Saturday, December 1, 2012

Chana Bloch, Between Parent and Child: The Uses of the Past

"Aperture" is a tale of two journals: one about the death of my father, the other about the death of my first marriage.

What do my adult children know about my life? What do they need to know? Trying to think my way to an answer raised other questions, equally unsettling: How much do I know about my parents' lives? What do I wish I knew, now that it's too late to ask?

My father rarely talked about the past. He came to this country as a teenager from a tiny shtetl in the Ukraine after a pogrom in which his father was killed. All his energies went toward becoming an American, which to him—I can see that now—meant not looking back. 

When he was dying, he didn't want to talk about the present or the future—the cancer that was rapidly spreading from his lungs to the rest of his body. The past was safer. So I began asking questions about what his life was like in the Old Country. It gave the two of us something to do: I was gathering information, "interviewing" him; he was taking part in an oral history project. I scribbled notes and made a clean copy in my notebook at night. Whatever I didn't manage to save would be lost.

Q. What did parents and children talk about in your family?             

A. Talk? There was no talk between generations. Children were given orders.
Q. What did you eat?
A. Soup, bread, potatoes. I went to sleep every night on an empty stomach.
Q. What do you remember about the pogrom?
A. Actually, there were three pogroms that I remember. In the last one, my brother Harry pulled off the burning thatch to save the house. Harry and I took our father's body out to the cemetery, dug a hole in the ground, and buried him. Then we left for America.  

"The words of the dying are subject / to the law of scarcity," I wrote in a recent poem. "Like fossil fuels they cannot be replaced." During my father's last days in the hospital, I was recording even his hallucinations: "Mama, Mama! There are men outside, and they want to kill us!" What I salvaged, all told, were bits and pieces of his story. If he had had more time, if he had been more open, if I had known how to ask, perhaps I might have learned something about his inner life, too. Which I've so often thought about. Which might have guided me when I faced difficult choices. Of which I know next to nothing.

                                          *               *               *

My own inner life is the subject of the later journal, written during the years when my husband, the father of my children, became clinically depressed and then, increasingly, mentally ill. I wrote about his breakdowns during our marriage—the first triggered by his mother's death, the second by my surgery for ovarian cancer, the third by the possibility of his early retirement from the University. Three pogroms.

The death of a beloved parent, painful though it is, belongs to the natural course of events; the mental illness of a beloved spouse is unexpected, surreal. Trying to preserve a semblance of normal family life, I revealed very little to the children ("Daddy's sad. Soon he'll be happy again"), and I hesitated to confide even in close friends. Only by reading the words I set down each day could I recognize what was happening.

The pages of the journal are filled with self-instruction ("Things are not going to be easy; I'd better get used to that right away") and self-castigation ("I ought to be happy; there's been some improvement"). More often than not, they reflect my confusion. It's not pretty, the mind in turmoil, grappling with difficulty, repeating itself, contradicting itself. I was by no means the all-powerful creature that my young children imagined. For sustenance, I turned to Adrienne Rich's work ("the wreck and not the story of the wreck"), teaching it in my classes, testing its truth in my life. Rich writes in "When We Dead Awaken": "you begin to write in your diaries / more honestly than ever." Yes, indeed.

The journal I kept, each year more honestly, was intended for my eyes alone, though I will probably not destroy it. My sons may choose not to read it, but I've decided—in the poem at least—to let that decision be theirs. We cannot have too much information about the past, I think: we need "the whole truth." But then I think: No, what we need, rather, is that which is both true and useful. Is it really necessary for my sons to see their father's scrawled suicide note, which I copied out in a state of shock, which even now I find excruciating to read? I told them about that suicide attempt only when they were older, after their father had survived another attempt. How much of the truth is useful?

We talk about the uses of the past as if we could in fact learn from "the lessons of history." And what about the uses of poetry? Now, there's a question I like; I know what poetry has meant in my life. I am drawn to poems that appear to be clear on the surface, with unexpected depths. I value clarity, an old-fashioned virtue, as well as complexity. What I look for is insight, deeper understanding, sustenance.

Some of my poems are based on material in my journals—in this instance, poems about my father's death and a book of poems, Mrs. Dumpty, about the price exacted from our marriage and family by my first husband's mental illness. But poems are very different from journal entries. In a poem the raw material is subjected to a rigorous process of selection and given form and resonance through metaphor, phrasing and precision of language. A poem can be faithful to the truth of what happened without being tied to literal fact. In Mrs. Dumpty, for example, I recast three breakdowns as one for the sake of the book's dramatic arc.  

