The Interim World: The Poetics of Tuvia Ruebner

Rachel Tzvia Back on Tuvia Ruebner

Now at the Threshold: The Late Poems of Tuvia Ruebner. Trans. Rachel Tvia Back. Hebrew Union College Press, 2020. pp.204. $26 (paperback)

I’ve been intensely and intimately engaged with the poetry of Tuvia Ruebner as his English language translator for almost a decade, a profoundly rewarding and also humbling role. During this decade, much more than during my earlier verse translation projects, I’ve thought extensively about the translator’s role, specifically with regard to Ruebner’s poetry and the various challenges of bringing Hebrew verse into English, and also with regard to verse translation more generally. My focus has been on the translator’s praxis and objectives. However, while researching a specific translation theory some months ago, I stumbled upon a book titled Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible – and the title shifted my focus. It was the “and” of the title – poetry and translation, not poetry in translation – that provoked me to consider not my own translation practice and theory but to focus instead on  the poetics of my source texts through the prism of translation practice and theory. I’m suggesting that Ruebner’s poetics are themselves a poetics of translation.

Ruebner’s poetry, independent of and prior to changes imposed by language-to-language translation, locates itself in the world as translation does. Like translations, Ruebner’s poems articulate an awareness of what they cannot achieve, how they will, inevitably, fall short of conveying the “original” text – whether that original text be an experience, a historical reality or a painting. Also, like translations, Ruebner’s poems are often iterations of an in-between space. The poem, like the poet (and like the translation) belong to no single place, culture, language, or even (in Ruebner’s case) artistic medium. Finally, just as verse translations are so often identified by what is lost in the transfer, Tuvia Ruebner’s poetry is ever aware of loss as an intrinsic attribute of the poetic creation – even as, from time to time, it quietly acknowledges a gain.

Of course, every artist translates the world. The artist transmits his or her feelings and ideas in a mediated and alternative, that is translated, form. As Ruebner says, in his poem titled simply “Poet,” “He [the poet] replaces a cypress tree [brosh] / with a black tear. / Thinks his throat / a mocking-bird’s flute” (from Almost a Conversation, 2002).  The metaphors offered operate as lexical translations might; just as the Hebrew brosh is translated into an English signifier of the cypress, so too is the brosh/cypress tree translated into the complex visual and emotional image of a “black tear.” Among the most prominent of poetic figurative devices, the metaphor may, in fact, be read as synonymous with translation, reading the word etymologically: the Greek meta (over or across) + pherein (to carry or bear) of metaphor mirrors the Latin trans (over) + latus (carried or borne) of translation. This viewing of metaphor – together with other types of figurative devices – as acts of translation (replacements, transformation) – is a perspective applicable not only to Ruebner’s poetry and poetics. What is distinctive in Ruebner’s poetics of translation, or his poetry as translation, is the fashion in which his poems foreground the impossibility of this poetic task. “I knew that the unsayable is / unsayable” states Ruebner in the late poem “I Am Still” (from More No More, 2019),  articulating in characteristic tautological manner the simple and absolute untranslatability into language of the great losses of his life and the great horrors of the 20th century. The unsayability, or the untranslatability into language, is particularly prominent in Ruebner’s dialogue poems (a form he repeatedly returned to) where unnamed speakers attempt to converse, to say something to each other and to themselves, but the statements are truncated, broken, enigmatic and incomplete. Thus, in “Plain and Unadorned” from The Crossroads (2015), the exchange unfolds thus:

Plain and unadorned.
Is that possible?
Hard to know.
And what remains?
One must try.
Even slithering on one’s belly?
Even on one’s belly.
Does an image remain? Does some image remain?
What movement.
In the light? In the dark? In the light?
Hard to know. But so long as
So long as one can
So long as one can say

We see in the above that the answer to the existential question “what remains” may be dependent on what “one can say” – that is, dependent on language and on the possibility of communication, here poetic communication. But the poem’s form ambushes language and poetic development, subverting each line’s attempt to say something, to say anything. This is a poetry that declares impossibility as an intrinsic element of its form and content.

