraisal had begun: “If we were so happy, / why weren't we happy?” (“Primer”).
In Mrs. Dumpty (1998) I took on a single daunting subject: my husband’s mental collapse and its devastating impact on our family:
The last time the doctors gave up
I put the pieces together
and bought him a blue wool jacket, a shirt
and a tie with scribbles of magenta,
brown buckle shoes. I dressed him
and sat him down
with a hankie in his pocket folded into points.
Then a shell knit slowly
over his sad starched heart.
He'd laugh and dangle his long legs and call out,
What a fall that was!
And I'd sing the refrain,
What a fall!
And now he's at my door again, begging
in that leaky voice,
and I start wiping the smear
from his broken face.
When that marriage of twenty-four years came to an end, I was able to write the poems—first the ones fueled by repressed anger, then finally the tender ones with which the book begins.
I was opening to a new life in my sixties when I began to work on Blood Honey (2009), and my subject matter opened up as well. I wrote about a poet who lived most of his life in an iron lung, an artist who worked in flour and ash, a Harvard student who claimed to be the Messiah, an uncle of mine who killed a man and was proud of it. I found myself contemplating aging and death, “draw[ing] up contingency plans / for a war we’re preparing / to lose” (“The Sixth Trumpet”). The title poem is about a close friend who, even as he is dying, like Samson is “scooping sweetness from the belly of death / —honey from the lion’s carcass” (“Blood Honey”). For me that’s an image of the life force.
Interlitq: How would you describe your poetic style?
I value clarity, an old-fashioned virtue. I like poetry that appears to be clear on the surface, with complexity astir in the depths, rejecting the shallow notion that these are necessarily opposed. My poems are spare and precise, their often dark subject matter leavened with humor and irony. My language springs from the demotic idiom I grew up with in the Bronx, infused with the irony and wit of Jewish discourse as well as the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets I studied, wrote about, and taught.
Interlitq: What have you learned as a poet from your reading, teaching, and scholarship?
I had the good fortune to teach for over thirty years at Mills College, a liberal arts college in Oakland, California. I gave courses to undergraduate and graduate students—seventeenth-century English literature, Shakespeare, The Bible as Literature, contemporary poetry, translation and poetry workshops—and I directed the Creative Writing Program. I was well suited to the work, which means in the first instance teaching oneself, and then learning from one’s students.
George Herbert was my first singing master. I fell in love with his poetry in graduate school, drawn by his unsparing scrutiny of his inner life, and the subtle music of his lines. Herbert and I made an unlikely pair—a Jewish girl from the Bronx and a devout seventeenth-century Anglican minister. In my critical study Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (1985), I observed the poet’s mind at work in the very process of creation, seeing how he transforms the biblical sources and makes them speak with his own voice. The writers I translated from Yiddish and Hebrew taught me how the Bible could enrich the weave of my poems.
I would not have written as I do without the example of the Yiddish and Hebrew writers, who have no problem arguing with the texts they allude to. I was particularly interested in the way Yehuda Amichai upends biblical texts, sometimes rejecting them unequivocally: “A man doesn't have time in his life / to have time for everything. / . . . Ecclesiastes / was wrong about that” (“A Man in His Life”). The Yiddish and Hebrew writers confirmed my belief that the questions are always larger than the answers.
Interlitq: Can you name some of your sources and influences?
My poetry has always been deeply engaged with the Bible. My first book, The Secrets of the Tribe, included a sequence of poems re-imagining tales from Genesis, in particular those that reveal how we are formed (and deformed) by family. In recent work—“The Revised Version,” “In His Mercy,” “The Innocents,” “Chiaroscuro,” “Deluge,” “The Ark,” and “Babel”—I return to the project of rewriting Genesis, now within a larger historical framework. Many poems question the biblical, and the subsequent rabbinic, obsession with separation (day from night, kosher from non-kosher, male from female). The title poem of Swimming in the Rain reaches beyond these binary oppositions to imagine a time “before the dividing began,” a holistic mindset not based on exclusion.
