Dara Barnat on Rachel Tzvia Back’s In the Illuminated Dark
Being a victim, again and again a victim —
what a job! Here and there both.
A victim begets a victimizer, a victimizer begets a knife
a knife begets fear, fear
begets hatred, hatred — wickedness
wickedness like a locust eats greedily
So writes Israeli poet Tuvia Ruebner in “Victim, Again,” from In the Illuminated Dark, a Hebrew-English collection with translations by the poet and scholar Rachel Tzvia Back. In “Victim” and elsewhere, Ruebner generates the emotional force of his lines through an intricate pattern of repetition. The repeated words — “victim” (korban), “again” (shuv), “victimizer” (makriv), “knife” (sakin), “fear” (pachad), “hatred” (sina), and “wickedness” (rishut) — suggest the subject of the poem, but not its subjects. Up to this point, the poem identifies neither the victim nor the victimized, instead embodying the cyclical, perilous nature of victimhood. By the middle of the poem, however, these identities become more explicit:
In Khan Younis five children on their way to school stepped on something.
In one second they became torn flesh, ragged flesh. A sixth child was shot
there the same day, on the twenty-third of November 2001. The army . . . is
checking . . . investigating . . . from that same spot . . . artillery fire was shot . . .
expresses . . . deep . . . sorrow . . .
“Victim, Again,” written during a breakdown in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, is about Palestinian children who were killed and the culpability of the Israeli army in their deaths. At the same time, through the repetition of “victim” in the first stanza, the poem implies that Israelis are themselves victims, referring of course to the Holocaust, which Ruebner survived, though his immediate family did not. The poem invites its readers to consider how everyone is a potential victim and victimizer, and that this individual and collective pain is what drives us to inflict pain on others. At the end of the poem, Ruebner returns to a general meditation on the continual, brutal uprisings of violence: “How do we end that which has no end?” With this poem’s ending, Ruebner questions the possibility of this conflict’s ending, a notion that finds support in the reality of the region today.
The publication of Ruebner’s poems in April 2014 correlated with an upsurge of violence in Israel and Gaza. Although coincidental, this correlation lends the collection special urgency. The fighting increases in intensity, and like Ruebner’s repetition, retaliations beget retaliations. Awarded the Israel Prize in 2008, Ruebner is prominent not only in Israel but also in Europe, particularly Germany. Yet Ruebner’s work has been translated into English far less than other Hebrew-language Israeli poets, such as Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach, and Dan Pagis. With the fortunate publication of In the Illuminated Dark, English-language readers can now read Ruebner in Back’s skillful, stunning translations and discover the poet’s empathy, humanism, humor, and compassion for the self and the other in poetry that transcends the dialectic of offensive and defensive, of us versus them.
Throughout his life, Ruebner has been assaulted by loss — loss brought about by genocide, by war, and by random, unexplained tragedies — as Back describes in the biography that opens the collection. Ruebner was raised in an upper-middle-class family in Pressburg-Bratslavia, Slovakia. The family had intended to leave Germany and immigrate to Palestine before the Nazi genocide had taken hold, but those plans were averted, and Ruebner left Germany as a teenager when HaShomer Hatzair, a Zionist organization, settled him in Israel on a kibbutz. Soon after, Ruebner would learn that his parents and younger sister had been murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Later, his first wife, Ada Klein, was killed in a car accident. Years after that, Ruebner’s son, Moran, traveled to South America for a trip, but never returned. In “A Family Song,” Ruebner writes of how these losses remain ever-present in his life:
I live under the memories
my children, and the birds and the dark
from within me, from within my mother my father me
I bring forth words,
cloud, lament, you
in the quiet of my life, in a howl
I live, no longer
in me, in the other.
In his poetry, Ruebner often links his experience of loss to the persecution he and his family suffered for being Jewish. The Holocaust is a river of grief that spills into his work. In an untitled poem that enumerates the poet’s numerous loved ones exterminated in the Holocaust, he writes:
My father was murdered.
My mother was murdered.
My sister was murdered.
My grandfather was murdered.
My grandmother was murdered.
My kinsmen were murdered.
My friends were murdered.
A dog barks. A child cries. A wind is trapped in the leaves.
The poem does not reveal how the members of his family and friends were murdered, but the repetition of “my” and “murdered,” with only the subject in the middle changing (father, mother, sister), points to the multiplicity of those murders. The lack of any identifying features of the dead (neither name nor geographic location) allows other Jewish readers who experienced such losses to assume the speaker’s first-person voice. Additionally, the loss in Ruebner’s work possesses a distinct “Israeliness.” In “A Postcard from Tel Aviv,” he writes of the Israeli city that is as beautiful and amusing as it is plagued by cynicism and despair.
Tel Aviv, a colorful city, is very white.
She changes all the time and stays always what she is.
Tel Aviv is a clean, dirty city.
It depends on how you look at her.
Tel Aviv is almost New York.
