Monsters Started Walking Among Us and We Were Silent

Houses were marked, people disappeared, the monsters smiled politely: Tuvia Ruebner delineates an ominous atmosphere – everywhere.

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'Abstract.' Credit: Tuvia Ruebner

It’s Been Years

Tuvia Ruebner

It’s been years
since the monsters started walking among us.
At first we didn’t know, we crowned them with laurels,
adorned them with praise, fed them the finest fruits.

Houses were marked, people disappeared, the monsters smiled politely, bloodstains were found, no one knew whose, the tools of destruction groaned, humans were burned-to-coal still young, the monsters wiped their mouths on the back of their hands, bread blackened became stone, the rain stopped, the sky wrapped itself in shrouds, a baby girl was shot, the thorns didn’t care, neither did the revelers, the monsters blended in, broke bones, crowded populations together fencing them in, despair wove threads, then ropes, then roped agony, the air thick with it, there were those who hung themselves, those who jumped from the seventh or thirtieth floor, a few took poison, there were those who raped women before stabbing them, we were silent, afraid or just silent, one or two helped the battered, mothers wailed, cries scattering, rack and ruin wormwood and root rustling, rustling, but the music, how can we relinquish the music, oh, that which opens its mouth at the dead-end, how can we give up on it too? How, oh how, said the lamenting man does a land become sinful, oh miserable land, others laughed a hollow laugh then they themselves became hollow.

The monsters multiplied, in every class, every rank and place, pits suddenly gaped open, eyes looked to the hills, forests burned down, the shrubs, the  wild-fields and wild animals, fires devoured the horizon, the waters dried up, they started deporting whomever they could deport, how oh how to end this

when there is no end

Tuvia Ruebner.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Translated from Hebrew by Rachel Tzvia Back, “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner,” Hebrew Union College Press and Pittsburgh University Press, 2014

This poem does not refer to any specific time or place but rather captures a sense of political malaise and horror, equally applicable to present–day Israel, to Europe (from which the poet fled to Mandatory Palestine in 1941) prior to and during World War II, or to any situation when things look ominous: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” William Shakespeare had a character say in “Hamlet” (I:iv). The biblical Prophets too were masters of the mood.

The narrator speaks as “we” – not as “I,” and addresses others like himself.  The rueful narrative confesses collective responsibility for the development of a bad situation. 

Initially, the monsters were praised and given the very best. As sinister events accumulated in the long third sentence, reactions began. Crowded together, some acted monstrously themselves: “Despair wove threads;”  some committed suicide, rape or murder while “we were silent, afraid or just silent,” though in retrospect the silence should have been broken.

“How can we relinquish the music, oh, that which opens its mouth at the dead-end, how can we give up on it too?” Here and now the makers of music in the widest possible sense of the word including all artists, writers and performers who open their mouths at “the dead end” – that is, who try to utter immortal truths -- are being smeared in Israel as traitors. The next sentence shows how a populace splits at such a time – one man laments and the others become hollow. The word “hollow” may be an echo of T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem “The Hollow Men.” The final lines of that poem are: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”

And indeed, at the end of this poem, the speaker whimpers, “how, oh how to end this when there is no end” – and fades away without even the closure of a period at the end of the sentence.

Ruebner, who was born in Bratislava and lives on Kibbutz Merhavia, celebrates his 92nd birthday this week. He has published 17 books of poetry and is an esteemed photographer. Translator Rachel Tzvia Back has published four books of poetry and four books of poetry translation, most recently “In the Illuminated Dark,” which was shortlisted for the National Jewish Book Award in poetry.

*Musing: Why did Ruebner choose his photograph “Abstract” to accompany this poem?

*Music: The poet’s wife, pianist Galila Ruebner, plays Bach

The poets wife, pianist Galila Ruebner, plays BachCredit: YouTube