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Lionel Abrahams – gentle genius of South African literature
A mentor of poets
A mentor of poets and a powerful, very human poet himself – that was the great South African poet Lionel Abrahams who died in 2004. The list of poets and writers who were touched by this man’s gentle genius is a list of the best in South African literature: Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Oswald Joseph Mtshali, Modikwe Dikobe, Eleanor Anderson, Lionel Murcott and many, many others.
For more than two decades Abrahams ran a weekly writers’ workshop in which writers of all persuasions were able to bring their works, nascent or complete, and get honest and constructive opinions about the writings.
Week after week Abrahams would listen with an almost frightening intensity and sensitivity to the words and patiently, with great humanity and penetrating honesty, tell his feelings about the writing. From this amazing and nurturing experience of attention to the craft and art of writing an aspiring writer would emerge, sometimes a bit bruised, but always uplifted, always imbued with the sense that words could come that would express something profound, something worthwhile. It was a wonderful experience which I was privileged to experience for a few months.
Abrahams was instrumental in getting a lot of South African literature into the world, and his championship of Herman Charles Bosman’s work is, after his writing workshops, perhaps his most enduring legacy to the world.
For his whole life Abrahams battled with the extremely debilitating effects of Jewish Torsion Dystonia, which caused him not only intense physical pain but made verbal communication and physical movement difficult. In the workshops it was at times, especially before I got to know him better, achingly hard to sit near him, to witness his struggles, the grotesque contortions of face and body.
Yet there was never a hint of self-pity or of exploitation of the disease to gain sympathy or an easier ride through life. Abrahams did what he had to do without flinching, faced the world with an open gaze and responded to it with complete and courageous honesty.
Abrahams was a glutton for knowing, for experience and for the ideas that words stand for. In his collection The Writer in Stone, is a short poem, a gem of sheer Abrahams genius called "The Lustful Mind", which sums up his humanism and delight in the intellect:
The lustful mind is mined
with bombs of explosive joy.
But, chaste deliberate machines,
the merciless idea, the cold ideal
equip the factories of war.
For all the physical difficulty Abrahams endured, he retained a sense of “explosive joy” that shone through, making the physical not irrelevant, but just a “normal” part of life, nothing to get excited or angry about, just to live with. So that eventually the manifestation of the disease became totally secondary to the experience of being with the man and hearing his wit and wisdom, sharing in the “mining” of the mind to find the nuggets of great writing, the apt words.
His second-last collection, published in 1995, was called A Dead Tree Full of Live Birds. The questions of life and mortality were never far from his work, though he also was never morbid or soppy. Indeed he despised sloppy thought and believed that writing had to have a certain degree of precision to properly express thought. Sloppy writing to him was indicative of sloppy thinking.
His was an exemplary life, though I suspect he would have had a good laugh had anyone said that to him. He was a very humorous person who did not take kindly to pretension.
Over the Mountain
When I heard of his death in 2004 I immediately wrote the following poem, which I know he would have had many words to say about, but I offer it still as a response to my experience of him and the feelings I had at his death.
Over the mountain and through the valley
Towards an uncertain destination
We walk in the invisible footprints
Of the many gone before.
Along the way I see faces I know
Or thought I knew
In the shadows of the trees.
I hear voices I know
Or thought I knew
In the sound of the river.
And all the while
My heart beats a dirge
- JACANA MEDIA
Jacana Media South African publisher. Books include politics, current affairs, biography, autobiography, history, culture, art, environment, conservation, natural history, maps, eco-guides, primary health care, life skills, education and fiction - no