Are there angels in Tel Aviv?
Horrible things happened in Tel Aviv
Horrible things happen in Tel Aviv.
Who ever imagined it would be this way?
Is Tel Aviv really?
Who invented Tel Aviv anyway.
Who are these angels (malachim) that Ruebner refers to? What are these “horrible things” (dvarim noraim)? Characteristically, Ruebner leaves these questions open to interpretation. Options include the absence of Arabs who once lived on that land; deaths from suicide and bus bombings; the materialistic, even narcissistic, culture of Tel Aviv; and the way Tel Aviv is (or was) perceived as politically and culturally separate from the rest of Israel. Though Ruebner loves this Israeli city, he grieves for the darker aspects of its history.
Even though Ruebner expresses his loss in Hebrew, the language of his adoptive country, it is never bound to a particular nation; it is distinctly human loss. Ruebner’s victims are all of us. His murdered family is everyone’s murdered family. The angels in his city are every city’s angels. His poetry acknowledges loss to be universal and never claims that his own pain is unique, or worse, superior to anyone else’s. Perhaps this perspective in Ruebner developed because he was exiled from the land in which he was born and remained a partial outsider to Israel. As Back writes, “Ruebner is a devotee of no movement or ideology, stating clearly, in his memoir and interviews alike, that he has ‘no talent for ideology.’ Ideology, he argues, demands loyalty from its followers and I am capable of being loyal only to people’” (xxv-xxvi). As an outsider, Ruebner takes the position of the observer, rather than the participant.
The tragedies that have befallen Ruebner might have caused his poetry to be self-obsessed, but he creates a space for his readers to mourn their own tragedies. This principle, at once poetic and philosophical, is an implicit foundation of Ruebner’s work. An instance of this space can be found in the poem “Far Away”:
Once I said in jest
I am the descendent of trees, my forefathers
were trees. How well I know
what it’s like to be stuck in the ground, unable to move while
one’s head is up high, being blown with the winds,
and what it’s like to stand bare and bald
before the coming frost.
Ruebner’s persecuted “forefathers” (avot-avotai) are Jewish, but this poem does not identify them as such. The poem exists for everyone who has felt “stuck in the ground,” victim of the forces beyond the control of each and every living being on earth. In “Let Me See Your Face,” the speaker addresses an unidentified person in distress, someone partly hidden from the speaker’s view.
Let me see your face. I am bent to the wind, but
I cannot see your face. Come out of the darkness and silence.
The felling of trees can be heard and the ground is covered with frost.
Where am I. Winter is coming. The empty space is bare to the cold.
Open the closed door
you who stand bowed at the window your arms calling out for help.
The non-specific addressee — “you” — allows for a wide range of identifications. Ruebner’s appeals — “let me see your face,” “come out of the darkness and silence,” and “open the closed door,” — seek to replace empty space with empathy between the speaker and addressee, and even the reader.
Remarkably, with so much of Ruebner’s poetry concerned with loss, his poems are replete with happiness, humor, and joie de vivre. Many poems, especially those written in the later decades of his life, overflow with such sentiments. “A Wondrous World” exemplifies this conflation of pain and joy:
Even if you find a thousand reasons to protest – the world is wondrous.
Say: we are born to die – what wickedness!
But until then – what a wondrous world.
Wondrous in what it reveals and what it conceals.
Wondrous in its creation day after day and wondrous in its destruction
night after night,
in the sun breaking through the chilled, thin skin of dawn
and in its setting in all the rainbow colors.
And wondrous, wondrous, that from out of the earth burst slender green stalks
that in the end will be bread you and I eat
on the edge of a knife.
Thankfully, Ruebner does not attempt to provide solutions to suffering through beauty. One finds neither dogma nor didacticism in Ruebner. He merely strives to illuminate our dark, as per Back’s apt title for this collection. In a prefatory essay on the process of translating Ruebner, Back writes, “whatever is lost in the transfer, other attributes and elements are gained. Indeed, the art and act of translating poetry is, finally, an art and act of transformation” (xxxi). Back’s rendering of Ruebner’s poetry into English from Hebrew brings us an acutely needed voice of humanism from Israel.
Ruebner conveys exuberance for life against all odds, as in “With Day Breaking”:
With day breaking in sunlight over the hills
and the Gilboa mountain rising from morning mists as if it were the Annapura
and the valley revealing itself all at once in its full spring beauty
slowly I shed all ill-will and human cruelties
a kind of compassion taking their place – compassion for all that exists
and, I wanted to say, also for what doesn’t, for we are all sentenced.
Suddenly, the color of the hibiscus flower this year is a red
I’ve never seen before.
And maybe now that Back has given us Tuvia Ruebner’s “place” of compassion — his poetry itself — it can offer his readers solace in the midst of hopelessness, anger, and hatred, if not today, then someday.
A human being can bear almost everything
and no one knows when and where
happiness will overcome him.