Book Review: Blood Honey by Chana Bloch
Poems by Chana Bloch
Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2009,
85 pages, $14.95 paper
Blood Honey is a book filled with moving poems by a poet who has been a translator of important poets since she was a young woman. Her own poems are lush and vivid. One never finishes a poem wishing for more—they end beautifully as finished wholes.
Bloch trails the blood of her Eastern European forefathers into accessible set pieces, eschewing experimentalism and the hip-pocket currency her progenitor Yehuda Amichai achieved, commonly regarded as Israel’s greatest contemporary poet. Her work is a weave of tribal knowledge: family secrets kept, told, suspected, weighing down her bones, refracting in her writing.
She is our inter-generational poet, weaving the generations together, showing where psychological and emotional ladders make a rip-rap between child and grandparent, or young woman and mother, or child and uncle, in case any Gen-Xers begin convincing themselves they’re the whole story, that what happened in their family before them doesn’t count. Some young people want to strike out alone, so they don’t see themselves as within the context of family. Bloch’s generational swing, like Faulkner’s deep veins of Sutpen lineages, reminds the reader that the generations are supposed to be generous to one another — though they are not always.
Bloch’s poems reverberate with nuances of those who came before, in many different countries. A lightning rod grounding energy from her past, she endows us with the feeling it is our past. Narration as history, not just personal revelation.
Bloch takes her palette on the road, writing in any country or state; if she is a poet of place, it would be anywhere. Amichai wrote mainly of Israel, much to the delight of his countrymen. We hear about nature in Blood Honey, but Chana Bloch’s mind is so active with images and memories the actual location is subtle, glimpsed, or not mentioned. Writing of the colors of the Grand Canyon, she thinks of Rothko’s colors, and describes them.
Amichai had published a dozen books in English translated by many others by the time Bloch and Chana Kronfield’s translation of Open Closed Open was issued in 2000. Bloch then bit off the translation into English of three volumes of Dahlia Ravikovitch’s work. The last, published in 2009, was Hovering At A Low Altitude, Ravikovitch’s collected poems.
Her early translation with her first husband Ariel Bloch of the biblical Song of Songs faced the task of rendering poetically deep sexual love with language compatible with the King James version. She and Bloch brought alive a beloved Victorian-weary cliché, probably one of the most excerpted parts of Old Testament. They made it starkly sensual, neither ribald or tacky.
The earthiness of “Trespass” echoes the quick sensuality of The Song of Songs, mixed with dreamscape time- travel. The narrator takes a fantasy lover into her train compartment fashioned from the man at the ticket counter, who reminds of an early lover. “He’s not the one, but he’ll do.”
without knowing, that man
handed me a key.
I open him easily, helping myself
to whatever I please.
There’s no stopping me now—nervy, elated,
I’ve sneaked past a sleepy guard
to plunder a time zone.
The “time zone” of the poem is a leap to years back, the present brought to contemporary life by dream.
Perhaps translation gave Bloch a surety and ear for freshness in language. Ear, voice, vocabulary, rhythm, and economy—she mixes the elements deftly and acutely into a pleasing whole.
Who came before? Bloch is not afraid to ponder and critique her own mothering, understanding that it came at the same time as she was living through the horrors of the Holocaust for her family and others. The book most concerned with children, her own and others, is The Past Keeps Changing, poems written in the 80s and published in 1992. In Blood Honey, the horrors of the Holocaust seep in, almost as if now that children are gone, one can explore more these dark shadows held at bay during the raising of “the boys.”
The narrator remembers the callousness she experienced as a young girl from rough-talking parents, and reflects on her own actions as a mother. In a rueful and memorable passage she tells of reading her sons Baba Yaga folktales and acting them out in later moments of play when they were small, and loved being chased:
I chased them screeching down the hall,
I catch you, I eat you!
My witch-blade hungry for the spurt
What stopped me
even as I lifted my hand?
The stricken voice that cried: Eat him!
Eat my brother!
The narrator is jolted by an awareness of ancient and modern cultures where brother betrays brother, in the Old Testament, in the Holocaust. Bloch pinpoints the moment in the past with her children, reflects on her action of the raised hand, and allows the darker shadow to surface the ending of the poem.
As Director of the Creative Writing Program at Mills College for many years, Bloch was a griot responsible for giving her students tools to maintain an oral record of their tribal history in music, poetry, and storytelling. No trivial matter. A failure of modernism is that many of us aren’t born into tribal clans who pass down initiation and social bonding rituals, stories and a mythopoetics for life—or we are and don’t value this material. MFA Programs can teach some things, but they can’t create a gift for writing. She trained generations of students’ ears and eyes to recognize eschew sentimentality, and tack towards honesty and subtlety in writing. She listened to her students’ cadences, and attempted to instill a useful lineage: poetry is a map with earlier mapmakers. She empowered her students, by deconstructing her own poems and others; and drew attention to visual artists and musicians—important influences from a colorist, so her students could see their task as carrying on lineages and adding to the world’s knowledge.
Blood Honey, at this moment the pinnacle of Chana Bloch’s poetic output, is outspoken, true to history and the tribal lineages it represents. Searching for some reason for the horrors humans create, she maps history as individuals enter her life—decades ago when she was a child, or at breakfast yesterday. Older people seem particularly strong in the first section of Blood Honey—an uncle, an old Jewish woman in Prague, a calm rabbi.
