Poetry Sunday: “Chiaroscuro,” by Chana Bloch

Guest Column by Susan Cohen

susan-cohen-author-photo_5-9-16Chana Bloch plays with dichotomies, as promised by the title, which refers to a painter’s use of light and shade. Like several other poems in her recent collection, “Chiaroscuro” revisits Genesis and concerns itself with the divisions that took place at the beginning of time: between light and dark, heaven and earth, Adam and Eve. These related poems reflect a yearning, expressed in different ways, for less dividing and divisiveness.

Along with these themes, “Chiaroscuro” exhibits other characteristics I associate with Bloch’s work: intellect, humor, a simultaneous interest in intimate human relationships and the broader world, and accessible language. I choose the term “accessible” on purpose, because it’s often wielded dismissively, as in too easy to get. For example, the introduction to a recent Canadian anthology boasts that no accessible poems are to be found therein, only poems with some degree of difficulty. I’d argue that depth is a better measure of a poem’s worth than difficulty. What I appreciate about “Chiaroscuro,” like so much of Bloch’s poetry, is that she writes in the style she’s honed over thirty years, work that seems easy, even entertaining—I laughed out loud at this one on first read—but that rewards thought. She remains a poet who clearly desires to communicate, which does not mean she dumbs it down.

Not many poems start with a metaphysical question. It’s far more common, including for Bloch, to embark with personal anecdote and then proceed to some insight or conclusion. “Chiaroscuro” turns the typical trajectory on its head by opening with abstraction and ending in concrete detail. The bold statement in the first stanza (“I’m tired of living / in the land of answers”) could be a summary final line. When writing free verse, as Bloch does, a poet can let the poem orchestrate itself, allowing the content to influence the structure. This poem that dismisses answers both begins and repeatedly marks its moves with questions, five of them in a mere twenty-one lines.

The first stanza draws readers in by asking us to join in speculating on the unanswerable: what the undivided world might have been like compared to what followed. We don’t know immediately how seriously to take a speaker who implies that chaos might have been preferable (“a brilliant shadow” or “lit from within”), and who then insists her question “is not a question” while unequivocally declaring she’s done with answers. The first stanza suggests there might be some tongue-in-cheek ahead, yet it could also be taken literally if hyperbolically as someone disgusted with certainties, especially religious ones.

Quickly, though, Bloch establishes that she definitely means to amuse. She reaches for a tonal register that’s one of the most difficult to pull off, simultaneously funny and serious, a tone she has thoroughly mastered. The second stanza reveals a wider rebellion against beliefs beyond lost religious faith. The image of a raised hand as “my flag of five fingers” waving in the classroom air deftly invokes patriotism, as well as being self-deprecating and humorous. Bloch chooses language with precision and economy. Performing as “the teacher ordered,” and her need to “get it right” suggest that she’s not talking only about good grades. “It” might also be life, which cannot, as adulthood shows us, be ordered and mastered like a text.

This laughter at herself prepares us to chuckle at the man in the third stanza who blurts out that he wishes he could live without feelings. With the fourth stanza’s “My feelings know more than I do, / and what do they know?” Bloch prepares a return both to a more serious tone and a larger consideration. Feelings tell her that this man’s desire to rely on his brain and jettison his heart is tragic as well as laughable. The scene between the man and the woman captures multiple divides.

“And what did he know without his feelings?” Bloch asks in the final stanza, my favorite. She makes fun of the man with a concrete list, down to the number and color of his pens. Then she hangs him, and her younger self by inference, with “poor.” With a single word, Bloch introduces yet another division, that between countries. The man might have traveled to places where people are poor, but without empathy, how could he recognize their suffering or actually know anything about being human?

Interestingly, “Chiaroscuro” contains as many leaps as some difficult postmodern poems, employing disjunction to court strangeness or mystery. It jumps from the Bible and beginning of time to the schoolroom to (perhaps) the bedroom; from the metaphysical to the personal and, in the last line, the potentially political. But Bloch signals her turns, concerned not to lose us. She courts familiarity.

These five short stanzas might be the personal, poetic, or even political manifesto of a person who has grown to believe that all sorts of received wisdom, and most divisions, are false. Someone teaching herself to live by way of questions rather than answers. Is “Chiaroscuro” humorous or serious? Accessible or difficult? Are these dichotomies useful, or even real?


susan-cohen-book-cover_5-9-16Guest Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson-Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at www.spdbooks.org. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. www.susancohen-writer.com

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