Absence plays a central role in Tuvia Ruebner’s Hebrew-language poetry. In a late poem, “Wonder,” he defines happiness as “being able to execute all the body’s needs.” A more direct expression of pain, joy, and freedom I could not imagine. The line stuns through what it leaves unsaid: its hovering suggestion of the misery of not being able to execute the body’s needs. Back and forth between misery and joy, Ruebner, born in Slovakia and the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust, seems at times to astound even himself at his continued ability to feel. Ruebner possesses a profound wisdom that puts him in conversation with masters like John Keats, Pablo Neruda, Thomas Hardy, and Emily Dickinson, whose poems about grief and loss deepen our sense of what being human means.
Ruebner is also reminiscent of Paul Celan. Both are geniuses of the short poem, yielding space to the unsaid and unsayable. Ruebner’s “A Question” is a mere three lines long: “How many years can one / maintain one’s balance on / the edge of the abyss?” The page’s blank space speaks nearly as loudly as the poem as an expression of the abyss over which the poet peers.
Ruebner depicts emptiness in landscapes that in another poet’s hands would seem idyllic. In “The Memory,” the sky is “bone-colored.” Trees are “stuck in the ground” in “Far Away.” In a poem after a drawing by Yosl Bergner, the sky is “bored to tears” by blue. In “Last Day at the North Sea,” which oscillates between descriptiveness and Wallace Stevens-like abstraction, the horizon is “doubtful.” In “To the Moon,” the moon is a “spinning corpse.”
In the Illuminated Dark is translated and introduced by Rachel Tzvia Back, who has also collated the poems into sections, each of which encompass multiple books and periods in Ruebner’s writing. Back sets Ruebner’s original poems, in Hebrew, on the verso page and their respective translations on the recto page. Publication information, including dates, appears only at the back of the book — not in the table of contents or on the title pages of each section — which results in Back’s interpretation of how the poems work together coming across quite strongly. Back provides a fine discussion of Ruebner’s life and poetry, including his decision to write in Hebrew, but it would have been useful to address the connotations of that decision, particularly since, as Back notes, Ruebner’s work has been popular in German translations. I wondered how the Hebrew language’s comparatively small vocabulary might have both inspired and influenced Ruebner’s spare writing style.
Back beautifully preserves the rhythm of Ruebner’s language amid its spareness. For example, the final, untitled poem in the section “As Long As” begins: “As long as you say / it’s over, because there’s nothing left / not no not yes just / too much struggle.” Back has done a great service with the first bilingual edition of this essential poet, who has witnessed with open eyes a world in which, as he writes in “One Plague and Another,” “All is allowed.”
Lucy Biederman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. Her first book, The Walmart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.