Condensing history in poetry

In Tuvia Ruebner’s poems, the sun seldom shines, but there are astonishing breakthroughs of sudden warmth.

Tuvia Ruebner in 2014: The 94-year-old poet lives on Kibbutz Merchavia (photo credit: MEL FREILICH)
Tuvia Ruebner in 2014: The 94-year-old poet lives on Kibbutz Merchavia
(photo credit: MEL FREILICH)
On the biography page of “Late Beauty,” the second volume of Tuvia Ruebner’s Hebrew poetry in English translation (Lisa Katz and Shachar Bram are the translators), one discovers that the 94-year-old resident of Kibbutz Merchavia is credited with a book of photographs in addition to his 15 volumes of poetry published in Israel and ten in Germany.
To the dedicated reader of Ruebner, winner of the 2008 Israel Prize for poetry, this comes as no surprise. Rachel Tzvia Back, translator of “In The Illuminated Dark,” the poet’s first collection in English translation, quotes him as saying, “I am a very visual poet; I am a man of eyes.”
He opens his poem, (‘My father murdered’), one of the Holocaust poems in “Late Beauty,” with these lines:
My father murdered.
My mother murdered.
My sister murdered.
After every line you can hear a terrible click, like the tiny, irrevocable click the camera’s shutter makes.
In “Photo,” he records a kind of stark, East European post-war selfie:
Eyes the color of the sky
in winter. Gray. Paper
cloud. Eyes the color of
gray paper. Slightly wrinkled, easily torn, a weak
smile. Not in the eyes, two lines,
darker, below,
turned up a bit at the edges.
Ruebner was born in Pressburg-Bratislava, Slovakia, in 1924, and grew up during the rise of Hitler. He fled to Palestine in 1941, while his family all perished at Auschwitz the following year. Given his strong sense of placelessness in the world, the poet, ironically, is a poet of places.
He calls his place poems “Postcards,” which itself is ironic, as the postcard personifies the tourist’s breezy declaration of presence under a warm sun somewhere. In a Ruebner Postcard, absence is the underbelly of presence, and the sun seldom shines, but there are astonishing breakthroughs of sudden warmth, of deep human connection.
His “Postcard to My Soul Mate” begins with these lines:
You won’t believe this – a postcard from Paris –
Paris de reves,
the Paris of dreams.
What, you say it’s London?
And the cat on the window sill
staring forever like an ancient
Egyptian is not Parisian? This can’t be. There are no
such cats in London. And no
such pair of lovers lying on the grass – what an embrace!
In “Postcard from Pressburg-Bratislava,” his soul mates are all dead. Here Ruebner condenses history into a 24- line poem, which is also the erasure of a history.
The teacher from my grade school
took a class photo from his drawer and pointed:
this was a Nazi and these two also. That one
was especially cruel. This one died in Russia
and this one was deported. Which Jewish students
survived and are still alive – I don’t know.
Pressburg was a triangular city. The fourth language
was silence. Have there ever been limits to evil?
Ruebner himself enters the poem in its final lines, in his present form.
I’m old. I can only move slowly forward.
As slowly as he may move, he is always catching up with Europe’s legacy of ashes. Even when he is able to squirm away from it, his feet still come down on the stones of European conflict.
The Celts built a fortress here, as did the princes of
greater Moravia. The Romans called the place
Possonium. A very old city,
so old I don’t know it any more.
Farewell, my love, it’s hard to imagine.
The editors mention, in their introduction to “Late Beauty,” that the collection is not organized chronologically, underscoring the point with Ruebner’s emphatic quote: “Chronology is dead. I have never organized my books by chronology, rather the associations among the poems.” This applies, the poet declares, even to his memoir writing: “Memory doesn’t acknowledge chronological time. It jumps forward and backwards as it wishes.”
In “Two Zen Pictures,” the poet seems to bypass chronology altogether.
A white lake
under my hands.
Page after page after page.
My heart longs for snow.
There is an obvious tension in this volume between history and the escape from history. One might even say a double escape, first from Europe, graveyard of his family and the Jewish people, but also from Israel, his adopted homeland and the homeland of the Jewish people.
He is careful, even while sounding the monstrous drum roll of the death camps, to set a place apart, a demythologized place, for his sister, swept up in her birdlike body, with her mute face, by Auschwitz. He muses in a plainspoken, Jewish-accented voice: 
One wants to live./ You want./ I want./ Who doesn’t?
Ruebner, who arrived in Palestine in 1941 at age 17, is quoted in the introduction to “Late Beauty,” as saying, “I saw everything through the prism of Auschwitz, and they (Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach and Lea Goldberg, Israel’s three great national poets who, like Ruebner, spoke German as their first language) didn’t.”
Seen through that prism all isms are suspect, even the Zionism that saved him from Auschwitz.  While he is an intrinsic part of the Zionist whole, and very much identifies and empathizes with other parents of soldiers lost in Israel’s wars (They stand among the stones/ as though not knowing where to turn./ The fathers, their faces melting, memory weary), he stands apart from them. His own son, Moran, may not have died a physical death in Israel’s first Lebanon war, but a kind of existential death, as he afterwards chose to sever all ties with Israel, his family, and disappear without a trace in South America like a character in a Conrad story.
Even in his opposition to the occupation Ruebner finds his own distinctive ground. In his “Postcard from Hebron,” the poet chops away at the elevated status of the city revered by both sides in the conflict and sealed with the blood of each.
Hebron is a very ancient city.
Our father Abraham is buried there with his wife Sarah
they say. Very holy for a land that lives off death.
In Hebron they eat pita and olives and white cheese in olive oil in the morning.
On holidays they sacrifice a lamb.
The people of Hebron love the slaughter.
Did they learn this from Jacob’s son’s Shimon and Levi?
Ruebner bears witness in this poem not just to the Hebron massacre of Jews in 1929, but to a checkpoint shooting that could be taken from the morning headlines: an out of control car ploughs into a checkpoint injuring the commander. Is the incident deliberate? Is it not? The poem doesn’t say.  The soldiers open fire.
How fast it happens.
How fast
one loses shape, becomes something else:
immobile, plaster face, glass eyes.
Ruebner takes a car out of control and writes a poem about a situation out of control. He ends with his own shadowed benediction for Hebron that will perhaps be appreciated for its unabashed humanism, or dismissed as mostly naïve, when the old poet is gone.
Yesterday more pita and olives and perhaps sex before dawn.
Yesterday more logarithms, history, girls on the beach.
And suddenly the road is spotted with red.