Poem of the Week

Portrait of an Artist Whose Body Betrays Her

Shin Shifra on the body as the poet’s tool.

From “Body Poems”

Shin Shifra

Pain

My body is my kingdom and also
the trap. I hadn’t assessed the kingdom’s
fortifications correctly, the pain is my
salvation.

Tool

My body is my writing tool
and my senses, which were intended
as the sentries,
collaborate move
aside let me scribble words
abstractly without invading
my untrustworthy kingdom give
rest to the tired woman

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden. These two poems, part of a sequence, were published in the Haaretz Culture and Literature section on October 14, 2011; the English translations were published in print in the Haaretz Book Supplement on March 12, 2012.

Shin Shifra (Shifra Shifman) died on February 9, 2012, at the age of 81 after a prolonged illness. These poems, which are among her last, record a struggle between body and mind during a time of medical crisis.

The medical circumstances are not specified and they don’t really matter. We can, however personally attest that “Pain” is a fine description of “chemo brain” as suffered by women: Alongside hope or gratitude for survival, rendering coherent thought becomes difficult. The mind is betrayed by the body – a “trap” – and the mind struggles to maintain control of that body – its “kingdom.”

In her lifetime the poet published six volumes of poetry as well as literary criticism and stories. She also specialized in Akkadian and Sumerian, and produced acclaimed translations of the literature of the ancient Near East, among them the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, which dates back to about 2100 B.C.E. The epic was deciphered from cuneiform tablets only in the late 19th century and had – in some circles – a profound effect on bible scholarship.

In the second poem, the trope of the body as tool recalls a passage in “The Adventures of Gilgamesh” (as translated into English by Theodor Herzl Gaster in “The Oldest Stories in the World, Viking Press, 1952), though in his case, it is the body of another. Gilgamesh sits beside his dying companion and erstwhile enemy. “’Enkedu,” he cried in his anguish, “you were the ax at my side, the bow in my hand, the dirk in my belt, my shield, my chiefest delight! With you I endured all things, scaled the hills and hunted the leopard! But now, behold, you are wrapped in sleep and shrouded in darkness, and hear not my voice!”

For some other artists – dancers, actors, musicians, sculptors and painters – the body is clearly a tool. One might have thought that for poets the ability to speak and an amanuensis nearby would suffice, as in the case of John Milton in his blindness – but no. That the body is also a tool for writers is an unexpected insight.

Shin Shifra
Daniel Tchetchik.

Born in Bnei Brak to a long-established religious family, the poet went her own way. In an interview to Haaretz in 2009 she said: “I have no regrets about anything. I chose. The reason I rebelled against the religious world from which I came was that I realized I am in fact a person who chooses.”

*Bonus: No regrets, as articulated by Edith Piaf