A poem, finally, calls for an audience other than the self; it wants to be read and reckoned with. "Aperture" is addressed to my sons, but I hope it will find other readers as well, readers who will be provoked to ask themselves:"What do my children know about my life? What do they need to know? How much do I know about my parents' lives? What do I wish I knew, now that it may be too late to ask?"  


  1. Wow, Chana, this is such an amazing piece of writing - so unflinching yet compassionate. I am so moved by the questions you ask and how you ask them, and also by your grappling toward the answers that cannot be certain... Thank you so much. Sending appreciation your way - Ruth

    1. Ruth, "the answers cannot be certain": yes, I am certain about that!

  2. Yes, bravo. Your lovely piece made me realize that I don't like to face myself directly. I don't keep journals. I meet my inner life when an unexpected, external prompt takes me there. Two unusual corrections in the New York Times led me to muse about my relations with my son, born prematurely and now 30.


    A photograph of an anatomical drawing of a woman accompanying an article about
    an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in
    London was provided by the museum in mirror image. The heart should have
    appeared on the right, not the left.

    The review in the newspaper referred incorrectly to an early-17th-century Peruvian
    sculpture. The child Jesus in the sculpture holds half an avocado in his left hand,
    not half a heart.

    Your heart was in the right place
    but didn’t weigh much because
    suddenly you were born
    after six months.
    Send blood to the lungs
    said the brain
    but the heart refused
    since changing plans
    is humanly hard.
    Send blood to the lungs
    said the drugs which failed
    because medicine
    does not always work.
    Send blood to the lungs
    said the triumphant stitches.
    Sometimes mechanical solutions
    work best.
    As for that avocado,
    even Jesus would rather toy with his food
    than his mother's heart.


    1. Lisa, I don't keep a journal either, anymore. There's never enough time, and these days I'd rather spend the time on poetry.


  3. Fascinating poem and essay. It raises the question about how much parents want to tell and how much kids want to hear. They ask us little about our lives. My mother-in-law was a great storyteller and she regaled them as kids with her adventures in Germany in the first 30 years of the 20th Century--a happy and adventurous childhood, a bit of a daredevil surrounded by animals. Her father was a livestock dealer--mostly horses. My parents did less storytelling. My wife and I little, if any at all. And they never ask. Nor did I, much. Now I regret that deeply. There's a great deal I would have liked to know, especially about my mother's ballet career, her lessons with Nijinsky, her work with Massine. And I'd like to know about my father's career as a HS and college record holding sprinter. All the mouths are silent now.

    1. Barry, the distance between our parents' lives and our own is enormous. Our kids can more or less conjure up what we've experienced, but what we've lost of our parents' lives is beyond our imagining.

  4. How finely, how deeply you've grasped the silence with which we both grew up, the ways in which our parents didn't want to turn toward the past and kept most of it from us, until we asked (or didn't). My sister "interviewed" both parents when she grew up, and recorded the questions and answers, but I have never heard the tapes. And I asked very little, even in middle age when my parents were old and safely beyond any painful memories.
    What I knew was that they came over as young children and found themselves shouldering huge responsibilities, starting in pre-adolescence. In their old age, we stayed in the present as much as possible. And after my father died, I stopped keeping a journal. I simply couldn't write anything down any more. My sister "interviewed" both of them, but I have never heard the tapes. I'm not sure I could bear to hear their voices speaking out of what is now my past--I miss them so much, I might dissolve. But my sister's grown son and his daughters may well have the experience of listening to the tapes some day and learning about their grandparents' experiences as immigrant children going to public schools in New York and becoming lawyers and artists (both were both) and traveling, before marrying and having us.

    1. Jackie, I wish I had access to my parents on tape. Years ago my kids secretly recorded my mother at her kitchen table ("Why aren't you eating your carrots?" etc.), but I have no idea where I stored the tape, and I no longer have a tape player. Actually, sometimes I hear her voice . . . coming out of my mouth.

