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?"