Apart from Herbert and Amichai, poets I hold dear include Dickinson, Tranströmer, Bishop, Zbigniew Herbert, Szymborska, Akhmatova, Simic, Ignatow, Philip Levine, Dahlia Ravikovitch, and Jane Kenyon—not necessarily in that order. Over the years, artists too—Rembrandt, Courbet, Van Gogh, Rothko, Claes Oldenburg, Anselm Kiefer—have deepened my way of seeing. Although I was familiar with reproductions of Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, for example, I was astounded, when I had a close look at the painting in the Musée d’Orsay, to discover how much can be conveyed by a single touch of paint:
They knew something about pleasure, too,
those painters—how well they understood
it may be compounded
of the simplest elements, the merest trace
of water or light.
Courbet's L'Origine du monde, for instance.
The bedclothes are thrust aside
and a woman's fleshy thighs
sprawl across the canvas toward you
as you approach.
Courbet studies his nude with the diligence
of a lover. And lets you see
in the reddish fur
at the body's threshold
a hint of wet
like the dab of white in the iris
that lights the eye.
Interlitq: Can you say something about your writing process?
A poem may start from something arresting I have seen, felt, heard or read. The enigmatic remark of the dying Socrates: “I owe a cock to Aesclepius, Crito. . . . / See that it’s paid” (“In Extremis”). Pascal’s astute aperçu: “Le nez de Cléopatre, s’il eut étè plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé” (“Cleopatra’s Nose”). A news article in The New York Times: “‘And what did you feel . . . / when you dropped a bomb from an F-16?’ I felt a slight lift of the wing / he says, / After a second it passed” (“Power”). A review essay in The New York Review of Books: “‘Is there more to happiness than feeling happy?’ / the moral philosophers inquire” (“Happiness Research”). And my children’s poignantly guileless remarks: e.g. “I didn’t know grown-ups be bad” (“The Innocents”).
The research that often accompanies the writing process keeps the scholar in me happy. Even for a ten-line poem like “The Little Ice Age” I have pages of notes about that era of cooling temperatures and the dense wood used in Stradivarius violins:
Europe shivered for centuries in the Little Ice Age.
Rivers froze; crops failed;
people chewed on pine bark,
implored the stubborn heavens:
Lord, have mercy!
That's why the Stradivarius cries so convincingly.
It's the wood remembering,
the stunned wood shuddering,
too numb to grow,
the tree rings huddled close against the cold.
A diorama in the American Museum of Natural History started me reading about the Laetoli Footprints (“The Hall of Human Origins”); a visit to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, about Tutankhamen's tomb (“The Valley of the Dead”). And my curiosity about the meaning of “deadline,” a word I’d associated with writing assignments, brought me up against one of the horrors of Civil War history:
In a stockade of rough-hewn logs fifteen feet high, thousands of Union soldiers were confined in Andersonville. Twenty feet from the inside perimeter of the stockade walls was a rail they called the “dead line.” Any prisoner who dared to “touch, fall upon, pass over, under, or across the dead line” was shot by the guards on sight.
—from “Deadlines,” #1
Whatever its source, the initial impetus is often buried in a notebook, where it germinates for a while. Once I commit it to paper, the revisions begin, the slow process of growing the poem by paring it down to essentials. I profit from the suggestions and objections of my first readers. “Finishing” a poem can take years. I keep dated drafts in a file folder to teach myself patience and humility.
Interlitq: What drew you to translation?
As a young writer in a workshop with Robert Lowell, I submitted along with my own poems some translations of Abraham Sutzkever, the great Yiddish poet. Lowell told me, “You can learn to write from your own translations.” That proved to be the most helpful advice I have ever received about writing. A translator needs to know at least one language very well: her own. You might say that translation is a form of apprenticeship—not to a master craftsman, but to the genius of the language itself. When you translate you are constantly choosing among alternatives in order to convey meaning, register, image, mood, music; each time you choose, you are exercising muscles that you need in shaping your own work—a strenuous but efficient way of teaching yourself to write.
Interlitq: Why Yiddish and Hebrew?
I grew up as a first-generation American, living between two cultures. My parents came to this country from tiny shtetls in the Ukraine. I learned Yiddish as a child and began to study Hebrew in college and graduate school. In my twenties, I discovered that translation offered me a way of honoring the creativity in these two languages, more meaningful by far than the nostalgia that too often passes for Jewish identity. I went on to translate Yiddish poetry (Jacob Glatstein, Avrom Sutzkever) and prose (Isaac Bashevis Singer), the biblical Song of Songs, and contemporary Israeli poets Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch. Once I was engaged in this work, I felt a responsibility to help save what might otherwise be lost, and to contribute something of substance to American-Jewish culture. I am fortunate to have known the contemporary writers I translated from Yiddish and Hebrew and to have carried the sound of their voices in my ear.
