Readers who love poetry, but whose knowledge of modern Hebrew is slight or nonexistent, will delight in this thoughtfully arranged bilingual collection of writing by beloved Israeli poet, Tuvia Ruebner. Now at the Threshold is composed of poems written in the last 5 years of Ruebner’s life, between the ages of ninety and ninety-five, pulling from three collections. The result is a meditative, lively, honest, and emotionally rewarding foray into an important poet’s final work.
Ruebner’s lyrical voice, as rendered by translator Rachel Tzvia Black (herself a poet), is direct, intimate, and at once bold and humble. Throughout the collection, the poet meshes biblical stories and allusions with contemporary concerns, seamlessly intertwining the personal and political. The language feels fresh and easy, although the poet tells us in the last section of “In the Land of the Deer,” that this apparent ease is an illusion:
Writing a poem today
Like clutching a straw
to not drown.
The struggle to write is also depicted humorously, as in “Writing Poems,” where Ruebner wryly demonstrates his process, lamenting that failure is sometimes inevitable.
This humility powers the more political poems with a heightened emotional urgency and empathy. “They started it. They started it.” begins the poem titled “Gaza Nightmare,” before winding past images of flowers and ashes, a suffering elderly woman, and a dead donkey, ending with a haunting description of a little girl skipping. The lines of “Lampedusa: Terra fermé” are just as pointed, sardonically contrasting the drowned bodies of Eritrean refugee families with the “stone-hearted” tourists who refuse to see what is happening before their eyes.
But there is also ample room for love in this selection: love for the poet’s lost Slovakian family and son, and love for an aged, beautiful wife – whom the poem, “Wrinkles,” pays tribute to.
Perhaps most remarkably, given the directness of Ruebner’s voice, is the enduring presence of hope. In every poem, there lurks the promise of redemption:
The forecasters have promised rain tomorrow
we’ll be able to breathe clean air.
In his final poems, Ruebner repeatedly returns to the power of art itself, enabling us to re-envision the world in the direction of mercy and peace. Such a redirection, Ruebner hints, is not an act of seeing that is blind to the past. Rather, the poet invites us to seek the ideals lying in the depths of personal and collective memory, which, like the city of Atlantis, are buried but not concealed at the bottom of a clear ocean.
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a poet, magical realist novelist and professor emerita in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Riverside. Read more about her at stephaniehammer.net.