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DEATH OF LIONEL ABRAHAMS (article first published : 2004-06-14)

After a lifetime of debilitation, poet Lionel Abrahams’ 76-year-old body finally expired on 30 May 2004 – but his work surely never will. He was born in Johannesburg on 11 April, 1928, with Jewish torsion dystonia, a form of cerebral palsy endemic to certain families from Eastern Europe. It was at the Hope Home for disabled children that he edited his first magazine, The Inmate.

After Abrahams dropped out of Witwatersrand University, his father engaged Herman Charles Bosman to mentor his son in creative writing. After Bosman died, Abrahams edited seven volumes of his posthumously published works. Were it not for Abrahams, Bosman may well not be the household name he is today.

His generous spirit helped to put others on the literary map. From 1957 to 1972, he was editor of The Purple Renoster literary journal which brought to the fore, amongst others, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, Bloke Modisane and Todd Matshikiza. In 1971, as publisher of Renoster books, he took the bull by the horns and published Oswald Mtshali’s watershed poetry collection Sounds of a Cowhide Drum which was an instant success and is studied to this day. That was followed in 1972 by Mongane Wally Serote’s Yakhal'inkomo.

Although Abrahams edited six other magazines, several notable books, founded Bateleur Press with Patrick Cullinan, and conducted highly popular writers’ workshops, he will be remembered most for his own writing. This includes the poetry collections Thresholds of Tolerance (1975), Journal of a New Man (1984), A Writer in Sand (1988), and A Dead Tree Full of Live Birds (1995). His autobiographical novel The Celibacy of Felix Greenspan was published in 1977, followed 25 years later by The White Life of Felix Greenspan. Acclaimed by critics, academics and most of all artists, the two books paint a vivid artscape spanning five decades of Johannesburg life.

Abrahams’ last book will soon be published. Written with Jane Fox, his wife of the last 18 years, it is about playwright, director, and Market Theatre founder Barney Simon. A definitive book about Abrahams’ early and middle years was edited in 1980 by Patrick Cullinan who compiled a collection of poems, essays and journal entries in Lionel Abrahams: A Reader.

Much revered by both the literary establishment and grassroots writers, Abrahams was accorded a number of awards. Despite (or because of?) leaving Wits before graduating, the university bestowed him with an honorary doctorate. The University of Natal followed suit, and the English Academy gave him its Gold Medal. But probably the ultimate, and most poetic, accolade comes from his widow: “Lionel was like the yeast in the bread.”

The last words however must go to the man himself. Here is one of his poems, published recently in the Pietermaritzburg-based literary journal Fidelities – edited by Kobus Moolman. Most poets, and many others, will ‘identify’ with it:

PERSONA NON GRATA/Something in ‘me’ and ‘my’ and ‘I’/incurs disapprobation/both from grim-purposed radicals/and seekers steeped in contemplation?

They feel, it seems, the poets’ voice/of all most needs to purge the ego/Who’s then to sing of gods, world, work/and love, and one’s fellow?

I find the narrow mirror strip/inside the central cell of me/turns out sometimes to be a door/from my identity to all Identity.

Nadine Gordimer recently observed that many people write poetry but in each generation only a handful of poets emerge. Although she was not referring to Lionel Abrahams at the time, she would probably agree that he was not only one of a handful in his generation – but one of the great South African poets of all time.

In 1967 she and Abrahams co-edited the anthology of stories South African Writing Today. On his recent death she is quoted as saying: “We will never see his like again.” – Brett Beiles




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