In the Illu­mi­nat­ed Dark: Select­ed Poems of Tuvia Ruebner

Tuvia Rueb­n­er; Rachel Tzvia Back, trans.
  • Review
By – March 6, 2015

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.”

Relat­ed content

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.

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