Two of my favourite poems by South African poet Lionel Abrahams
Weavers of magic
There is no doubt that poets have a special place in the history of the world. From the dawn of recorded history, and before, poets have used words to weave magic, to enlighten and to entertain.
For some poets are frivolous and subjective writers who contribute little. For others the poet is a magician, an artist in steel sparking thoughts off an anvil. Words fly like sparks and ignite the consciousness with new awareness, a knowledge of something ineffable yet real. Poems strike to the heart of our human experience and by their very concise and compressed world give us insight into ourselves and our world that we could not get from a thousand wordy theses.
In my incredibly beautiful country, South Africa, we have been fortunate to have poets who have, through their words, helped us to understand ourselves and the often frightening country we live in.
A poet who has meant much to me, especially as I knew him personally – a great honour – is the late great Lionel Abrahams.
Lionel was painfully afflicted with Jewish torsion dystonia, an incurable genetic condition characterised by muscular spasms. The condition afflicts mainly Ashkenazi Jews. His condition made him physically dependent on others for getting about, a situation he accepted with a grace that astonished me. He did not look for pity and was, perhaps in defiance of his physical dependency, fiercely independent of mind.
In his poetry he was able to look at the world and the many strange things going on in it with a great clarity of vision and he translated that vision into poetry that was clear and interesting to read. In contrast to his difficulty in speaking, his written word shone with great clarity, sometimes humorous and sometimes with an edge of anger. This comes through in the first poem I share here, which has the incredibly wonderful title, “A Dead Tree Full of Live Birds”. Typical of Lionel to find such a contrast.
The second poem, “Meditation with a Cat”, is another contrast. Here the poem is full of the sunlight of a quiet afternoon rest on a sun-warmed bed. The poem is rich in observation of the peculiarities of cats, but in such a way that one feels one knows this particular cat.
These two poems happen to be the first two in his last collection, published a year or two before he died. I think the poems in this collection are among the best he wrote in his long career as a poet.
A Dead Tree Full of Live Birds
In his review of the eponymous collection in which this poem appears, fellow-poet Francis Faller, writing in the Sunday Independent (13 August 1995) wrote: "For Abrahams, ripening is a function of the memory. And here lies one paradox: memory is both blessing and curse. The poet would be blessed if future generations were to recollect, not his 'self', but the humanistic, enlightened principles for which he and his forebears strove. He has no hunger for 'nes' and novelty; 'there is enough already greatly given, / waiting to be unforgotten.'"
Some thoughts on the first stanza
Typical of Lionel's keen appreciation of the "little" things in life is that "cluster of baby snails, bodies clear as glass / but horned, shelled, complete". I love those two lines. The contrast between the clear glass and the "dried dog-turd" is funny and yet so sensitive to perspective.
And then the realisation that people are not interested, or don't have time in the rush of life, to look at such simple things: "Who wants my news of tiny slow new life, / or flickering life amid stiff, brittle twigs?"
And then the intellect comes and takes over the impulse to celebrate new life - these little snails are of no consequence in the grander scheme of things. Lionel's use of the word "paralysed" in this line makes it so personal. The paralysis is his paralysis.
I just love this stanza for the brilliant way Lionel brought so many different images into contrast with each other so that the importance of little things is brought out. This is a stanza alive with Lionel's life, with his sensitivity and clarity of vision.
A dead tree full of live birds.
Why should I set this down?
On a young man's palm, a spiky clump
that could be a dried dog-turd
seen through my spectacles becomes
a cluster of baby snails, bodies clear as glass
but horned, shelled, complete,
one climbing toward a finger.
Who wants my news of tiny slow new life,
or flickering life amid stiff, brittle twigs?
The impulse to celebrate is paralysed after a moment's thought.
It is not merely that another youth
his bunched up fist aloft, declaimed:
“I am Azania...I have no time for liberals...”
while at the same concert for the Art Centre's friends
child-mimes with the vivid grace of mice
enacted angry pupils and their wicked teacher
whom in righteous triumph they lynch with stones and fire.
Not just that responsible thinkers announce
demands of History, revolution, sociological times.
Not alone the dumbing of a girl's desperate death,
its charge of griefs and guilts that my words won't bear,
by which I've lost a line of meaning
and an heir to some of my books, some of my hopes.
