The poet Chana Bloch in an undated photo. “I value clarity — an old-fashioned virtue — and concision,” she once said in an interview about her work. Credit Lonny Shavelson

Chana Bloch, a poet and an acclaimed translator of Hebrew verse whose intimate lyrics explored the mysteries and pains of love, her own illness and the unraveling of her first marriage, died on May 19 at her home in Berkeley, Calif. She was 77.

The cause was complications of sarcoma, her husband, Dave Sutter, said.

Ms. Bloch, an admirer of poets like Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova and Elizabeth Bishop, specialized in taut, pared-down verse that fused disarming simplicity with emotional depth. Her subjects — family life, children, sex, aging — lay close to hand but resonated with deeper meanings, often enriched by biblical allusions.

“I value clarity — an old-fashioned virtue — and concision,” she told The San Francisco Book Review in 2011. “I like poetry that appears to be clear on the surface, with unexpected depths.”

In her later work, Ms. Bloch linked her short poems into longer sequences that allowed her to range over difficult terrain. “In the Land of the Body,” included in her collection “The Past Keeps Changing” (1992), addressed her struggles with ovarian cancer, which was successfully treated.

Continue reading the main story

“Mrs. Dumpty,” a sequence of 44 lyrics published in 1998, charted the decline of her marriage to Ariel Bloch, a scholar of Semitic linguistics, after he sank into a crippling depression. She called it “a memoir-in-verse about ‘a great fall,’ the dissolution of a long and loving marriage.”

The subject was harrowing but enlivened with flashes of wit in poems like “Tired Sex”:

I catch myself yawning. Through the window
I watch that sparrow
the cat keeps batting around.
Like turning the pages of a book the teacher assigned —
You ought to read it, she said.
It’s great literature.

Ms. Bloch produced sparkling translations of the Israeli poets Dahlia Ravikovitch and Yehuda Amichai, and, with her first husband, rendered the biblical Song of Solomon into English that the poet Jeredith Merrin, in The Southern Review, called “accessible, joyous and frankly erotic.”

She was born Florence Ina Faerstein on March 15, 1940, in the Bronx. Her father, Benjamin, was a dentist. Her mother, the former Rose Rosenberg, was a homemaker. Both were Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine.

She grew up in the Pelham Bay neighborhood and, after graduating from Hunter High School in Manhattan, enrolled at Cornell University, earning a degree in Semitic studies in 1961. She went on to receive two master’s degrees from Brandeis University, in Near Eastern and Judaic studies in 1963 and in English literature in 1965.

In her early 20s she changed her first name to the Hebrew Chana (pronounced Hana). She taught English at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for several years, an experience that led to her translation work, which began with two volumes of poems by Ms. Ravikovitch, “A Dress of Fire” (1978) and “The Window” (1989).

Her other translations included “The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai” (1996), with Stephen Mitchell, and, with Chana Kronfeld, Mr. Amichai’s “Open Closed Open” (2000), his last volume of poetry; and “Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch” (2009).

She married Mr. Bloch, a professor of Near Eastern studies and Semitic linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, while there pursuing a doctorate in English, which was granted in 1975. She wrote her dissertation on the metaphysical poet George Herbert, whose limpid, fervent verse touched a nerve.

“We made a very odd couple,” she told the web journal Talking Writing in 2014. “I was a Jewish girl from the Bronx, and he was a 17th-century Anglican minister. But his poetry was about the inner life, and that drew me.”

Her dissertation was published in 1985 as “Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible.”

In 1973 she began teaching at Mills College in Oakland, where she helped found and for many years directed the creative writing program. She retired in 2005.

The poems in her first collection, “The Secrets of the Tribe” (1981), touched on her multiple roles as a daughter, wife and Jewish woman — “a member of the tribe” as she put it — and displayed her gift for the telling metaphor and wry turn of phrase.

“Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015,” published in 2015, gathered work from her first four collections, including “Blood Honey” (2009).

“What interests me is the inner life: how we are formed by our losses and those of our parents, how we learn what we need to know through our intuitions and confusions, how we deny and delay and finally discover who we are,” she told the reference work Contemporary Authors.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by two sons, Benjamin and Jonathan; a brother, Saul Faerstein; and two granddaughters.

“The Moon Is Almost Full,” her most recent poetry collection, is scheduled to be published in September by Autumn House Press.

Continue readi the main story