Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Now at the Threshold: The Late Poems of Tuvia Ruebner
Translated By Rachel Tzvia Back
Hebrew Union College Press, 2020, $26.00

Review by Timothy Quinn

We often expect that a poet who lives through terrific trauma cannot escape. We almost want his poems to speak, again and again, to that trauma, so that we, the spectators, can claim the horrors of the poet’s life as our own. So it is with the late Tuvia Ruebner’s posthumous collection of poems, Now at the Threshold. But Ruebner is a surprising poet, who launches the very element of surprise against our most hardened expectations. In this final collection of poems, he defies the label “Holocaust Poet” to bring the reader along with him into a region of forgiveness and hope, with the same clear eyes and adamantine language we’d come to expect from him. I found myself lamenting that this is his last collection of poems. But at the same time, I cannot imagine a more fitting conclusion to his poetry. In this book, the reader is confronted with his final surprise: acceptance. Rachel Tzvia Back’s typically excellent translations make present to the reader a life complete, an occasion for celebration, if not prayer.

Ruebner was nothing if not prolific. As Rachel Back explains in her Introduction to Now at the Threshhold, Ruebner’s fifteenth poetry collection, fittingly titled Last Ones, was to be his summary offering. That was in 2013. Between then and his death in 2019, Ruebner published four more books, three of which are excerpted in this collection: The Crossroads (2015), Still Before (2017), and More No More (2019). (The fourth book, Seventeen, is a collection of haikus. As Back admits, this form resists translation.) The titles are all gentle puns. Poking fun at his own failure to close out his poetic accounts in 2013, they also serve as signposts charting progress on an unexpected six-year detour from the certainty of endings. I am reminded of the title of an interview which Yoni Livneh conducted with Ruebner in 2014: “By Chance I Stayed Alive.” A happy chance indeed.

Ruebner’s poetry is haunted by the events of his life. Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in 1924 to a German-speaking family, he emigrated to British Mandate Palestine in 1941 with the Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair. The family he left behind—parents, sister, grandparents—were murdered a few years later in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Settling in Kibbutz Merchavia, he married and had a daughter with his first wife, who later died in a bus accident in 1950. In 1953, he remarried and had two sons; the youngest, Moran, disappeared during a trip to Ecuador, never to be found.

It is not, however, the voices of the dead that haunt his poetry; it is their silence:

The silence
After awakening

The silence
After speaking

After the voice

The silence of the room, the books

The silence
After a drop falls away

The silence
After the ringing at the door

The silence
Of no one

Of skies dangling like rags

The silence
After the hawk’s screech

After the weeping

The silence of the sand slowly wandering
Over the empty space. (17)

Silence invites expectancy, but remains empty, filled by absence. It is a deeply Jewish theme, God’s absence and discrete human absences intertwined. The presence of the absent imbues much of Ruebner’s verse, just as it shadowed his life. Thus, in “Eyes” he writes:

My son, Benjamin,
even if I close my eyes
the pain at your disappearance
will not close its eyes.
Your absence gnaws away
at my mind and heart
bit by
day after day.

The night landscape is like ripped rags.
My past returns to me again and again
like the two tufted titmice to their nest in our eaves.
Again and again I extend long arms
toward my sister with her doe eyes
their whites a blue like the budding of dawn on a summer’s day,
toward my father resting his eyes on me as though asking “why?”
“If you don’t want to leave, you don’t have to.”

I didn’t want to. I left. (133)

The poem ends recalling Ruebner’s own existential choice, to remain or to leave.

What he left though never left him. Several of the poems of his final years make this fact plain. For example, “Mother and Father,” a poem that blurs the lines between recollected past and empty present:

They can’t be seen, neither the mother nor the father.
Also their daughter can’t be seen.
Not in Gazárka forest which my grandfather used to rise early to visit...
Not in the Trnava region, not in Senica district.
Not in Jerusalem, the Holy City of Hell
Not in the Jezreel Valley...
How empty it all is!
What nothing. (95)

In this poem, I feel an echo of Abba Kovner’s “My Little Sister,” but in Ruebner’s poem the Shoah lives in the very landscape of the present. Especially moving are the poems that evoke his lost son, for example, “Untitled”:

His eyes are in my eyes
His body is the body of a dream
His voice within
He sits between the fists of my heart
I will not let him go
Till I die. (97)

The remaining poems in this collection strike me as having three general themes (with assorted divagations along the way): reckoning, politics, and acceptance. Note, for example, the poem inaugurating the collection, “Haydn”:

Haydn, growing old.
What did he know when he wrote the second movement
Of the String quartets, Opus 77, number 1?
Did he fear what he was sensing?
Did he sense what was soon to happen?