(Note: “Azania” is the name used by some radical groups for South Africa.)
Some thoughts on the third stanza
"Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?" These are the anguished questions Job asks. I can imagine that Lionel might have been tempted to ask a similar question.
Arjuna asked, "What is the self? What are fruitive activities?" I am note sure that these are the questions that Lionel called "my questions" that Job and Arjuna had already asked. But something like these certainly.
I take Lionel's mention of Arjuna as, in addition, an allusion to Eliot's "The Dry Salvages", the third of the Four Quartets: "So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna / On the field of battle./ Not fare well,/ But fare forward, voyagers."
And then comes that "paralysis" again in a reference this time to Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode". I wonder if the lines Lionel had in mind might have been these:
"My genial spirits fail; / And what can these avail / To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?"
And what are the "ageless answers" that Lionel found in "Dover Beach" and "Lapis Lazuli"?
The first of these is an intensely sombre and doleful poem by Matthew Arnold in which these lines appear:"For the world, which seems /To lie before us like a land of dreams /So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain." That is a rather bleak answer.
At first Yeat's "Lapis Lazuli seems to offer no better answer:"All men have aimed at, found and lost; / Black out; Heaven blazing into the head: / Tragedy wrought to its uttermost."
But then there is a lightening of mood and the poem ends on an almost happy note: the two monks on the Lapis Lazuli carving which features in the poem, observe the "tragic scene" about them, and "Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, /Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay."
The next stanza of Lionel's poem perhaps, despite his doubts, points the way towards a kind of Zen illumination, when "The smell of mint this morning / invading the bathroom when the window was opened", while it "will aid no struggle, rescue nobody, / save no one from despair," it nevertheless "could grant me, my own reader, life / before and after."
Also in this mortal mood I am appalled
beneath the weight of books. The shelves are laden,
the shelves in my room are laden with books -
and of even the most urgently treasured through decades
of fishmoth and dust, I shall have left many unread.
While beyond, defying the spans of all who care,
are vast collected libraries
expanding to a cosmos of the unexplored.
Not another page, another line,
Job and Arjuna already asked my questions.
The “Ode in Dejection” wrestled with my paralysis.
Over such baffling, tragic tides as ours
“Dover Beach” and “Lapis Lazuli” have given
Whatever I may find to say perhaps was said
before I breathed.
But even if my news were news,
useful, bearing on the predicament,
there is enough already greatly given
waiting to be unforgotten.
The smell of mint this morning
invading the bathroom when the window was opened
will aid no struggle, rescue nobody,
save no one from despair,
nor even yield a Zen illumination
no matter what I may connect into the moment.
Yet I am naming it -
as though the shaping line that hold
my animal or vegetable moment out of time
could grant me, my own reader, life
before and after.
And those immensities, the libraries,
inhabit only us, our intimate space.
Read and unread, my shelves of books
are my urgent life, and I,
their possible reader, am possibly theirs.
It is the 'dead' past now that we live out
with no redundancy, no repetition,
live out, becoming its continuing tale.
Defection into silence would annul
the inner galaxy.
Meditation with a Cat
The cat inhabits this moment on the bed
complete, nothing left over, nothing intended -
conscious of only sensation defined
by this moment on the bed.
Alongside, I simmer with thought,
intentions, memories, questions, ambitions
and concepts; the cat, time purpose, death.
The glory of the cat's nature
is her agile, replete
inhabitation of the moment.
She unfolds her curious elastic ease
through the rich space of the room,
tensed by suspicion,
sprung by the cunning lust to kill,
testing the limits of the moment,
the moment she, after all, is gaoled in.
And her motions, her motives
are less hers
Perception and concept and design
are the space wherein I'm free.
"A great and stubborn fighter"
Lionel Abrahams, despite the disfiguring effects of the condition with which he struggled all his life, was a beautiful person. I feel so privilieged to have known him, even though it was for such a short time.
He had no time for pretension or bullshit. He was direct and honest, yet at the same time, with an incredible humility, caring to a fault. A totally committed humanist with no time for cant.
To quote Faller again: "He's a great and stubborn fighter and his thoroughly humane pen will continue to prick a few teleological butts. Our reward for being pricked? After all this dread experience, we too may find wonder in 'stories of the second innocence.'"