- The Poetry of Delight:Lessons from Chana Bloch
The first thing I learned about poetry from Chana was delight—delight in the world around us, pain and all. I studied with Chana at Mills College in Oakland, California, from 1996 to 1998, in the Master of Fine Arts in English and Creative Writing Program. For a period, our workshops met at her house in the East Bay hills; I remember her living room with ornate red decorations and dark floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. We would sit in a circle as we read and discussed poems. However, the real focus of our class was on Chana's stories, anecdotes, and words of guidance. Once, when we were puzzling through the contradictory ending of poem, she explained, "It's not a real emotion unless you feel two conflicting things at the same time." This is one of Chana's teachings that has stayed with me most powerfully, because it applies equally to life and poetry. It speaks to how we bumble along messy paths. For the poem, it reflects the complexity that we are trying to articulate. From Chana, I learned that poetry can be both a guide and a diviner, that through poetry we can live more vivid and more present lives.
Chana taught us to write from the experience of the body—sex, food, the natural world, and emotions physically present in the body. The poem, she explained, is a vehicle that expresses not rational thought but lived experience. Images, sensory details, sonic elements are central to poetry because they elucidate the body's emotional life. One assignment for Chana's class was to choose ten favorite poems by published poets and write them out by hand in a notebook. This exercise was a way of bringing the poem into the body; thus, through our writing out the poems, she was teaching us to go from being a reader of poetry to being a transmitter of poetry, someone who could carry a poem, live with it, and later share it with others. From this, I learned to always bring a notebook and to read a poem over and over again until I could carry it within me. [End Page 27]
Chana's poem "Afterlife" gives voice to a body-based interior world.1 Here, emotional experience is not just voiced through the body, rather it is through the body that we experience emotions. The poem begins with an image of renewal, of pine trees "righting themselves" after a strong gust of wind; the poem proceeds from that image to the speaker's description of returning to herself after some kind of darkness or a death-like depression. The second stanza reads thus:
To have died and come back againraw, crackling,and the numbnessstunned.
These tactile descriptive words—raw, crackling—are no longer the trees of the first stanza but the body returning to awareness, to vitality. The cloak of numbness is stunned and stopped. The poem continues with a direct consideration of the emotional life of the body:
That clumsypushing and wheeling inside my chest, that ferociousupturn—I give myself to it. Why elsebe in a body?
Here the poem talks of an emotional storm and a return to the life of the living. The statement "I give myself to it" raises the possibility that this "ferocious" and very physical force of returning to full feeling is one that the speaker could turn away from and deny. She, however, chooses otherwise. Indeed, for Chana, poetry was the means to be most fully present in one's life, to not shy away or hide from all of it—pain, joy, tragedy, love. "Why else," asks the poem, "be in a body?"
The poem ends by reinforcing the idea that though we may emotionally shut ourselves off from the world, we can return to our emotional lives, our awareness of our physical beings in friendship, love, heartbreak, [End Page 28] sex, music, food, the landscape, the woods, the trees, the wind. The last stanza offers this metaphor:
Something reaches inside me, finds the pocketthat sewed itself shut, turns itprecipitouslyout into the...