Chana Bloch won the First Annual Marlboro Prize in Poetry in 1997 for her poem, "Mother Hunger"
Every knothole was a branch once.
The way her face dissolved
when she went away: I have to go, I have to
his swollen No, mama! his wet
at her woolen skirt. He had to
stand there forever and watch
as car after car of the long train
turned into steam.
Don't cry. You're a big boy now.
And then she was back
in bed again, white-faced
mother of sorrows. A shriek at the window,
a worry on the shelf like a Meissen vase
a child mustn't break.
How the heat scours her. A sudden whip
of wind. Here and there a bristly growth,
narrow leaves flinching
away from the sun.
They live in one close room,
a nest of flaking
newspapers. To have come
to this. Ten steps from bed
to dresser. Another five
to the door. Count them. And the child
clouding and polishing his face
in the family spoons.
Her child, after all. You are my
every thing, she whispers,
and he nods.
Then that loss rises in her -- She buries
her mouth in his cheek, his neck.
In the green bowl: heaped oranges,
the casual abundance of the other life.
Terrible always to be teetering
on stilts, those small wooden platforms
six inches off the ground.
He won't ever walk gracefully,
though he has learned not to fall.
The applause that comes like a full stop
at the end of a sentence
is reward, or almost.
Still, he has to beg for it.
He wants to go down to the pond
after school like the others
and fish for tadpoles.
He'll take them home in a biscuit tin
lined with wet moss, a few twigs
to keep them company....
But there is papa
waving his arms again, shouting:
You must not worry mama.
And there is mama.
To live in their gaze
is to live in a house of glass.
Wherever he looks out,
a severe love presses at the pane,
The child a palimpsest of his parents'
losses, each one slapped over
the last -- wet paint of
swastikas on the windows
of that two-hundred year old house
and the money the maid stole
to help them get out and mama's
But if we get caught? ----
the red J of the passports, stamped
in the sweat of their hands.
Then that land of promises where the heat
batters the houses,
where grass burns to khaki dust in the sun,
where papa pedals uphill and
falls off the bike
dead at ten in the morning,
just because it's over doesn't mean
it stops happening,
and mama's still a little Ida in pigtails
crying in the corner.
He raises a puzzled face for her
pitying kiss. She's waiting for him.
It's her grief that flashes across
his old night sky. His hands shake
as hers did the year she died, he can't
hold a glass or write
his name on the line. Now her terror
grips him. He turns
the soiled pages of his book
with her clumsy wet thumb.
Chana Bloch has published two books of poems: The Secrets of the Tribe and The Past Keeps Changing, as well as translations of the biblical Song of Songs and the Israeli poets Dahlia Ravikovitch and Yehuda Amichai. She is Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Mills College.
Copyright ©1997 Chana Bloch. All rights