  5. My copy of BPJ just arrived in the mail, and I am very moved by Chana Bloch's poem "Aperture." For me, the journals of the poem are a metaphor for the characteristic and idiosyncratic embodiments of attitude and feeling, desire and resolve occurring in family life. Adult and child alike choose whether to open and study these Torahs of daily life. How did my own father communicate his frustration and despair returning from the appalling violence of the war in Europe to a world he could hardly recognize? And my mother, how did this girl who grew up in rural isolation tell me she had lost her way, that uncertainty and embarrassment sometimes shadowed her when she left the house? Even parents much better at masking their inner lives than my own tell their children volumes through what Robert Penn Warren in his masterly late poem "Heart of Autumn" called "unwordable utterance." As in William Matthews' "The Men at My Father's Funeral," the body's expressive, mute eloquence speaks if only our ears will hear. "Aperture" deepens my understanding of our extraordinary human lives.

    1. Zara, "If only our ears will hear": I was so bound up with my own life (as my sons are with theirs, as indeed they should be), that I might not have heard even if something had been said.

  6. Murray SilversteinDecember 4, 2012 at 2:52 PM

    Love the poem and essay by Chana Bloch. The writing is elegant, compressed. And useful, too! I've been wondering what to do with my journals--toss or leave. I like Chana's solution: the key's under the sugar bowl!

    1. Murray, I'm really glad that you find it useful!

  7. Gail Holst-WarhaftDecember 7, 2012 at 5:14 PM

    Chana, what a powerful poem this is! I was really moved by it and your essay about your father and memory (yours, his). It is not easy to stir memories–-sugar in a glass of tea. There are some perhaps better left unstirred.

    Kids remember what they need or want to I think. Later there seems to be an obligation to find out more. I have read everything I could of two writers who relentlessly stirred memory–-Primo Levi and Max Sebald. It seems to me their depression drives their search for precise recall. I’m fascinated, but not convinced there is anything therapeutic in the effort.

    Imagine if your father had told you more about the pogroms when you were young. Could you have lived with that horror?

    Somewhere, somehow, we store these things. Perhaps we forget nothing–-we just store it in a library. I often feel as if writing poetry involves taking something out, like a book from a shelf, to re-read, reexamine it. Then we write about it however we can, not necessarily to relive it, but to share it. Otherwise it gathers dust until something prompts us to open the pages.

    1. Gail, there was a time when I read obsessively about the Shoah, almost as if to punish myself -- a kind of survivor's guilt, because I thought that I had it too easy as a American Jew. So I know a lot about the Shoah, which didn't affect my immediate family, and much less about the pogroms, which marked the lives of both my parents. Yes, I do wish my father had told me more, horrors included, in part because it would have helped me to understand what shaped him, why he was so very quiet.

  8. The narrow aperture between parent and child haunts me, Chana; i think of it often, whether in looking back at my own mother or in looking forward at my daughters. it is filled with projections and distortions and half-truths, and sometimes with a stunning insight. This poem captures the dilemma of what we know about our parents and what we want our children to know about us: this chain, this series of beads that are sometimes conencted and sometimes not. I copied the poem into my own journal when I read it, and I love it.

    1. Anita, someone once said to me that a child looks up at a world of nostrils. The adult monsters, looming overhead. Given that perspective, no wonder there is so much distortion. It takes a lifetime of growing up to be able to see our parents face-to-face. Or maybe it takes their dying.

  9. Such a heartbreaking, joyful poem. It resonates with me, and will stay on my mind all day, and then always. Thank you. Like your father, I want my sons to have their lives, untainted by graphic holograms of my past.....regardless of how minor my sadnesses ring in comparison to a pogrom. Luckily for me, all my journals just got washed away in the flood. Maybe it's time to revise my past?

    1. After reading that you found joy in "Aperture," I had to go back and reread the poem through your eyes! I think I see what you saw, though to me the poem is quite dark, no doubt because I can't help remembering what impelled me to write it. Your response nicely illustrates the fact that "an audience other than the self" can often see things that escape the poet.

  10. The poem is beautiful, the essay almost more so, because it paints so clearly the way that each generation strives to correct the errors of the previous one. So you are doubtless not making your father's errors, but your own, and how can any of us see clearly enough to avoid that fate?

    When I was going to Romania, I asked my Aunt Rose where it was that our family came from, and she said, "I don't remember." I said that she must remember; she was 19 when she left. She said, "It was a terrible place and we were lucky to escape and there's no reason for anyone ever to go back there." And she refused to tell me anything else about it.

    Is it a triumph to keep your past asleep? I wonder the same things you do, about how people talked and thought and ate there. I can't imagine myself, the me who I am now and here, in such a context; it feels as unknowable to me as the pleistocene period.

    Much love,