“Now at the Threshold: The Late Poems of Tuvia Ruebner,” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back, Hebrew Union College Press, 2020, 188 pp., $25
Only A Crook Gives More Than He Has
Almost every day now at ninety, poetry lays
another egg in my nest, not always a golden egg.
But only the penny-wise would think gold the elixir of life.
Suffering also asks to speak, as does rage, disappointment too,
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So many facets to life, turn them over and over again –
all are beautiful to poetry. Even the bitterness of failure –
Do you want to taste?
The tart title of the above lures us into tasting poetry on a circular spectrum from loss to love – bitterness, saltiness, sweetness, tartness, savory umami. Humor. Tuvia Ruebner died on July 29, 2019 at the age of 95. Born in Slovakia, he escaped war-torn Europe alone as a teenager and went on to become a leading light in Jewish intellectual society in Palestine, where he wrote poetry in German and Hebrew, going on to translate the works of the likes of Nobel Prize-winner S.Y. Agnon, to teach comparative literature at the University of Haifa and to win the Israel Prize for Poetry in 2008.
In “Now at the Threshold,” Rachel Tzvia Back, an Israeli poet who writes in English, has selected and translated poems from three of his last books in Hebrew (he also published in German), published between 2014 and 2019. The starter, “Haydn,” is a meditation on art and aging:
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?
One needs no flight of fantasy
To invent imaginary possibilities regarding artists and art.
For people like me a musical score seems a surface covered in flyspecks.
That’s why I put on a record and listen.
The morning air is still cool.
The presto is stirring.
The jaybird tries to imitate in its own way
And the lark in its own way.
The world goes on without crumbling
And on it, on this old planet spinning around on its delusional indifferent axis,
With its killers and its clowns, its wise and its wicked,
With the plunderers of the poor and with its innocent,
Haydn created the String Quartets.
Wondrous things happen. What a joy to be alive.
Ruebner’s “joy to be alive” is no froth of bubbly and rainbows; it comes after events that could have rendered any joy impossible, peopled with pain. Personae from his life appear in many of his poems. “Eyes” brings together two experiences of tremendous loss that are constantly with him: of a vanished child and his nuclear family:
… my Benjamin,
even if I close my eyes,
the pain of your disappearance
will not close its eyes.
Ruebner’s second son Moran (referred to as "my Benjamin" in a biblical/metaphorical sense) disappeared suddenly in South America in 1983 at the age of 23, never to be heard from again. And further along in the same poem:
My past returns to me again and again
like the two tufted titmice in 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?”
toward my mother who is saying with eyes of tortured waters
“If you don’t want to leave, you don’t have to.”
I didn’t want to. I left.
In 1941, at the age of 17, Ruebner reluctantly bade farewell – “didn’t want to” – to his comfortably middle-class parents and little sister, all of whom perished at Auschwitz the following year. The rescue journey from the train station in Pressburg/Bratislava to Palestine, organized by the Zionist socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, brought him to Kibbutz Merhavia in the Jezreel Valley, where he lived until his death.
In this volume, the past indeed returns like “the two tufted titmice” that nested every year in the eaves of Ruebner’s modest kibbutz home. As mentioned, he was himself a translator, from and to German, and Back shared her translation process with him, perhaps including the delicate translation regarding the bird in the above poem. The yargazy (Parus major) is common in Israel. Back’s “tufted titmice” (Baeolophus bicolor), a different, non-indigenous songbird, is a circumvention of the common English name, great tit, in the interest of evading spontaneous irrelevant titters in some readers.
Eikhah / O How
The Promised Land
All hopes and prospects like an orchard of Palms
O how you have become
A land where truth turns back on itself
Till what was, wasn’t?
Still your sufferings blossom like the Judas tree.
Land of leave takings
Still your heart beats
“Eikhah” is the Hebrew title of the Book of Lamentations, which is read on the Ninth of Av, the late summer fast day that marks the destruction of both Temples and to which various other disasters like the expulsion from Spain 1492 have been accreted. Losses both personal and collective are also refracted in the final line, “Till when,” which, as Back points out in her always helpful notes, appears in the Book of Job – traditionally read on the fast day – and several times in Psalms, mournfully indicative of strained faith in a benevolent God and a sense of betrayal in a bleak present.
Here, there is an instance of what might be called “added value in translation.” The tree that is mentioned (Cercis siliquastrum) displays masses of bright pink blossoms in the spring and hence its lovely name in Hebrew, klil hahoresh, “coronet of the grove.” In English, it is the Judas tree because according to legend, after betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot hanged himself from it. Ruebner must have been aware of this – in German it is der Judasbäume – and Back’s translation has restored something he could not do in Hebrew.
On Merhavia he started a family with his first wife, Ada Klein. In 1950, a bus accident killed her, leaving him with a baby daughter and serious burns over much of his body. In part of a long retrospective poem, “What Can We Say to the Dead, In memory of Ada,” he again notes reluctance to separate:
We say “May you rest in peace”
And “We’ll never forget you.” What is that?
What is all that?
On the 12th of February 1950
you were burned in a bus in flames lying on its side
from which they dragged me, so they said,
and not you. I tried to get back in, they said,
and pull you out, but they didn’t let me.
I wanted to roll in a puddle, and they didn’t let me.
They told me they identified you from your teeth.
I tried today to recreate what I wrote
One year after your death.
But what can we say to the dead?
About three years later, the woman who became Ruebner’s second wife appeared, Galila Jizreeli, a pianist whose name is a distillation of his immediate and beloved landscape of the land of Israel, the Galilee and the Jezreel Valley, in the northern part of the country. In “Since Then,” one of many love poems he continued to write to her until almost his dying day, he recalls their first meeting:
You arrived with the philharmonic quartet
To play Brahms Fifth in F Minor.
I didn’t care for Brahms, too “fat” for me.
But this time he was stunning.
Something in you was like a field in spring,
Weeds and flowers taller than me.
Did I say ‘I love you’? I don’t remember.
I was unaccustomed to speaking my feelings.
Perhaps, but Ruebner was a talker. The translator and others say there was always a warm welcome at his home filled with books, art and music, and the poet was a convivial host with an appetite for conversation. His friends often appear in the poems. We meet Yosl Bergner a number of times in the selection. In “Wonderings,” for example, Ruebner dreams about the painter, who died in 2017: “He left without saying / .... How has this happened, how? With whom will I talk.” In “Almost My Brother – D.P.,” the poet recalls the final days and 1986 funeral of Holocaust-survivor poet Dan Pagis:
Since you first arrived in this land, we were intertwined,
But you, six years my junior, were senior to me in almost everything.
You always preceded me. Now too.
Twenty-seven years without you. No, not without you. After all, we’re talking now.
Like one hand clapping, a conversation with one voice. Is that even possible.
It seems so, as now I hear: “That line is unnecessary, too many words.”
Speaking of words: Back’s translations in this well-produced bilingual volume are a pleasure: sensitive, knowledgeable and also easy to read aloud, a major indicator of successful translation. She chose as the coda to her selection a poem first published in 1967, in which the poet contemplates his own death. There is talk, always talk, and the voice then was as gracious as it remained in his perhaps unexpected later years. You can hear a recording of Ruebner reading this at about 11:20 minutes into Omri Lior’s short film, “Poetry from the Depth of Field”:
Farewell To You, Thank You
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
We’ll talk a bit, we’ll
Live like in the fairy tale, we’ll exchange
A few words, we’ll say
The budding waters. The unbroken bread.
Yes. I existed. Here. All of us. Yes.