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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of two forthcoming books: This Much I Can Tell You (Black Lawrence Press) and a translation of Dante's Paradiso (Salmon Poetry). Black Lawrence also published his recent Not Alone in My Dancing. He is contributing editor for The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "The Moon Is Almost Full" by Chana Bloch

The Moon Is Almost Full
The Moon Is Almost Full
by Chana Bloch

88 pages
Autumn House Press

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It is traditional to give last words a primacy over other speech and with good reason. When utterance stands "between self and door" it no longer has the impish urge to quibble or conceal, nor, for that matter, to repose in its own sonority. The Moon Is Almost Full is Chana Bloch's final collection, and it stands or falls, as she understood, on its ability to be taken as last words, the final vocabulary whereof marks what we really meant and really believe. Irony is out of bounds in this last of our language games, replaced by modesty, to which those who continue on in life might assign a kind of irony of posture, if not of subject: it isn't, as we shall all see. As Kafka reminded us, discontinuation begets no irony: it is what it is.

Many poets have flirted with death. I use the term advisedly. If death is the object of flirtation and flirtation is play before the final punctuation of commitment, we know who has the most string. Chana Bloch, for her part, was full-on for the future, perceiving that it would stretch out infinitely without her. But even in this otherwise unhandsome condition, there is both the concentration that one's approaching demise enables, as well as the legacy of her work and the tradition to which it has pledged allegiance. Remembering a long-ago conversation with poet Jane Cooper, she asks, "What's left for me to write?" To which the senior poet replies in Delphic tones, "Life will provide."

     I thought she meant the monster
     crouched in the labyrinth—Life
     that eats us alive.

     But it was the ball of twine,
     the endless thread,
     the poem.
                                   ("Provisions")

That the poem is the thread, both before birth and after death, is a commonplace of both the most enabling naiveté and the most pressing significance: a paradox, but just as in the practice of her maîtres Yehuda Amichai and George Herbert, she is at home with paradox, if not necessarily at peace. Paradox, of course, ushers ambivalence to the fore, and ambivalence, as I have noted elsewhere (following Brodsky) works to the poet's advantage ("Let's keep eating the bread/ of assumption..."):

     "I'm not betting against you," says the doctor
     In his New Jersey accent. A Hawaiian shirt.
     "I'm not betting for you, either.
     It's even money."
                                   ("My Day's Last Race")

As you see, this collection also takes into consideration the hospital, that bright way-station, with its synthetic ecosystem, flashing tech, and needles. When the nurse ("hazmat-suited/ severe") comes around, "'Pay up,' she says./ I give my right arm." Yes, reader, that's the same right arm we'd all give for something beyond measure. Yet, chipper as it may sound in the wake of health, it's a miserable substitute for the former default, the natural surround, or for that matter, domesticity, whether ambiguous, positive, or unexceptional, and all three are on show here. Plus, what's beyond measure rubs up against mortality, whether downplaying the fact or, as is the case here, getting ready to issue whispered prompts meant to reconcile us with the mutinous body. We are all patients in this sense, only some of us arrive at the recognition of our conditions first. Those with pens in hand do us a favor by looking around, as Bloch does, and reporting to the rest, perhaps just realizing that the down escalator (or, in Larkin's phrase, the "long, bloody slide") has been moving for some time.

Bloch situates her last poems in terms that alternate between the Biblical (Ecclesiastes) and the contemporary (e.g., Starbucks). In this, her approach is reminiscent of Amichai, whose work she so admirably translated. It follows that her poems are fellow travelers to Jewish (and Arabic) wisdom literature, and that's not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it seems to her all that's left when life and its opposite move into inverse proportion:

     There being no one to pray to
     We pray to Life
     Which gets bigger and larger
     The smaller we get.
                                   ("Prayer")

It comes as no surprise that the wish to speak out, to look out and gather in answering images competes with the need to be compact with the end. Shoring what we can't help but see against our ruins is one of the grand tropes of Modernism, as if King Lear didn't happen and naked madmen didn't foam at the mouth, instead of speaking sense. It's either fragments all the way down or portions of a whole, depending on how you turn it to the light:

