Poem of the Week Take That, Virginia Woolf

Yudit Shahar, on writing in straitened circumstances.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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The sign in red letters at a social justice protest says says: “A home is not a luxury.”
The sign in red letters at a social justice protest says says: “A home is not a luxury.” Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

A Room of My Own

Yudit Shahar

I don’t have 500 pounds Sterling, Virginia,
And I don’t have a room of my own,
I have two children
Two rooms
Two jobs
And two bank accounts –
Both in the red,
And I have a heritage and heredity
And a skimpy teacher’s wage.
Five hundred pounds I don’t have, Virginia,
Nor a room of my own,
I have a pen and paper
And a paralyzed passion
And pale light pouring silently
Through a window,
Half shut
And half agape.

From the social justice anthology Shiron Hamahapekha, Shirat Ohalim (“The Revolution Songbook, Tent Poetry,” August, 2011, Daka Publishing). A version of this translation from Hebrew by Vivian Eden was originally published in the Books supplement of Haaretz English Edition, September, 2011.

Three years ago, on July 14, 2011, mass protests erupted in Israel. At first dozens, then hundreds and then hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding social justice. A trigger issue was the cost of housing.

As a member of the artists’ group Cultural Guerilla, Yudit Shahar organized a number of actions in the 2011 protest. As of now, after much rhetoric, election gimmickry and spilled ink, efforts to relieve at least the problem of housing prices have culminated in a controversial legislative proposal granting VAT exemptions to some home purchasers, though the supply of homes is inadequate.

But who remembers the summer of protests? These issues have now been swept under the rug of security concerns. Back then, commentators linked the conflict with the Palestinians to social inequality and inevitably they will do so again once the dust settles.

“A woman,” declared Virginia Woolf, “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Shahar ripostes that although funds and space would be welcome, a woman can write poetry even if she has neither; only writing materials and passion are needed.

A critic in another publication wrote that this poem was written expressly for the protest poetry volume. Shahar herself says she had written it a number of years earlier and submitted it, from her drawer, to the anthology.

Letting poems ripen for a while is always good practice.

Two rooms, two kids

Shahar the poet is indeed a single mother raising two children in two rooms in Petah Tikva and working at two jobs. She teaches at a high school for youth at risk and conducts writing workshops. Her first volume, "Zu Ani Midaberet" (“It’s Me Speaking,” Bavel, 2009), was awarded two important prizes for a debut book of poetry; her second, "Lekhol Rehov Meshuga’at Mishelo" (“A Mad Woman for Every Street”), was published by Keshev in 2013.

In 2012 Shahar told an interviewer: “It bothers me to read a book of love poems, even first-rate poems, when they show no consciousness of actual everyday life, of what's going on. This is corruption and narcissism on the part of the writer. It’s our duty to talk about the core of what it is to be a human being today, and that includes the problem of survival.”

Musing: Is Shahar’s proposition always true?

Read the Hebrew poem here.

Yudit Shahar.Credit: Iris Nesher.

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