- Embracing the Void:A Short Essay in Memory of Chana Bloch
It is Wisdom calling,Understanding raising her voice.—Proverbs 8:1
Before God broke the silence and called the world into being, before there was difference—difference between above and below, heaven and earth, water and sky, light and dark—there was a primal, liquid state. This state of not-being, which pointedly resists translation, has been variously rendered as "the formlessness and the void," "the absence and the emptiness," and so on. I might suggest that this is the place from which lyric emanates, as Susan Stewart explains when asking us to think of "poetic making as a counter to the oblivion of the darkness."1 In the manner of the mythic poet Orpheus—he who sings to the gods of the underworld in an effort to bring his beloved Eurydice back from the dead (the world below) up to the world of the living (the world above)—the poet works to draw the beloved out of the dark, that which is formless and void, into the light. Invoking a range of examples, including a cluster of Christmas carols written by the seventeenth-century poets Richard Crashaw and Robert Herrick, Stewart notes how these songs depend upon a paradigmatic turn away from the dark and a subsequent move toward the light—with all of the attendant implications about redemption and restorative order.
This principle brings us to one of the poet Chana Bloch's driving preoccupations, especially as played out in her penultimate volume, [End Page 42] Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980–2015. What we discover there is not an innovative engagement with this ancient formula so much as a radical refusal of it. Bloch seeks to invert, or reverse, this aesthetic paradigm in the interest of making poems that serve as occasions for returning to moments when the space-between all but disappears—and there is no difference between realms of being and nonbeing. This concern has been with her for some time. In an interview marking the publication of her fourth volume of poetry, Bloch names a deep interest in troubling what she describes as the "biblical, and the subsequent rabbinic, obsession with separation (day from night, kosher from non-kosher, male from female)" and in reaching "for a time 'before the dividing began.'"2 Sometimes, this inclination is explicitly framed as a pointed critique of Jewish dicta, as in these lines from "The Dark of Day," in which the poem counters the persistent, but finally futile, rabbinic inclination to fix and contain that which is beyond firm constraint—that is, the sly, inevitable subtleties of temporal progression:
The rabbis taught us the mathematics of dividingthis from that. They certifiedthe micro-moment when day tips overinto night: When the third star presents itself in the sky.They drew a line through that eye of light, a longitude.You've got to navigate the evening blessingwith precision, not one star too soon.But night comes on slowly.It takes all day.3
On other occasions, however, Bloch's reach exceeds cultural or religious particularities as she works to counter the lyric imperative to banish the night, the place of no difference. Instead, she makes poems that are the site of knitting together what God and humanity have set apart, in order to establish and affirm a securely boundaried account of being. In other words, although her poems may look like lyrics—monologic performances of self-expression or reflection—they sometimes work to wholly [End Page 43] different ends, inviting us to embrace the very condition against which many lyrics set themselves: an undefinable, ever-changing state of fluid precreation. That is, while other lyrics may locate themselves in the space between above and below, between water and sky, between darkness and light, Bloch cedes this space to something less certain.
Bloch foregrounds this pursuit in "Swimming in the Rain," the first poem of the eponymously named volume. Whenever asked about her poetic predilections, Bloch inevitably expresses a preference for "clear" surfaces (in classical Jewish bible study we might say peshat, or direct meaning) with...