- My Chana
I became a fan of Chana Bloch's poetry some thirty-two years ago, after reading her first book, The Secrets of the Tribe. Chana sent my husband and me a copy of the book when I was pregnant with our daughter Maya and wrote, "Read the poem 'Eating Babies,' it will prepare you for the deliciousness to come." She was in Jerusalem with her family, working with Yehuda Amichai on translating his later poetry, while I was working with Stephen Mitchell in Berkeley as his native informant on Amichai's early poetry. I admired Chana's translations of Yiddish poetry and her early translations (with Ariel Bloch) of Dahlia Ravikovitch's poetry (The Window: New and Selected Poems).1 I knew her easy wit and deep learning would be a perfect match for Amichai's poetry. And indeed, this collaboration resulted in Bloch and Mitchell's celebrated The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, a volume that was to become the classic Amichai selection in English.
Chana and I had been friends since my days as a graduate student in the late 1970s, but it wasn't until 1997 that we became sisters. It was then that Amichai entrusted the two of us with the manuscript of what would turn out to be his last book and magnum opus, Open Closed Open. That project developed into an addictive collaboration that lasted two decades. She was so open, funny, inventive, inviting, brilliant. We talked about every word and every emotion—in the poems and in our lives. We went on to translate together Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch. Over those twenty years, we shared great joy, smaḥot/simḥes—I even became marriage commissioner for a day so I could perform the wedding of Chana and Dave Sutter—and we shared sorrows, which life richly provided. They called us "the two Chanas," and we called each other "Sis." Naomi Seidman, with whom I collaborated on translating Dvora Baron, would joke with Chana that this made them translators-in-law. And since I call Dave "Bro," there were also the jokes about my brother and sister being married to each other. [End Page 8]
During the last four and a half years of Chana's life, even while she was dealing with the indescribable challenges of cancer surgeries and the arduous treatments that followed, she completed—incredibly!—her magnificent fifth and sixth books, Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems (2015) and The Moon Is Almost Full, which Chana finished revising just a few weeks before her death; the book was published posthumously in September 2017. The last two books contain some of her best work ever. During those harrowing years, we also worked on another big translation project, for Robert Alter's comprehensive anthology The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (2015), which includes our expanded and restructured translation of Open Closed Open, as well as many previously untranslated early works—all in all, forty-six new poems—in addition to many of Chana's old translations from The Selected Poetry. I kind of got used to seeing her in one hospital bed or another, laptop propped up on pillows or mechanical pencil in hand, carefully revising a poem for the fifth time or figuring out a rhyme scheme for one of Amichai's challenging early sonnets.
It was always exhilarating to work with Chana, but it was nothing short of awe-inspiring to observe her ability, even in the throes of terminal illness, to find joy in creating verbal art. Now as I deal with this terrible loss, I feel supported by everything she modeled for me. Chana would joke about the burden of always needing to be a good little student at everything she did; in the last few months, in tormenting hours of pain and despair, I'd tell her again and again that she didn't have to be such a good student of dying too, that she didn't need to be so brave all the time—but she was. And she was indeed the best of teachers too. She taught me honesty, dedication, attentiveness...