But we know next to nothing about the author of the The Song of Songs, perhaps the most challenging of translation projects. When did that extraordinary writer live? Could the poet have been a woman? There’s no way of knowing for sure. The Song is one of the most enigmatic books in the Bible in part because it has an unusually high proportion of rare words and constructions. Resolving the puzzles in the Hebrew fell to Ariel Bloch, my co-translator. Once the two of us had a reasonably clear sense of what the Hebrew was saying, it was my task to embody that reading—unexpurgated—in English that sounded like poetry. The Song is a poem about erotic love, but once it became part of the Holy Scriptures, religious interpretations of one kind or another prevailed for two millennia. The passion in the Song rises at times to 120 degrees in the shade:
Awake, north wind; O south wind, come,
breathe upon my garden,
let its spices stream out.
Let my lover come into his garden
and taste its delicious fruit. (4:16)
In the long history of exegesis and translation, alas, the temperature drops precipitously.
Ariel and I felt that none of the English translations conveyed the rare combination of sensuousness and delicacy that makes the Hebrew so captivating. Just as earlier interpretations typically erred on the side of prudishness, contemporary translations (perhaps to atone for centuries of exegetical evasiveness) sometimes verge on crudeness. Searching to find the proper register in English—neither too formal and stylized, nor too breezy and colloquial—took us through a box full of drafts. What kept us going was the desire to convey in English the erotic intensity and magical freshness of this great ancient poem.
Interlitq: How do you collaborate on translations?
My most fruitful collaborations have been with Chana Kronfeld, my colleague and close friend (we’ve come to be known as “The Two Chanas”). Together we translated Amichai’s Open Closed Open (2000), his magnum opus and, sadly, his last book, as well as Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch (2009). Even if my Hebrew weren't rusty—which it is—it would never be as good as that of a native speaker. Chana is a native speaker of Hebrew and I of English, so our debates on language and its context gave real meaning to current theories about translation as a negotiation between cultures. To translate is literally to "carry across," from the Latin trans + ferre—that is, to carry something across the borders of language and culture that separate us from an unknown country on the other side. Those borders or barriers are generally invisible to the reader, though they are all too clear to the translator who must work her way across or around them.
In our intense and absorbing conversations, Chana and I often had the feeling that Hebrew and English language and culture were talking to each other over the divide, and that together we were enacting a border crossing. Our method was dialogue: in the way that Talmudic scholars study a text together by raising alternative possibilities, we debated every word and every turn of phrase. Some of the time I would prepare rough drafts as a starting point. Then Chana would explain what I missed: “This phrase comes from the Talmud, and this from a pop song, this is army slang, this is children’s talk, and this line comes from a skit in the 1980s that everyone knew.” Readers outside Israel have tended to oversimplify the meaning of Amichai's work, to blunt his irony, the critical edge of his Hebrew, and even to present him as a religious poet. We were determined to render the full range of his voices, from the colloquial to the densely allusive, while retaining in English the natural ease of his poetic idiom.
In translating Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch (2009), I was struck by the verbal artistry even in her political poems—e.g. “The Poetics of Applying ‘Moderate Physical Pressure,’” about torturing political prisoners—not to speak of her courage in writing poems that openly take issue with her government. By publishing her poems in translation, including them in my readings, and writing about them—most recently in “Getting the News,” in Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine (2016)—I am able to give her protest a voice in our country.
Interlitq: How has your work changed over the years?
In my early work, I tended to wrap up a poem and deliver its meaning. These days I am inclined to follow the thread of the poem wherever it wants to lead me. Sometimes I am surprised by the turns it takes. The element of unpredictability that I have come to value in a literary work is not just a “literary device”; it reflects an aspect of our shared human experience—the way our lives keep taking us by surprise. Which is now one of my subjects.
As one might expect, my view of the body has changed. I’ve come to question the male/female divide I grew up with, to recognize that we are equally exposed to the demands of the body: “Sex is a brisk new broom. Tough, efficient. / It knows all the corners” (“The Naked Future”). I write about the vulnerability of a male: “A man’s got to wear his susceptibility / out in plain sight. / No wonder he’s keeping his soul / zippered up” (“After Sex”) and the “phallic” desire of a woman: “Sometimes I want to sink into your body / with the fever that spikes inside me / to be a woman / who can open a man” (“Sometimes I Want to Sink into Your Body”).