One may argue that Ruebner is referencing primarily, even exclusively, the horrors of the Holocaust when he evokes the unsayable. Indeed, Ruebner often stated, in interviews and in personal communication, that any attempt to speak of or represent Auschwitz would fail: “One word alone suits Auschwitz – silence,” he asserts in a 2014 interview. Later in that same interview he states that Auschwitz is the reference point for all his poetic production. What I’m suggesting is that with that reference point, Ruebner’s poetic iterations come into being with the impossible, the unsayable, the incomplete woven into their fabric.  Thus, the poet, this poet, is always threatened by muteness – the words “mute” or “muteness” a scarlet thread woven through his entire oeuvre. Sometimes muteness is the vast and even threatening expanses on the perimeters of his isolated poetic being: “The lines of the poem / are tiny islands of time / surrounded by muteness” (from “I Am Still”). And sometimes muteness is the essence of his poetic creation, as in these lines from the poem “In My Old Age” (from Contradictory Poems, 2011):

The words close in on me and they are mute.
The mute words in their muteness beg:
Open for us a gate at the hour of the gate’s closing, be for us a mouth.

The power of the image emanates from its oxymoronic nature: how can words be mute, and how do mute words beg? And how can a poet of “mute words” be a poet at all, as muteness annihilates him. Here, paradoxically, the mute words offer a prayer – a supplication from Yom Kippur liturgy – that casts the almost-annihilated poet in a god-like role: “Open for us a gate at the hour of the gate’s closing, be for us a mouth.” There, at the threshold, the poet allows mute words to speak – for a single line – before returning to the impossibility of his speaking/ creating/translating task: “But how will I be for them a mouth / when my whole life has been a search for living words / … / …and the muteness / is the echo of voices from beyond.”

The gate is one of Rueber’s many threshold images. With the gate, I consider the second translation attribute of Ruebner’s poems, the in-between positioning of his work. The gate itself appears numerous times, as here in “The Echo,” one of the last poems in his last collection that begins thus: “The gate is open but there’s no entering / Night descends almost hastily, as it does in our regions / and where will I rest my head?” The speaker finds himself at this most resonant of places, the open gate, but this one frustrates, refusing entry as night comes quickly. The speaker/poet is there, in the in-between, with a voice that “becomes mute” by poem’s end.  Threshold images foregrounding the in-between space of very old age, the about to cross-over sensibility, are to be expected in the poetry of a nonagenarian poet. What is worth noting, however, is the abundance of in-between places one finds in Ruebner’s earlier work too. Thus, in a  very early poem titled “The Sword” (from As Long As, 1967), through the eponymous sword that reveals itself to be “turn[ing],” we find ourselves by poem’s end at the threshold of the lost Eden: “So [God] drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way to the tree of life”  (Genesis 3:24). The poem in full reads thus:

The crystal voice in evening.
With sword in its hand
It slowly carves in the illuminated dark
The contours of the face that you loved.
The sword turns and twists in the living flesh.

The mythic and existential Eden that is lost is, for Ruebner, always also the lost personal Eden, the Eden of childhood, family, safety and home. From his arrival in Palestine in 1941 as immigrant/refugee, Ruebner was and would forever be not from here, but no longer from there too (as “there” no longer exists). His poetry evolves from this in-between place. This liminality becomes a core element of his poetics, a liminality suggestive of the verse translation that must always, in some fashion, reference its origins as it seeks to relocate in a new lexical landscape. The relocation for poetry that is defined by and dependent on the singular music and specific connotations of each chosen word of the original text will always be incomplete. So too would Ruebner’s relocation be incomplete, to no small degree because of his aversion to the strident rhythms of a nationalistic ideology and his refusal to embrace an identity emanating from such an ideology. States Ruebner in one of his most quoted interviews: “Lea Goldberg wrote that there are [for her] two homelands [the one in which we are born and the one we choose]. I feel I have two no-homelands….” “Poetry became my homeland,” he summarizes at interview’s end – and thus the concrete and geographic is replaced with an intangible and transcendent entity, an art-form that is itself forever in motion between speech and silence, between poet and reader.

