Lionel Abrahams
(South Africa, 1928–2004)   
Lionel Abrahams

Lionel Abrahams was born in Johannesburg in 1928 of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. He died in Johannesburg of kidney failure on May 30, 2004, at the age of 75. Abrahams suffered from Jewish torsion dystonia, a rare form of cerebral palsy that kept him confined to a wheelchair for the last decades of his life.

Abrahams is a poet who is difficult to label or categorize, although his work is characterized by intellectual integrity and a deep and often despairing compassion. During the 1960s, at the height of apartheid, his Renoster Press published Oswald Mtshali's The Sound of a Cowhide Drum and Yakhal' Inkomo by Mongane Wally Serote, two best-selling collections that heralded the vigorous emergence of black poetry in South Africa.

Educated at the Hope Home, Damelin College and Wits University, Abrahams was coached in writing by Herman Charles Bosman. He went on to edit several posthumous volumes of Bosman’s work, as well as volumes of South African writing and Ruth Miller's collected poems. He has also edited and published two Johannesburg literary magazines and has been holding writing seminars for the last 20 years. He has been awarded honorary doctorates from Wits and Natal universities.

Abrahams’s poems are keenly observant and always rigorously argued. He is predominantly a philosopher poet, which is not to say that his work lacks passion or sensuality but that the reader is left with a satisfied sense of being engaged in a debate where ideas dominate. His literary biography is that of a champion of individual consciousness and of liberal values - values that are not always fashionable. As a critic, Abrahams has been at the centre of several literary controversies, never taking the easy populist position but insisting on the value of poetry and taking a fierce stand against cant and easy sloganeering.

He has a subtle mind and is possessed of a glittering wit and an eye for absurdity. It is slightly irresponsible to single out only one poem but, for this writer, an archetypal Abrahams poem is this paradoxical teaser:


Where I'm deepest
you may discern
a few muddy secrets.
My surface contains
the whole open sky.

The Lionel Abrahams Reader (1988) is a generous selection of Abrahams's work: poetry, prose, essays, article and reviews. In his introduction Patrick Cullinan says of his diverse talents "what is best expressed in verse is shaped into a poem, likewise the stories could only have been presented as stories". A Writer in Stone is a massive and affectionate tribute from 75 writers including Njabulo Ndebele, Nadine Gordimer, Sipho Sepamla, Tatamkhulu Afrika, Douglas Livingstone, Stephen Watson, Nat Nakasa, Seithlamo Motsapi and Douglas Reid Skinner. Introducing the book, Es'kia Mphalele sums the collection up as "a tribute worthy of Abraham's notion of the value of life, of what he stands for, as a writer and as a human being among human beings."

It could not be said better.

© Gus Ferguson



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