The Alchemy of Tuvia Ruebner’s Poetry

Michael Heller on Tuvia Ruebner

Tuvia Ruebner, Now at the Threshold: The Late Poems of Tuvia Ruebner. Translated and annotated by Rachel Tzvia Back. Hebrew Union College Press, $26.00 (paperback)

Tuvia Ruebner is a surviving member of that brilliant generation of Israeli poets, including Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis and T.Carmi. In 2013,  Ruebner claimed Last Ones would be his final volume of poetry, but the fever to write persisted past his 90th birthday. As he explained with a bit of whimsy to his translator Rachel Tzvia Back, “I write now almost every day . . . . exactly like a good hen. Even if what I lay are not always golden eggs.”  This productivity, which certainly contains many golden eggs, was “a flood, a last flame,” as he described it.  It continued on up until his death in 2019, resulting in three more collections of poetry, plus an odd untranslated and, as Back suggests, untranslatable work: Seventeen, devoted to the seventeen-syllable haiku form.

Ruebner can be especially difficult to translate.  His first poems were written in German and then later in Hebrew, after living for twelve years in what was then called Mandate Palestine and having come to love and embrace the language.  Back, who also translated the poems in In The Illuminated Dark, a major selection of work from Ruebner’s previous collections published in 2014, describes her attempt to render the poems’ poly-lingual “in-betweenness” and its “enduring exilic resonances.”  Now at the Threshold contains poems culled from the three late books, and Back again captures Ruebner’s idiosyncratic linguistic legacy in elegant and powerful translations.  Her annotations to the poems are especially useful given the poet’s complicated life and the numerous literary and cultural sources he draws on.

Ruebner’s life was haunted by loss.  In 1941, at seventeen, he left his home in Slovakia for Palestine, leaving his parents and younger sister behind.  The following year they, along with other family members, were murdered in the Holocaust.  His first wife Ada, whom he met in Israel, died in a bus accident which left Ruebner severely burned and requiring a long, painful recovery.  Ruebner remarried to the young Israeli pianist, Galila Jizreeli.  They had two sons, one of whom at age 23 left for a trip to South America and mysteriously disappeared without a trace.  Nothing has been discovered concerning his whereabouts or fate, which manifests as an immense vacancy, a kind of echo-hole, in much of Ruebner’s writings. These erasures and absences, tragic and irreversible, permeate all of Ruebner’s poetry, and yet they do not overwhelm it.  Rather his work mingles his grief with a critical, often ironic perspective on what has occurred in the new country and culture in which he lives. In this respect, Ruebner’s tone achieves a highly original modality, one that is at once capacious and precise.  Perhaps some of the roots of this achievement lie in the poet’s recognition that his coming to Israel places him, as he describes it in “In the Land of the Deer,” amidst “a war of dreams,” a war of irresolvable contraries that can only be staged and re-enacted through the poetic imagination.

Poetry for Ruebner is not something he simply does, but, as we have seen exemplified by his late flowering, turns out to be something he cannot not do.  The rugged terrain of the Israeli landscape is incorporated into the mechanism of his poetics, the rhythm of the words dictating the build-up of the visual picture: “white and dusky and grey and azure/ and a sated green and brown/the colors of Braque and colors of/the Valley,” a blazon to be sure.  But ultimately Ruebner’s language is an insistence, moving beyond the rendering of the pastoral until it achieves the status of a vision: “a flame above and a flame below,” where “the omnipotent darkness/swallows all/but for the hidden light.”

There are many tunnels into and out of despair.  What kind of a pathway does poetry make for Ruebner? His nearly automatic impulse to create appears as much involuntary to the point of fatalism as it is voluntary, a choiceless way of being in the world that gives him at once a stoic’s point of view and the ability to see experience, especially his own, in a deeply ironic light.  “After Beckett,” one of the most powerful, if idiosyncratic, poems in the collection, echoes Beckett’s entwined despair and comic ruefulness.  “Do you write?” asks the narrator, in a self-referential Hamm- and Clov-like dialogue: “No, not me.//Then who writes?/How would I know?”  This Beckettian atmosphere plays throughout Ruebner’s poetry, constantly elevating or, in some cases, deflating rhetoric and imagery.  One feels that if he were asked why he writes poetry, his answer might just be, “Why not?”

