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Sunrise Sets Fire to the Trees: A review

On 87-year-old Ruebner’s latest book of poems


Tuvia Ruebner, the 2008 Israel Prize laureate, is one of three important Israeli poets who have enjoyed a late blooming.

The first is 1992 Israel Prize laureate Avoth Yeshurun. Chronologically speaking, Ruebner (b. 1924) is the second. His first book, Fire in the Stone, was published in 1957. He has since published many books, including excellent Hebrew poetry on a variety of subjects and drawing on a range of sources and styles. But study of his work reveals that beginning with Statue and Mask [from the biblical injunction “Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image”] entered an exceptionally creative phase combining amazing productivity with poetic excellence in the hundreds of poems he produced, many of the highest artistic stature. The third poet who may be said to have bloomed late is Aryeh Sivan, the 2010 Israel Prize laureate, a native Tel Aviv poet whose most important books have been published since the beginning of the 1980s.

A quotation from the opening of the poem ‘Impossible’ lends insight into the title of Tuvia Ruebner’s excellent new book, Contradictory Poems: “It is impossible to recite poetry over and over again.” But at 87, he has published a new book brimming with an abundance of wonderful poems, most written during the last year [2010].

A contradictory schema is apparent in almost all the poems, perhaps because it is intrinsic to the human condition, as long as one has breath in one’s body. Hence in a short love poem titled ‘Sunset’, the poet writes “Darkness / Is that you? / A flood of light.” In wonderfully minimalistic, Beckett- or Giacometti-like style he is able to describe great love for a woman, infusing new life into the tired metaphor “you are the light of my life”.

There are other contradictions between the poems too. In another brief poem, ‘Too Short a Slumber’, Ruebner writes: “I can’t go on, / It’s getting dark.” That’s the whole poem, and the darkness spills over into the quiet spaces of the empty page, stretching out below the last word. But no one is more aware than Ruebner of the ‘the morning after’ effect, so he begins ‘This is a Poem’ with the line “Sunrise sets fire to the trees” and goes on to describe lovely nature in the moment before fire and brimstone rain down on Israeli society.

“We have produced tycoons with the speed of typhoons. / We have hewn a pit for our poor. / We have abused the Arabs. We have stolen, we have defrauded, we have mocked.” Anyone missing the fact that Ruebner’s poetry is also part of the ferocious social and political protest erupting around us is invited to take a serious look at Nasty Children’s Rhymes. The silence of its reception is worrying, since it shouts out louder than any megaphone held by my young colleagues from the Guerilla Culture group.

Naturally an article of this sort cannot cover adequately the swing of the pendulum between poems in praise of the countryside and poems of old age, conscious of an enforced leave-taking from that nature; between poems centered around music or plastic arts always confronting something else – holocaust, civil war, personal loss, bereavement.

If there is such a thing as ars poetica, then there is also ars vita, as the brief poem ‘Question’ asks so well: “How many years may one / keep one’s balance / at the edge of the abyss?” All of Ruebner’s poetry, photography, research, teaching, editing and publishing work constitutes a rare balance at the edge of the abyss of his biography. His work is the extraordinary victory of the spirit of a man who lives and works to the cries of shadows – those closest to him who are dead. They hover over him, and their calling disturbs his rest, his rising, his walking and sitting down to write.

[ . . . ] Perhaps this is not the place to talk about the language of these poems, but I must mention their strong and sophisticated Hebrew, their free rhythms which manage to move flexibly between colloquial prose and the poetic, between the great poetic traditions to the present, between the sublime and the everyday. It is no small thing to write outstanding nature poems at the end of the first decade of the new millennium.

In ‘Monologue on Poetry’, Ruebner writes, “I hide from myself and dress up in prose.” There are moments when it seems to the poet that he is writing prose with short lines, as though the story overcomes the song of the poem. But it only seems so, because Ruebner’s lines manage to sing via the story, through the story, beyond the story.

The poet Israel Pinkas describes these poems well when he writes in a brief afterword to the book: “something quiet and profound takes place in these poems, [which are like] a hidden, underground stream whose flow never ends. [ . . . ] The poet speaks to us in economical language that doesn’t try to prettify [life], and is free from all literary archness.”

Besides being a fine poet, Tuvia Ruebner is also a photographic artist. Many of his poems use photographs in order to confront stages in his life in Europe and Israel as Prof. Gabriel Zoran has pointed out in a fascinating lecture. I bring here as example the chilling poem ‘Black and White Photograph, Summer 1939’. What a wonderful way to establish the memory of love for old friends. What a wise and penetrating way to say what the Second World War did to their generation:

Here they all are, my friends from the youth movement in Slovakia
looking me straight in the eye over seventy years.
No, not all of them, some are laughing at each other, one
is fiddling with a little flag, and one girl is turning
her head. The forest in the background has all greyed.
I remember only some of the names.
At the top, Amnon, Shimshon, then Eli, very fair,
and Yehoshua, a bit of a dreamer, Gershon, a bandana on his head
like a Spaniard or an Indian, Mezzo trying to hide
Dubko – all smile and glasses.
Below, in the first row Aya and Simcha.
Just above them in the middle Michael and Gavriel, Chaim
half bold, half uncertain, and there I am without a shirt.
Not a single one got out of here. Not a single one.
We are on a hike, taking a break, happy.
The whole future before us.

Hebrew poetry is fortunate that Ruebner, along with some of his friends, escaped from the photograph and from that Europe and reached safety in the land of Israel. Decades later, I have been lucky enough to be the publisher of some of his books – of poetry, autobiography and photographs. The poet thanks me for these in the dedication at the beginning of this current book while I stand by, amazed at the splendour of his new poems. These last words may be an appropriate revelation. The rest of my words pay tribute to an outstanding Hebrew poet.

First published in Hebrew in Ynet on April 13, 2011

© Rafi Weichert (Translated by Rebecca Gillis)  
• Editors & Translators (Israel)

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