The third and final attribute of what I’ve termed Ruebner’s poetics of translation, an attribute connected to the previous two, is the fashion in which a certain loss is intrinsic to the creation process. I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin’s notion of poetry translation as “an echo of the original” even as that translation, he suggests, will create “a new music.” The echo is an auditory marker of what it is not, the present iteration of an absence, the something that is lost. This attribute of verse translation is, I believe, most prominently expressed by Ruebner in his singular and extensive body of ekphrastic poems. These poems are the present verbal iterations of the absent visual original, whether it be painting, sculpture, or photograph. In the internet age, the specific painting or sculpture that Ruebner describes, or recreates, in his ekphrastic poems is often easily viewed on the computer screen; however, Ruebner started writing ekphrastic poems long before the internet age made access easy. Hence these poems need to be read also as standing in for the visual, echoes of the original. I would add to this point the fact that Ruebner includes in his ekphrastic oeuvre also lesser known and not easily found online works of art, in addition to private photographs to which the reader has no access at all. That is, the absent original is meant also to be read as absent. Consider, for example, what is one of Ruebner’s earliest ekphrastic poems, “Rondanini Pieta” (first published in his 1967 collection, revised and republished in Midnight Sun, 1977):

Still your head on my shoulder, still my hand
where is your hand?
still the two of us one arc
still the scream in stone. Still
slipping away, the body slipping away, no
my son

The radical variation of the lines’ lengths – a graphological movement across the page suggesting unsteadiness – together with the single-word lines (“you” of line 6 and “no” of the penultimate line) that seem themselves to be slipping down the page and into white silence and space, all translate the absent sculpture into a startling presence of loss.  I am reminded of a popular novel I read some years ago, titled The Madonnas of Leningrad (by Debra Dean). The novel describes how during the Siege on Leningrad, hundreds are hiding out in the basement of the Hermitage State Museum where all the paintings have been taken down for safekeeping, only emptied frames left on the museum walls. Between air-strikes, a young woman, once a guide in that museum and now also taking refuge in its basement, takes groups of desperate and starving citizens on tours of the absent art. Thus, she stands before the empty frames describing in glorious and exact detail the art work that isn’t there. Similarly, Ruebner’s ekphrastic poems are poignant conjurings of absence, or, to borrow a term from Jakobson (though utilized here in the direction opposite from what Jakobson intended), these poems are bold, even radical, intersemiotic translations. Ruebner keeps returning to this genre; indeed, even in his penultimate collection (Still Before, 2017), he offers a 10-part series titled “After Brueghel’s Paintings.” Doubtlessly, it was his unmitigated love of art and his photographer’s eye that kept bringing him back to ekphrasis – perhaps also a longing for the museums of Europe. But together with these aforementioned motivators, I see his ekphrastic poems as expressing a desire to bridge disparate worlds; obviously, these are the disparate worlds of the verbal and the visual, but they are also the disparate worlds of what is and what is not.

Besides the quiet beauty of his poetry and the tremendous grace of his person, I’ve wondered what has kept me so fully entranced by Tuvia Ruebner. I’ve come to suspect that perhaps my translator-self found familiar terrain in his poetics of translation. Even in the Hebrew originals, his poetry has felt to me “always already in translation” (a phrase I borrow from translation theorist Philip E. Lewis). As I understood and articulated even at the beginning of my engagement with Ruebner’s poetry, “the ancient homeland contours of the Hebrew he embraced in no way countered the enduring exilic resonances” of his life; from within this paradoxical, often impossible, ever-striving, not-here/not-there place, the poet creates (Introduction, In the Illuminated Dark, 2015).

Here at essay’s end, I offer a late Ruebner poem that for me describes how poetic creation happens from within this not-here/not-there place – a poem utilizing yet another Ruebner leit-motif of in-betweeness, the angel.  The poem reads thus:

Angel Becoming

In the interim world
from within the darkest thoughts
a type of angel rises and floats,
I’ve never seen its face
But now I see it
line by line, note by note –
On the white page

Between the divine and the human, in an interim world, “a type of angel” appears – slowly, “line by line, note by note,” it “rises and floats” in lettered shapes, surrounded by white space. There on the white page, the angel becomes a poem; and the poem, a translation of feeling into lexis and form, offers for a moment “a type of” transcendence – fleeting, modest and true.


Rachel Tzvia Back is a poet, translator and professor of English Literature at Oranim College in the Galilee, Israel. She is the author of several poetry collections, including  Azimuth, On Ruins & Return, A Messenger Comes (Elegies) and, most recently, What Use is Poetry, the Poet is Asking. Translations of Tuvia Ruebner’s poems that appear in this essay can be found in In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner (poems from 1957-2015) and in Now at the Threshold: The Late Poems of Tuvia Ruebner (2015-2019).

Ruebner passed away in July 2019, at the age of 95. His last collection, More No More, had been published a few months earlier.