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Sigal Ben Yair

Sigal Ben Yair

Sigal Ben Yair

(Israel, 1970)
Sigal Ben Yair’s poetry “deals with poverty”, critic Eli Hirsh wrote when her debut book appeared: “That is, the lack of money and all the great difficulties it entails. But there are many kinds of poverty and what stands out in Ben Yair’s depiction are the gendered, aesthetic and intellectual foundations of impoverishment”.

The poet was born in Nesher, a town near Haifa, to Romanian immigrants to Israel. She holds an BA in archaeology and an MA in comparative literature from Haifa University, and is a graduate of the Helicon School of Poetry.  

The author of three volumes of poetry, Ben Yair was awarded the Teva Prize for her debut book, Unrefined; the Ramat Gan Literary Prize in 2013; and both the Israeli Emerging Poets Prize and the Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry in 2015.
“On the surface” of Ben Yair's poetry, Hirsh writes,

is the poverty of a hardworking and educated Israeli poet, from a cultured family…who belongs to the increasingly undermined middle class. Indeed, due to her education and hard work the speaker holds a job of a bureaucratic nature: “I’m entirely a desk, a peripheral self-shelf…/ with screwed-on hips”. SECRETARY There is a boss upon whom she depends and so she has no choice but to laugh at his racist jokes. Nonetheless, despite the job and her willingness to suffer his demeaning remarks, in AT THE MALL she does not have enough money to buy a book by Mayakovsky: 118 Israeli shekels [about 30 Euros]…

At new central station mall, fourth row on the right
I conspire
to steal books,
the selected poems of Mayakovsky,
118 shekels, recommended retail price.
My wallet is empty and I pray

Most of Ben Yair’s work is rife with carefully aimed pathos: from the exact location of the store in the bus station, through the empty wallet, to the price, which is indeed aggravating for a book of poetry. Even more important than the sophisticated and precise nature of her poverty is the prayer, presented as a wish or a forbidden desire, to steal work by Mayakovsky – Mayakovsky the revolutionary, ultra-modernist, [author of] “A cloud in trousers” – a prayer that ends in bitter failure:

and my arm reaches out –
trembling passion, hollow wallet, repossession of
my weakened hand. I crawl out
on my belly.


Ben Yair apparently likes this poem so much (and she should, it is wonderful), and so she has written several variations of it. In all these, as in most of her work, the same structure emerges: Ben Yair positions the speaker in a not very heroic situation: apparently poor, always in frustrating consumer or bureaucratic contexts, but ending in a crescendo based on powerful physical or mythic imagery. At the end of the poem above, the speaker imagines herself as a snake-woman exiled from Eden on her stomach…

Poverty in Ben Yair’s work is an ambiguous existential situation. It involves humiliation, unbearable weakness and threateningly narrow limitations. But exactly for this reason it allows the poet to create complex and original characters, objects of sharp and immoderate longing. It’s true that her work is seen as socially conscious…but beyond this…her poetry is close to those who write of bodies trapped inside themselves – desirous, tortured, ascetic... such as Hezy Leskly, Anat Zecharia,Yakov Biton or Ofer Nuriel.
© Lisa Katz, translated excerpts from Eli Hirsh 18 February 2011 Yediot Aharonot
Books in Hebrew
Unrefined, Helicon, Tel Aviv, 2011
No Proof, Habbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2014
What I Do, Pardes, Haifa, 2020

Link in Hebrew
VIDEO ART: Secretary
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
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