Lionel Abrahams was born in Johannesburg in 1928 of Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania. On receiving the Olive Schreimer prize for Poetry in 1986, he said, ‘The extreme moments of history often defeat poetry. But if poetry endures it has to go … into the core of individual experience.’ Lionel Abrahams worked in South Africa as a writer, publisher, editor, teacher and mentor to younger writers until his death in May, 2004 at the age of 75. In the 1960’s he published black poetry during the height of Apartheid, and has been acknowledged for his work and his brilliance with prizes, an honorary doctorate, a massive anthology in tribute to him and in 1988 publication of the Lionel Abrahams Reader. For the last ten years of his life he was confined to a wheelchair, dying of a rare form of cerebral palsy. He pays tribute on the title page of this book to his cousins who provided him with the writing tools that saved him from silence in his last years.
This collection is a simultaneous Australian publication along with the South African edition of these, his last poems. The book is divided into four sections, ‘as a precaution against being misinterpreted,’ with instructions following on the tone the reader should hear in each section. Already I know I will inevitably misinterpret his work, for what reader doesn’t misinterpret? Nevertheless, we go on, as we do, reader and writer despairing of each other and needful of each other.
It seems to me that the sectioning of the book pales as any kind of influence on a reading of the poems as Abrahams’ jerky, perky, sinuous, song-like voice and prickly mind take charge of the poetry. This is poetry unafraid of history, unafraid of ideas, and committed to the difficult balancing act of bringing both enjoyment and confrontation to the reader. In one of the early truly remarkable poems, ‘The Chemist of Auschwitz’ the opening sixteen lines are constructed as a single sentence, with the next sixteen as another. This poetry challenges on many levels, and left me with a phrase of strange ferocity: ‘Another survivor of a managed hell’. From this reflection on Primo Levi and the managed hell of Auschwitz the very next poem, ‘Swarming’ opens another vivid aspect of Abrahams’ poetry: his ability to bring a small personal experience or an anecdote to life so carefully, so gently that we find ourselves as amazed as he is. This poem alone makes the book worth seeking out, for it is, I think one of those moments when the poetry enters the core of individual experience. Towards the end of the collection there is a record of another small personal experience in ‘Untitled’ which reprises beautifully the Raymond Carver short story, ‘The Hair.’
While much of the poetry in this collection is fuelled and fired by a commitment to democratic, humanitarian liberal values, in protest against atrocities, or in grief over them, the poetry is often doing more than adhering to a line. The strange dialogue for two voices, ‘Wonderful, Considering …’ has a complicating poignancy, a further ironic twist, when we know the poem was written from his own wheelchair: how patronising is it for a critic to praise a work of art on the grounds that it was produced out of suffering, and yet how founded in suffering is all art anyway … and even if Mozart was miserable, Keats was coughing all the time, and Hawking’s ‘wheel-chair drives us/round the universe’s curves’, must that dictate our appreciation of their art?
This book was written in the knowledge of his coming death, through the bizarre period of the change of millennium and the 9/11 attack on New York. As Abrahams farewells his world, there is a new era emerging, and an utterly changed world facing certain terror. This strange edge on which he finds himself is expressed through the poems that celebrate birth. His poem to Lorenzo (‘Connection’) begins, ‘Child – you who have arrived in time and just in time/to knock for us at the tremendous door/of a new thousand years …’. In the last pages of the book the poetry becomes more delicate, assonances, consonances, the rhythms of the long lines and longer sentences give the poetry a strangely gentle surface, even while the images become the archetypal ones of a poet no longer self-editing or no longer listening to the critical self:
Body, a-tumble in torrent of time,
Attempts every minute to report
Its last-found secret to the soul.
(from 'Lower Wisdom')
These lines tumble as if a lock seeking its own release, allowing both weakness and strength to play their parts in the poetry, in the psychology, and in the emotions.
Towards the end of the book there is a gathering of energy into a series of daringly short epigrammatic poems that would have audiences shouting for more at a live reading.
‘That One’ is an example:
He got no T-shirt,
Show no V sign.
He sing no peace song,
Go no peace march,
Join no peace chain.
Where his ribbon?
Where his doves?
Whose side he on
Infectious as it is, and perhaps foolish, for it mirrors George Bush junior’s ‘If you are not with us you’re against us’ dictum, it is only one side of Abrahams’ many-sided poetry. Always he is prepared to complicate his thoughts and ours. His longer reflection on the address of suicide bomb victims to the parents of the bombers, ‘Possible Post Script’, is just such a complication, and typical of this poet’s attraction for the most difficult and confronting of subject matter.
When he complains, at length, as a customer consuming the most recent product of a literary journal, he asks, ‘What creature gets inside me as I read?’ Indeed, what creature has inhabited me as I have read this book: a beast, I guess, that’s not quite me and not quite Abrahams, but one I’m grateful to have encountered, and hope that many readers take the time to do the same, for Lionel Abrahams always does enough to make every word ring its sound.