Poem of the Week / Tuvia Ruebner Confronts the Angel of History

Rachel Tzvia Back talks about the picture behind the poem and about translating Ruebner.

Angelus Novus

Tuvia Ruebner

My face is on my back. I see

heaps and heaps of ruins.

Tiny hopes were tossed aloft, scorched

they plummeted into the dark. I was

spewn out. I rose up.

I was reborn

translucent as smoke.

Mute time

blows from childhood’s pine groves.

It presses on my stubborn heart,

spreads my wings.

I am pushed back toward what is coming next.

When will he come, the one to extinguish the fire in my eyes?

Translated from Hebrew by Rachel Tzvia Back.

***

Octogenarian poet Tuvia Ruebner lives on Kibbutz Merhavia; English-language poet Rachel Tzvia Back, a translator and professor at Oranim College in Kiryat Tivon, lives in the Galilee. For the last two years, Back has been working with Ruebner on a volume of his poetry in translation, forthcoming from Hebrew Union College Press as a bilingual edition in 2014. Some of the translations in this collection, titled “As Long As: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner,” have been published online.

This is the first publication in English of “Angelus Novus.” It is an ekphrastic poem – meaning a poem that describes a work of visual art in detail – about the 1920 painting of the same name by Paul Klee. (For a well-known example of an ekphrastic poem in American poetry, see X.J. Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”.)

"Angelus Novus" is part of a series titled "Paul Klee's Angels: Eight Drawings and One Watercolor," published in Ruebner's 1983 collection "A Mask & Graven Image," a book devoted in full to ekphrastic poems.

In an email to Haaretz, Rachel Tzvia Back explains the following about “Angelus Novus”: “The angel in this Klee watercolor, painted in 1920, was famously described by Walter Benjamin in his 1940 essay ‘Theses on History’ thus:

'[The] Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.'"

Benjamin owned the painting, which then came into the possession of German-born Israeli philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem. It now hangs in The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Back’s connection with Ruebner began when she was working on a different volume of translations. "I first encountered and was entranced by Tuvia Ruebner's writings while working on a collection of Lea Goldberg's poetry in English translation,” Back told Haaretz, noting that Ruebner was both Goldberg's friend and literary executor.

“I re-encountered Ruebner while editing the English edition of ‘With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry’ – and discovered then that this poet, often categorized as a Holocaust poet, was also a poet of political protest. Indeed, the wonder of Ruebner resides in his life-long refusal to settle into any one category, or to speak anything less than full truths – truths that, in our region in particular, are often paradoxical, are always multifaceted and complex. With a steady gaze, quiet grace and deep compassion, this poet on the threshold of 90 offers us an essential voice of our times."

Ruebner, who was born in Slovakia in 1924, lost both his parents and his sister in the Holocaust. He has lived in Kibbutz Merhavia since arriving in Palestine in 1941. He has published 15 poetry collections, the most recent one published in Spring 2013, entitled “Last Ones.” He also writes in German, and translates from Hebrew to German and vice versa.

He told Haaretz in 2003: "I feel that I have two ‘no-homelands.’ I was uprooted twice. A person can have only one homeland: the place where he was born. Slovakia spewed me out and what is happening in Israel today made me uproot again."

Ruebner was a marginalized figure for much of his literary life, but in the last decade – a period marked by prolific writing and the publication of five poetry collections –he has received accolades and significant attention both in Israel and abroad.

“He is not enchanted with either the general situation in Israel, nor the local literary scene,” Dalia Karpel wrote of Ruebner in her 2003 article in Haaretz. “With irony he quotes a poem of his own which was published in 2004 in ‘Children's Nasty Rhymes and Others,’ a thin volume with many politically poetic texts: ‘Poetry is not the audience favorite. Apart from the graveyard – who needs it, anyway? The people like prose, says Aunt Rose.’”

Nevertheless, at a public reading at the 2010 Meter al Meter Poetry Festival in Jerusalem, an affable Ruebner declared: “I write poetry because that is my life. The whole essence of my life is poetry. Of course I think about the people who hear it. Poetry is a social and cultural reality. … Once it was a measure of a nation’s culture. They said Russia – they said Pushkin. They said England – they said Shakespeare. What would you say today? ... But I see there are young people making poetry here with something new … and it’s beautiful, and there are people who want to read and hear poetry.”

You can watch and listen to Tuvia Ruebner speak and read his poetry in Hebrew here:

Musings

*Obviously, if you are reading this you want to read poetry. Why?  

Yonatan Grossman
Elie Posner, © the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.