Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Rachel Tzvia Back Translates
Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner,
Voice of Holocaust Generation

The Hebrew Union College Press, in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Press, has just released the first collection in English of an important voice of the Holocaust generation: In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner

The volume is translated, annotated and introduced by Rachel Tzvia Back, whose own poems appeared in After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events . See her full bio below.

The disasters of the 20th Century swept Ruebner from Europe to Israel, from German to Hebrew, from the familiar to the strange. Despite his truncated formal education, he became a poet and man of letters in Israel’s fledgling intellectual community, alongside other Jewish immigrant-refugee-survivors like Ludwig Strauss, Lea Goldberg, and Dan Pagis, eventually gaining international esteem as professor of comparative literatures at Haifa University and as renowned translator. For his fifteen poetry collections, from The Fire in the Stone in 1957 to Last Ones in 2013, Ruebner has received awards and accolades in Israel and Europe.

Ruebner’s poetry offers an exquisite and indispensable voice of the 20th Century. His little sister, murdered in Auschwitz, and his youngest son, who disappeared in South America, wander unceasingly through his poems. Beyond the personal losses, the devastation of the century informs all of his work. Textual rupture and fragmentation echo historical rupture and fragmentation. The wonder of Tuvia Ruebner is that, after a lifetime of loss and tragedies, he remains open to the possibility of happiness. This openheartedness accommodates the many paradoxes and conflicts of life and infuses his poetry with an enduring and encompassing compassion for both the lost and for the living.

Sample of poems from In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner.


I know it’s nothing
but a dream
and as a dream will flee
but this small hope
this small foolish unceasing
that one day we’ll meet
on the dark side of the moon
pain does not appease
the darkest thoughts
now it’s night and you are missing
tomorrow will be day and you’ll be missing
your wisdom is missing, your voice missing
your love a weeping deeper than tears wept
but the day is not far off when I’ll be
beyond this, and the dream
you and me
on the other side of the moon
we’ll be with you and with me
you and me as one
my son, my son


If after everything that has happened
you can still hear the blackbird,
the tufted lark at dawn, the bulbul and the honey-bird –
don’t be surprised that happiness is watching the clouds being
     wind-carried away,
is drinking morning coffee, being able to execute all the body’s
is walking along the paths without a cane
and seeing the burning colors of sunset.

A human being can bear almost everything
and no one knows when and where
happiness will overcome him.


I went to find for you a form,
tenderness with no body,
sorrow with no hands no forehead,
I went to find for you
spring, a bird seeking a cage,
I walked a long way to find
your footsteps,
constellations for your long hair,
sanctuaries for your eyes.

Always when the full moon rises
my sister’s face darkens,

sad-eyed bird in the branches
abandoned by its orbit.
Always when the moon is renewed
my sister’s face darkens,

empty unblessed lips
muttering bird-words.

Oh these lofty skies,
how much we’ve asked of them!
Soon their image will be fully blurred,
bearing no tears.

Poems from In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner reprinted by permission of the translator Rachel Tzvia Back. The title is linked to Amazon.com to buy. Also available at University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rachel Tzvia Back’s graceful translations of select poems representative of Ruebner’s seven-decade poetic trajectory are ever-faithful and beautifully attuned to the Hebrew originals, even as they work to create a new music in their English incarnations. Her comprehensive introduction and annotations supply the context in which these poems were produced. This first-ever bilingual edition, published as Ruebner marks his 90th birthday, gives readers in both Hebrew and English access to stunning poetry that insists on shared humanity across all border lines and divides.

Tuvia Ruebner
Tuvia Ruebner is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Haifa University, winner of the Israel Prize, and translator of the works of S. J. Agnon, Goethe, Ludwig Strauss, and Friedrich Schlegel. Rachel Tzvia Back is a poet, translator, and professor of literature at Oranim College, Haifa, Israel.

Rachel Tzvia Back – poet, translator and professor of literature – lives in the Galilee, where her great, great, great grandfather settled in the 1830s. Her poetry collections include Azimuth (Sheep Meadow, 2001), The Buffalo Poems (Duration Press, 2003), On Ruins & Return: Poems 1999-2005 (Shearsman Boks, 2007), and A Messenger Comes (Singing Horse Press, 2012). Back's translations of the poetry of pre-eminent Hebrew poet Lea Goldberg, published in Lea Goldberg: Selected Poetry and Drama (Toby Press 2005) represent the most extensive selection of Goldberg's poetry in English and were awarded a 2005 PEN Translation Award. Back has translated into English poetry and prose other significant Hebrew writers, including Dahlia Ravikovitch, Tuvia Reubner, Hamutal Bar Yosef, and Haviva Pedaya. Back is the editor and primary translator of the English version of the anthology With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry (SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions, 2009) – a collection named "haunting" and "historic" by American poet Adrienne Rich. Ms. Back’s poems have been anthologized in After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events .