Since my sixties, I’ve been writing about the ill or aging body:
Words slip from me lately
like cups and saucers
from soapy hands.
I grope for the names of things
that are governed, like me, by the laws
of slippage and breakage.
—from “The Sixth Age”
My late friend, Berkeley poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who spent most of his life in an iron lung, offered an example of dignity in coping with disability that has informed my thinking and my writing:
How does the body live its only life
in a cage? I watch him compute the distance
from bar to bar, and squeeze
with a violent compression, a fury of bursting free
that doesn't last.
His will is a crowbar, angled to pry up
the rooted intractable weight
of matter. I watch him slyly, I check out
the way he does it. He
does it. But pain in its absolute privacy
weighs what it weighs.
—from “The Color of Green”
Interlitq: What are you working on now?
I am writing poems about living with a life-threatening illness. Till now, most of my poems have been the end result of a long period of distillation: I would look back at some event and try to make sense of it retrospectively. That’s how I wrote Mrs. Dumpty, the book about my ex-husband’s mental collapse, and “In the Land of the Body,” a sequence about the ovarian cancer that I survived.
The first poem in which I’ve written about a crisis in real time, minute-by-minute, as I experienced it, is “Inside Out,” one of those rare poems that arrives almost finished—one gauge of the internal pressure that needed to find its way out in words:
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 contain it. If not,
no one else will recall
this unseasonable day of waiting
exactly as you felt it, from the inside out
—the way the heat of your mind
dropped a few degrees
and grew very quiet. The sediment
settled. You managed to divert
yourself with words. Then
you consulted the uncommon
clarity of the sky. A mild
translucent blue: a sign,
perhaps. The leaves held still
in the almost imperceptible breeze,
though at the tips of the branches
the first buds of spring
were so close-fisted
you couldn’t be sure
whether you saw them, or not.
When I wrote this poem, I was still weighing the possibilities: “It is either serious or it isn’t.” It was—and it is. So began the biopsies, surgeries, radiation treatments, hyperbaric oxygen treatments, chemotherapy. As I write this, I have just begun yet another chemo regimen. That’s the shortlist of hopes and disappointments, but it’s not the story as I experienced it, filled with deepenings and quickenings I didn’t anticipate—the “real truth” (as I wrote in “Blue”) that has always been my subject.
Since the sarcoma recurred, I’ve come to understand that I am writing under the pressure of a strict “deadline,” with less time than I would like for reflection. Time, indeed, is a central theme of these poems. In “Last Legs,” I struggle to walk “upon three in the evening” just as my granddaughter is beginning to lurch about on “her first legs”: “a biped! One of us.” I am “paying” for a few more years, if I’m lucky, “with the very hairs on my head, / each one numbered before it falls” (“Buying Time”). In “Memento Mori,”
I wake to a still life—
a clock that marks the hour
before it strikes.
No skull on my desk.
Just a face in the mirror,
The subject matter is disturbing, but wit and metaphor enable me to handle what would otherwise be too hot to touch. Wit is a safeguard against sentimentality, and metaphor is the great enabler, the agent of transformation. As I shape the material—governed by its own laws and conventions—the poem begins to shape me; in the process of turning pain into poetry, I find myself transformed.
But I am not writing just for myself. A poem, finally, calls for an audience other than the self; it asks to be read and reckoned with. In seeking clarity through writing, I have always hoped that my poems might in some measure help others find clarity in their lives. These days the sense of an audience is ever-present, and writing offers itself as a task, a responsibility, one that keeps me fully alive:
To have lived all my life
with that deadrail
inside the very walls,
What I need to do, I need to do
quickly, before it’s too late:
last will last wishes
casket or ashes. Decide!
And then to finish the assignment,
pounding the keyboard
in a fury of words
as that rail rushes at me,
—from “Deadlines,” #3
NOTE: Unless otherwise indicated, poems mentioned or quoted are from Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015. “Babel,” “Deadlines, #1,” “Last Legs,” “Buying Time,” “Memento Mori,” and “Deadlines, #3” are from Provisions, a manuscript-in-progress.
“Babel” was published in Tikkun and “Memento Mori” in The New Yorker.
Recordings of many of the poems quoted here may be heard on http://www.chanabloch.com and www.voetica.com