     No one else will recall
     This unseasonable day of waiting
     As you did, from the inside out
     —the way the heat of our mind
     dropped a few degrees
     and grew very quiet. The sediment
     settled. Then you consulted
     the uncommon clarity of the sky.
     A mild translucent blue: a sign,
     Perhaps. The leaves held still
     In the almost imperceptible breeze,
     Though at the tips of the branches
     The first buds of spring
     Were so closefisted
     You couldn't be sure
     Whether you saw them, or not.
                                   ("Inside Out")

The let-be impulse is strong, precisely because it doesn't contradict the last-minute flashes of life and memory, already standing in the shadow of obsequies:

     When no one is looking,
     I'll unplug the IV pole,
     Steal through the marble lobby
     With its potted Jurassic ferns,
     And find my way back to my old green life—
                                   ("Plan B")

The dash with which this poem ends is both an iron bar and a suggestion that there may be more such moments in the procession of last things. The linguistic equivalent of the bar is the platitude holding the then-present in place, anodyne phrases like "God will provide" and "I'm fine," occur with some frequency in the collection, although usually from the mouths of others. They are unloaded without comment, left to speak for themselves. At the same time, such phrases don't wither under the glare of "the young/ with the young in their arms," about whom Yeats ("the young/ in one another's arms") and Keats (the "hungry generations") staked out some of their most fervent positions. For Bloch, it isn't only the generations pushing through but the magnification of life near the end that offers not just the quietism of letting-be, but the loophole of "maybe":

     This climate I live in,
                this waiting,
                          this flustering bracing
     unabating gray—
                whatever I ask, it answers:
                          "Maybe."

Gray being the indecisive between, it becomes the official color of "maybe," of ambivalence. It is of course the hue of our cranial gray matter too, both before and at the vanishing point. The paradoxes and ambivalences configure the mind to imagine loopholes where maybes pop up, even as they accept life's most inescapable fiat, right up to the place where we would expect a period. But instead of loitering in that melancholy space, she gives us a colon, meaning "pay attention to the following":

     It gets dark                even faster
     these days       the sediments          rise
     when they please       they
     choose the moment                not I
     I hand the key to my house
     to the man      I love
     I think

Thinking itself is rife with ambivalence: it hesitates even where it becomes hyperfocal. Even at death's door, she is full of desire, which she imputes not to the human solely, but to nature itself, to which she is about to return:

     cherries and plums on special today,
     and black oil sunflower seeds
     for our little sisters the sparrows
     who are always hungry.
                                   ("Safeway 24/7")

Naturally, she begins to bring death and the poem into the same region: each is a version of the other ("O Death, thou knowest"):

     You must listen closely to hear
                                       the timbre of silence
               which has its own music

                                     and like a poem—or a death—

                          may have
                something unsettling to propose.
                                   ("Case Closed")

The similarities include with the power of silence: the silence before, during, and after the poem, and the silence of death. What Bloch is suggesting is not exactly a negative thing (for instance, it has "timbre"). Just as timbre in music refers to "the characteristic quality of a sound, independent of pitch and loudness," just so there is a quality to silence. The unsettling thing it has to propose rests not only on the thing, but on the unsettling: we customarily "settle," but the poem (and death) will have none of that.

The Moon Is Almost Full, as a collection, takes the form of a will; it is also, of course, a testament. Thinking of the cheery Voyager disk that carries information about life on earth to little green men of the future, she writes:

     To Whom It May Concern: We just wanted to drop by and say,
     Hello, how are you? We were fine.
                                   ("Bequest")

and in the poem simply titled "Will," ends with,

                                 all my loved ones I leave
     to this life, which will change them,
     just as it changes you. And you—if you can use it,
     I leave you this poem.

The use to which a poem can be put—a simple poem, yet weighted with urgency—has always been one of those questions that's going to be on the test. Chana Bloch courteously adds the "if," as if it might be possible to decline. I doubt that will ever be the case, but there is something of moral as well as literary value in the addition of such an otherwise quaint qualifier. If stands before her gift to us: it is our choice to cash it in. Just as Milton launches his titanic epic with the word "of," signifying our massive dependency on something Other, Bloch bids us adieu with a simple "if," which is not simple, and because it may lead to maybe, it will always be necessary.

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