Poetry is only, ever, an approach, but its power, Ruebner reminds us, sometimes lies in the very defeat it insists upon.  “I know that the unsayable is/unsayable,” he writes in “I Am Still.”  The lines of the poems are “tiny islands of time/surrounded by muteness,” which become arenas of paradox and a skewed hopefulness under Ruebner’s playful seriousness. He “orbits around a dark hole” in order to say that “there are moments of light, praise for life.”  Because of language’s inherent ambiguity, everything can be real and unreal all at once:

There is no isn’t without there is.  There is no is without there isn’t,

I’m still here (A kind of dream?)

Death, what is it?

Even the contrariness of these lines yields a guarded optimism. Dreams also express hopes and forebodings, as in Ruebner’s “war of dreams” which enfolds the current state of affairs in Israel, “this whole blood-crazed land” as he sees it in “All This Suffering,” where “hatred is eating us alive.”  His poem “Gaza Nightmare” is a mini-Guernica in verse as it describes the horror and futility of retaliation, in which there is “no shadow/no place to cover faces in shame, there’s no hiding/from ourselves.”  As much as these poems are a screed against the inhumanity of recent politics and the willful following along of the public, they are also reminders of a disaster writ large against which poetry has no solutions except those of testimony and witness.  “All this blind ruin,” he exclaims “from which there is no way out./And oh, alas, that I am writing this.”

As with the resignation of “there is no way out,” the impossibility of recovery drives many of Ruebner’s poems.  His elegies seek simultaneously to memorialize and reinstate the presence of the dead even as they acknowledge loss. “Come back,” he entreats his late first wife Ada, in “What We Can Say To The Dead,” a poem filled with pathos and yet erotically charged:  “And how will I slide down the length of your thighs, how place my head/ in the hollow between your breasts.”  In his poem for the late poet Dan Pagis, a “mentor” to Ruebner, the elegy reaches its expressive strength through an awareness of its own limitations in its ability to evoke the non-returning dead but never restoring them to full presence.   “After all we’re talking now,” he writes, remembering that the back and forth of their dialogue is “like one hand clapping, a conversation with one voice.”

Often in these poems, Ruebner deploys memory as indictment.  His imagery, stark and dramatic, is tinged with a dark surreal flavor.  In “Messengers,” Holocaust and hope seem embedded in the same viewing-frame:

Like fruit that fell and blackened

they dropped from the trees in the Jewish Cemetery in Prague

crows upon crows and then they rose as though phoenixes.

“Did it all happen?” Ruebner asks as he walks through the graves, “substance and not substance intertwine me from time to time.”   In the midst of this visit, in the midst of this recursion, he sees that “these three suddenly landed here today,” a line, as Back tells us in her notes to the poem, are a vision of Ruebner’s parents and sister, murdered in the death camps. The terrors that beset the Jewish community during the war years, that loosed guilt as well as mourning on Jews everywhere, find a respondent in Ruebner’s work.  Poetry becomes necessary–unavoidable in Ruebner’s case.  There is a “white shadow resting on every word,” he tells us in “What Evades,” something like a promise of visibility if we will but listen. Like all powerful lyric poets, he reminds us of “what music can and cannot do:

it paints invisible colors

mates prey with predator

mixes beauty with ugliness, caresses silence.

It brings tears to the eye of a dragon

and shatters St. George’s spear.

Poetry, as exemplified in Ruebner’s poetry takes us deeper than history, deeper than the memory of victims and oppressors. It becomes alchemical, reconciling us equally to death and to life.

Michael Heller has published twenty-five volumes of poetry, essays, memoir and fiction.  Recent books are Telescope: Selected Poems (New York Review Books, 2019), Dianoia (Nightboat, 2016) and, in French, Dans le signe(Editions Grezes, 2016). Within The Inscribed: Selected Essays appears in 2021.