The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch. Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2017. 88 pp. $17.95 (paperback)
“The key to the safe is under the sugar bowl.”
—Chana Bloch, from “Conduit”
As we prepare our departures, there is always something to tell those to whom we entrust matters in our absence, particularly when the absence is looking not temporary but permanent. Some of it is the literal and metaphoric versions of “the key … is under the sugar bowl.” But much of it, most of it in fact, as the late Chana Bloch reminds us in her generous, witty, profound, and altogether brilliant final collection, is what we need to tell ourselves as we live our days to the end. In her previous collection, Swimming in the Rain, New and Selected Poems (Autumn House, 2015), which "Conduit" is from, mortality was a topic. In The Moon Is Almost Full it is the topic. Bloch was fighting her final rear guard actions with cancer as she wrote these poems, fighting for more moments and to make them worth it, while also preparing for her death. The bifocal view of life continuing to your end and continuing on without you is sharply observed throughout, with investigations of its impact on love, family, career, memory, and more. The amazing thing is how Bloch does it with frankness and no self-pity, with the eye and ear of someone whose insightful clarity is untarnished by death’s distractive, encroaching shadow, and with a lifetime of wisdom and learning.
You must listen closely to hear
the timbre of silence
which has its own music
and like a poem—or death—
something unsettling to propose.
That is from "Case Closed," which begins with an observation about the final notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony before “a gust of silence / clears the air.” To hear the silence, she notes, you must ignore the coughing, shoe-shuffling, and sounds of ordinary transition from silent audience to applauding crowd to commuters gathering their things to shuffle home or out for more evening pleasures. What Bloch does for herself and for us, who may not be as attentive to the silence as we prepare to move on, is listen and hear and savor understanding, no matter how unsettling. She does it with rigor and wit, from first poem to last.
The first poem is Yom Asal, Yom Basal (One day honey, one day onion—Arab saying), a short poem of four couplets:
In every maybe the fear of yes.
In every promise a shattered glass.
For every portion a cutting edge.
For every rift a slippery bridge.
In every hope some pickling salt.
In every bungle a touch of guilt.
Unto every plan God’s ringing laughter.
Unto every death a morning after
The remaining fifty-one poems are divided into three sections, each with a theme-stating motto. The first is from George Herbert (“And now in age I bud again, / After so many deaths I live and write; / I once more smell the dew and rain, / And relish versing.”), the second from Yehuda Amichai (“I learned to speak among the pains.”), and the third by Grace Paley (“and here I am fighting this / ferocious insane vindictive virus day and / night day and night and for what? for only / one thing this life this life”). The three themes—artistic rebirth, coping with suffering, and the value of life—are not confined to their sections but, as in a wild garden, their seeds send roots, stems, and flowers throughout. Life and poetry are like that: intentional yet surprising in both their arrivals and sprawls.
So Bloch’s “versing” in Section 1 notes that “The horizon is just beginning / to tighten its wire / around you” and fights back from "among the pains" with “Forget the future. The past is a continent / barely mapped,” and so she maps the contours of a past that, in lines with smooth undulations and jagged edges and abrupt falls, reaches this present moment of life. And along with her mapping, she makes multiple assertions regarding life. The doctor says to her he’s not betting for her or against her; it’s even money. Then he disappears out the hospital room door. She continues: “Let’s assume we are in luck. / Let’s assume time and chance are with us. // Let’s keep eating the bread / of assumption, drinking / the sugared wine.” Life is rooted in assumptions, so why not?
She concludes Section 1 with a poem called “Prayer”: “we pray to life … Let me not die / Let me not / While I’m alive.” “Life,” she notes in "Sunday at the Vivarium," “wants more life.”
Wisdom is always trying to teach us not to waste our moments, looking back, looking forward. But death’s imminence fucks with the good cop wisdom of that mot, and suddenly enlightenment is the harsh bulb that dangles over our head in a prison cell where the bad cop’s head suddenly eclipses it and spits his incriminating questions of failure and betrayal at us. “What did you do? What didn’t you do?” How do you stay calm and true under that glare and incrimination? Bloch does, to our benefit. She writes, “The Face of Death has me in its sights…
I refuse to turn my eyes away.
I am choosing day by day to see
even as I am seen, till the last face-to-face
when I’m taken with a kiss.
Chana Bloch is her own Virgil, wandering in death’s domain, which is also life’s.
One of her gifts is to bring past to present (and present to past) in the same moment in a poem. One poem, "Taking the Waters," begins “Nobody here looks good / in a bathing suit. / Every body has a story.” She is in a therapeutic pool with other sick and elderly patients. The poem ends with her body’s story:
My body takes me to the deep end
where the sun presides, summer
flooding the high windows.
I close my eyes.
I’m racing from dock to raft,
faster than all the boys.
Bloch’s characteristic wit and her steel-mindedness are both in evidence here. As different as our bodies are now from what they once were, we are also the same, hence the dive into the deep end where the sun presides and, in memory, the race to the dock is on.
In Dying for Dummies, she reverses the present-to-past frame of "Taking the Waters" to a past-to-present sequence, remembering at the start when she used to watch and learn from the bigger kids: “—they’d show-and-tell me / how to wiggle my hips, / how to razz the boys.”
Now I’m watching my cohort
master the skills at each grade
and get promoted to the next.
To the oldest I’m a novice.
they think they know everything,"
says Cousin Leo. He’s ninety.
Who thinks, Leo? Who knows?
We’re too busy reading Gratitude
and Being Mortal,
passing around the revised edition
of Dying for Dummies,
still trying to get it right.
And the young study us.
It is a small collection, carefully wrought with no suspension of discipline or poetic judgment to include work not up to standard. Indeed, there is one poem, "Inside Out," from her previous collection that is included here with a phrase trimmed, a sentence cut, and a few line breaks adjusted as a result. No, The Moon Is Almost Full is choice, particular, and lean. The poems are conversational, like those of Robert Frost, Wislawa Syzmborska, and Abdellatif Laabi, which gives them immediate and delayed gratifications as nuance and compound understandings emerge with reflection and re-reading. Familiar topics of desire, belief, God (“the Lord of the Flaring Nostrils / who speaks Leviathan, / a language with twenty words for sacrifice”), sex, friendship, literature, travel, grief, regrets (“‘You and I can change the past,’ // He was wrong, but not as wrong as I was.”), family, and more get scrutiny through the truth-sorting filters of I’m here now, but soon not. “Look! Look! the click of an eye: / I won’t be back.”
The Moon Is Almost Full is filled with wisdom, humor, beauty, and courage. Perhaps most surprisingly the collection also has joy, testifying to Bloch’s love of life. In a poem titled "Cancer Ward," she writes:
A joy so acute it startles me.
Here on this mountain pass
where dangers multiply,
fates with an appetite—
a clearing of bright
Even here, on this corridor,
As if joy required
only joys to feed it.
There is joy in this excellent poet’s life and work, among all the plainly seen (and felt) sorrows and complexities of mortality’s limits, and it glimmers like an almost full moon on an imperfect night.