This year at Pesach, a Jewish student proclaimed
Armageddon. “Burn the books! Burn the textbooks!”
he shouted to a cheerful crowd…
The rabbi was a skeptic.
Years ago he’d been taught, If you’re planting a tree
and someone cries out, The Messiah has come!
finish planting the tree. Then
go see if it’s true.
“Flour and Ash” startles— a vision washes over reality. The narrator is in the studio of a painter using flour and ash, “working in seven shades of gray” on large sheets of paper tacked to the wall:
“Make flour into dough,” she answers,
and fire will turn it into food.
Ash is the final abstraction of matter.
You can just brush it away.”
The artist applies “the fine soft powders with a fingertip, highlighting in chalk and graphite,/blending, blurring with her thumb.” The narrator looks outside, is alarmed at the red and yellow daylilies in the dry summer, and the notion of fire begins to fill her mind, as it does for many in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills when the weather is dry and still, perfect for conflagration: “Her garden burns/red and yellow in the dry August air/and is not consumed.”
But then the chilling vision:
Inside, on the studio wall, a heavy
thickens and rises. Footsteps grime the snow.
The about-to-be-dead line up on the ramp
with their boxy suitcases,
When I get too close she yanks me back.
She hovers over her creation
though she too has a mind
to brush against that world
and wipe it out.
A revelatory poem, full of confusions about time and space—A real occurrence? A dream? An imagined sequence suggested by looking at an artist’s work? This ash cannot be “brushed away.” The Biblical resonance of the second line “and fire will turn it into food” foreshadows the mournful dirge of the Holocaust. We feel the sorrow of the dead, relive the victims’ agony. The poem leaves us with “boxy suitcases,” and “ashen shoes.” Recent horror only a generation old, never to be forgotten.
The Past Keeps Changing (1992), Bloch’s second book, is filled with children. The first poem suggests the tight unit of the nuclear family as “The Family” is compared to a Russian nesting doll, all the members sealed up again at night: “We sleep/staring at the inside.”
These poems are as strong as those in Blood Honey, without its sweep. The focus on family leads to lovely detail: movement from remembering her own piano lessons in one poem, to working with her son at the piano in another; a son asking her to sock her fist into his stomach to test his strength is a wonderful depiction of pre-adolescence. “In the Land of A Body” lays it out about a cancer operation. Bloch is a reliable narrator; we are sure that revelation will include transformation. My favorite poem in this collection edges into the moral ambiguities which claim more attention in Blood Honey. In “Listening,” an unknown man brings everyone, including all his women and myriad children, to a carousel to say something tawdry:
It’s your dream, not mine. That’s why
we’re all in one place:
you, me, your dead wife,
your mistress, your girlfriend, everyone’s
We climb on the carousel without speaking.
This is your dream. You wrote it. That’s why
the women lean forward in their stirrups as if
to kiss each other, and the children
close their eyes. They’re so young,
Why are you
telling me this, suddenly happy,
tapping the spoon against the spongy
palm of your hand? Why
am I leaning forward, listening,
like one of them?
The poem chills us, with its Cocteau-like carousel, its depiction of children inappropriately present. Bloch’s disgust at the profligacy of the dreamer is clear. Less easily resolved than many of her poems, it’s equal to the best of Blood Honey.
Back in Blood Honey, there is an almost lazy comfortableness to “Natural History.” Bloch watches a meadow and traces the evolution of the trees over eons, past when we’ve forgotten we were there, past our own lives:
It takes a long time to make a meadow.
First you need glaciers
to gouge out a lake.
Then reeds grow, the lake fills with silt
and eventually grass.
So many trees with their litter
of fallen leaves to beget
a single live joy.
Look at the dead ends
up and down that trunk: each one
could have been a branch.
How a meadow is made, by a colorist who sees with the vision of a painter. The “single live joy” makes art of science—deft strokes on the progression of a lake.
The title poem describes long days with a man dying of a brain tumor. He recalls the summer he packed blood oranges, drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice straight from the tap, “scooping sweetness from the belly of death/—honey from a lion’s carcass.” /We sit with our friend /and brood on the riddle he sets before us:/What is it, this blood honey?” The weeks turn into months, as Bloch realizes this is how this man is going to die: his flame will leap and surge before going out is extinguished. The poem captures the sadness of this, the amazement that day after day the man tastes the goodness in the world “through a keyhole/that keeps getting smaller/and smaller.” A metaphor not just for death, but our lives.
The comings and goings of the generations; a commitment to emotional honesty. Bloch tastes the joy of life in “The Daily News,” written at Lake Como: “We rush out into the blur of snowflakes/flustered and suddenly happy./We’re all set to hope/but the sky turns to water in our hands.” Like a good songwriter, she stays with the poem just long enough.
Blood Honey contains poems you may want to keep with you always, savor while travelling, or a train or anytime you want delight in a small space, as in these memorable lines from “Blue:”
from one hope to the next, irremediably
deep in blue.
Lindy Hough is a poet and fiction writer. She is Founding Publisher of North Atlantic Books. Her most recent book is Wild Horses, Wild Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1971-2010. She lives in Berkeley, California and Mt. Desert Island, Maine with her husband, the writer Richard Grossinger. They have a son, Robin Grossinger, in Berkeley, and a daughter, Miranda July, in Los Angeles.