Featured Poet: Chana Bloch

Selections by Philip Terman

Book cover for Chana Bloch's Swimming in the Rain


Swimming in the Rain

 

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.

 

 

Happiness Research

 

Rain over Berkeley! The birds are all out

delivering the news.

The evening is wet and happy tonight.

“Is there more to happiness than feeling happy?”

the moral philosophers inquire.

 

Research has shown

if you spot a dime on the sidewalk

you’re more likely to tell the professor your life

is fine, thank you. The effect

generally lasts about twenty minutes.

 

Scientists are closing in on

the crowded quarter of the brain

where happiness lives. They like to think

it’s hunkered down

in the left prefrontal cortex.

 

“Even in the slums of Calcutta

people on the street describe themselves

as reasonably happy.” Why not be

reasonable? Why not in Berkeley? Why not

right now, sweetheart, while the rain

is stroking the roof?

 

The split-leaf philodendron is happy

to be watered and fed.

The dress I unbuttoned is more than glad

to be draped on the chair.

 

 

Potato Eaters

 

My grandmother never did learn to write.

“Making love” was not in her lexicon;

I wonder if she ever took off her clothes

when her husband performed his conjugal duties.

She said God was watching,

reciting Psalms was dependable medicine,

a woman in pants an abomination.

 

In their hut on the Dniester

six children scraped the daily potatoes from a single plate;

each one held a bare spoon.

 

Five years from the shtetl her daughters

disguise themselves

in lisle stockings and flapper dresses.

The boys slick their hair with pomade.

What do they remember of Russia? “Mud.”

 

That’s grandma in the center. At ease in owl glasses.

Don’t run, you’ll fall.

Mostly she keeps her mouth shut; the children

would rather not hear.

What does a full stomach know

of an empty stomach?

 

It’s time you opened your mouth, bobbe;

I’m old enough now to ask you a thing or two

and you’re too dead to be annoyed.

You’ll know where to find me,

I’m the daughter of your second son.

I have the spoons.

 

 

Brothers

 

When I was the Baba Yaga of the house

on my terrible chicken legs,

the children sat close on the sofa as I read,

both of them together

determined to be scared.

 

Careful!  I cackled, stalking them

among the pillows:

You bad Russian boy,

I eat you up!

They shivered and squirmed, my delicious sons,

 

waiting for a mighty arm

to seize them.

I chased them screeching down the hall,

I catch you, I eat you!

my witch-blade hungry for the spurt

of laughter—

 

What stopped me

even as I lifted my hand?

The stricken voice that cried: Eat him!

Eat my brother.

 

 

Happy Families Are All Alike

1

Flash of truck, blaze of

steel bearing down

burn of rubber on asphalt two tons

thundering to a stop. I can smell it,

can see that trucker

stunned, head down in his hands,

St. Christopher swinging in the window

 

and across the street on Colusa

in front of the school door,

hands face skinny knees, every part of him

sharply visible, outlined

in yellow light—

 

my son. His high voice

more plaintive than blaming:

You told me to run.

2

Who told him to run? My fault

forever. A family of before

and after. Why did you why

did I tell him? But look,

 

he’s going into the classroom.

He’s eating the soggy triangles

of his tuna sandwich. Nothing’s

happened to us! Nothing

 

yet. Once upon a time, we’ll say

at the family campfire,

we came that close.

 

 

The Joins

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending
precious pottery with gold.

 

What’s between us

seems flexible as the webbing

between forefinger and thumb.

 

Seems flexible but isn’t;

what’s between us

is made of clay

 

like any cup on the shelf.

It shatters easily. Repair

becomes the task.

 

We glue the wounded edges

with tentative fingers.

Scar tissue is visible history

 

and the cup is precious to us

because

we saved it.

 

In the art of kintsugi

a potter repairing a broken cup

would sprinkle the resin

 

with powdered gold.

Sometimes the joins

are so exquisite

 

they say the potter

may have broken the cup

just so he could mend it.

 

 

The Messiah of Harvard Square

 

Every year some student would claim to be the Messiah.

It was the rabbi who had to deal with them.

He had jumped, years ago, from a moving boxcar

on the way to a death camp. That leap

left him ready for anything.

 

This year at Pesach, a Jewish student proclaimed

Armageddon. “Burn the books! Burn the textbooks!”

he shouted to a cheerful crowd,

sang Hebrew songs to confuse the Gentiles,

dressed for the end like Belshazzar.

People stopped to whisper and laugh.

“I have a noble task,” the boy explained.

“I must prepare myself to endure

the laughter of fools.”

 

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.

 

Still, he took the boy into his study

and questioned him meticulously,

as if the poor soul before him might be,

God help us, the Messiah.

 

 

The Converts

 

On the holiest day we fast till sundown.

I watch the sun stand still

as the horizon edges toward it. Four hours to go.

 

The rabbi’s mouth opens and closes and opens.

I think fish

and little steaming potatoes,

parsley clinging to them like an ancient script.

 

Only the converts, six of them in the corner,

in their prayer shawls and feathery beards,

sing every syllable.

What word

are they savoring now?

If they go on loving that way, we’ll be here all night.

 

Why did they follow us here, did they think

we were happier?

Did someone tell them we knew

the lost words

to open God’s mouth?

 

The converts sway in white silk,

their necks bent forward in yearning

like swans,

and I covet

what they think we’ve got.

 

 

Blood Honey

in memory of Amichai Kronfeld

 

Apprehended and held without trial,

our friend was sentenced:

brain tumor, malignant.

Condemned each day

to wake and remember.

 

Overnight a wall sprang up around him

leaving the rest of us

outside.

 

Death passed over us this time.

We’re still at large. We’re free

to get out of bed, start the coffee,

open the blinds.

The first of the human freedoms.

 

If he’s guilty

we must be guilty; we’re all made of

the same cup of dust—

 

It’s a blessing, isn’t it? To be able,

days at a time,

to forget what we are.

 

*

 

Today we have brunch at Chester’s,

poached egg on toast,

orange juice foaming in frosted glasses.

 

He remembers the summer he packed blood oranges,

stripped to the waist,

drinking the fresh-squeezed juice in the factory

straight from the tap.

He cups his left hand under his chin

as if to a faucet, laughing.

 

He is scooping sweetness from the belly of death

—honey from the lion’s carcass.

 

What is it, this blood honey?

 

*

 

A shadow is eating the sun.

It can blind you

but he’s looking right at it,

he won’t turn away.

 

Already his gaze is marked

by such hard looking.

 

Day after day breaks

and gives him

back to us

broken.

 

Soon the husk of his knowing

won’t know even that.

 

*

 

A man lies alone in his body in a world

he can still desire.

Another slice of pie? he asks.

 

As long as he’s hungry

he’s still one of us.

Oh Lord, not yet.

 

He drums out a jazz beat on the bedrail

with his one good hand

when the words stumble.

See? he says. I can trick the tumor.

 

He can still taste and see.

The world is good.

 

He hauls himself up in bed,

squinting his one good eye at the kingdom

through a keyhole

that keeps getting smaller

and smaller.

It is good. It is very good.

 

These poems were selected by Philip Terman from Chana Bloch’s Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1980-2015. Click here to read Terman’s review of Swimming in the Rain.

 
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