Haydn’s Opus 77 was the final complete quartet cycle of his life. This first verse intimates Ruebner’s own awareness of “what was soon to happen,” with Haydn as his proxy: the question Ruebner asks about Haydn is one he’s asking of himself: whether these poems could be his final quartets. The second verse responds with intimations of a paradoxical beauty:

The world goes on, without crumbling,
And on it, on this old planet spinning round on its delusional axis,
With its killers and clowns, its wise and its wicked,
With the plunderers of its poor, and with its innocent,
Haydn created the String Quartets.
Wondrous things happen. What a joy to be alive. (3)

Ruebner’s joy contrasts with the world’s madness, but is impossible apart from that madness. The world persists not in spite of its dichotomies—“killers and clowns, its wise and its wicked”—but along with them. This fact explains why Ruebner/Haydn continues to write at the age of 90:

...Like daily piano practice
I blacken the page’s whiteness with marks,
one day maybe they’ll testify that I existed and in the poem
am still here as he who wanted

to praise and give thanks for what is,
for existence’s dyad
of negation and affirmation, of the hidden and the revealed,
of the given and the withheld

and for the non-existent that in just mentioning it
you’ve already missed the mark,
one word—
a flutter of air passed by. (“Writing Poems,” 7)

This poem, the third in the collection, invites comparison to the first. I am struck by the verse, “to praise and give thanks for what is”; it’s a praise that embraces the contradictions of the world (“the hidden and the revealed,” “the given and the withheld”). These, however, are set within a more fragile dichotomy between existence and non-existence. These are not abstract notions; Ruebner’s existence is at stake, surviving in the poem, and therefore ephemeral, “a flutter of air passing by.”

Politics also occupies his thoughts, for example, in the poems “’Eikha’/Oh How,” “All the Suffering,” or in this untitled poem:

The fathers will sacrifice their sons.
The mothers will wail for their sons.
The sons will sacrifice their sons.
For the sake of the liars
And the usurers.
Because. (119)

The final “because” is fraught; it is in effect a question whose answer is silence, and therefore tragically without an answer. In “’Eikha’/Oh How,” the tortured political landscape of Israel is set against the beauty of eretz Israel:

The Promised Land
All hope and prospects like an orchard of Palms
O how have you become
A land where truth turns its back on itself
Till what was, wasn’t?
Still your landscapes are glorious to the eye.
Still your sufferings blossom like the Judas tree.
Land of leave-takings
Still your heart beats.
How long
Till when (113)

Finally, love is here, too: love for his wife, his children, for the land, for works of art. “The old man loves!” Ruebner reminds us constantly. His love poems to his wife are especially touching. Indeed, his special nesting of love, or political agency, of confronation with memory and mortality, make this collection of poems especially precious: they are the final map to an engaged life that Ruebner lived passionately, but whose finality he finally accepted, with grace and a touch of humor:

Farewell to you, thank you
For coming. What is a person’s life on its own
With his wicked heart
With his humble heart, with his wild eyes... (159)

As satisfying as these poems are, they would not affect the English-speaking reader as powerfully as they do were it not for excellent translations. It is said that every writer will find his or her ideal translator. Ruebner has found his in Rachel Tzvia Back. Given her long friendship with Ruebner, she inhabits his poetry. Indeed, her own poetry is inflected by her time with him. There is of course a danger that lurks when a poet translates another poet. While a translator of poetry needs to be a poet in his or her own right, the temptation to rewrite a poem during the deed of translation can be great. Back resists this temptation, letting Ruebner speak for himself in a tongue not his own. This is an impressive achievement. She captures Ruebner’s syntax; she has, in particular, a refined ear for semantic nuance. Her word choices throughout bring us as near the spirit of Ruebner’s Hebrew as is possible.

For example, in the poem “VaYikrah” (“And He Called”), the tenth line consists of a single word, ha’aynda’at, which Back renders with the word, “notthought.” The letters “ayn” signal a negation; “da’at” is a term found in Rabbinic literature and in Kabbalah meaning knowledge. The compound “aynda’at” preceded by the definite article, “ha,” is, however, unusual. By rendering it “notthought,” Back captures the novelty of Ruebner’s semantic choice in a way that (for this reader, at least) recalls the Shoah and the semantics of Paul Celan (to whom Ruebner dedicates the poem “Marsyas Who Competed with Apollo”). Elsewhere, her translations attempt to communicate (as far as this is possible, given the differences between Hebrew and English) the rhythm of Ruebner’s poems—no small feat given the variety of line lengths Ruebner’s deploys. For example, in “Again its Spring,” she duplicates the syllable count of Ruebner’s lines with fair consistency. Rhyme, too: where Ruebner rhymes, Back tries to match him (again, within the limits demanded by Hebrew and English). The result is a gift: a chance for the English-speaking reader to appreciate the varied inflections of Ruebner’s verse. In all, Rachel Back’s collection and translation of Ruebner’s final poems are a great pleasure, a way to hold on to Ruebner while at the same time letting him go.

Post by Timothy Sean Quinn on 11/21/2020 at 12:00 PM

Timothy Sean Quinn received his Ph. D. in philosophy from The Catholic University of America in 1985. His dissertation studied the common origins of modern aesthetics and historicism. Since 1987 he has taught at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH, where he holds the rank of Professor and Chair of Philosophy. He is the author of a book on the last essays of Salomon Maimon (forthcoming, Hebrew Union College Press).