Journal of a New Woman

I was introduced to poetry I was 20 and was instantly addicted. I ached and sweated blood over my first three poems and made my way to the workshop of a man who was considered by many to be the most influential in my country’s literary history. I was a terrified novice in a room full of literary giants, expecting that when Lionel arrived he would wear a trench coat, smoke cigars, and stride into rooms with a swagger. Two women struggled in carrying a palsied, jerking man. To me, he was simultaneously a monster and a king—doubly terrifying. His words came out in violent groans that everyone else in the room was, peculiarly, responding to and understanding–a talent I simply didn’t have. I had the nerve to push my crumpled, handwritten pages into Lionel’s hand and ask him to read them.

The following week I arrived triply terrified: now he was a monster who was also a king who had my writing. He wheeled himself directly towards me. His head tilted all the way back, his mouth opened as though the moon would fall into it, and he said the first words I ever understood from him. “Very exciting. Very, very exciting.” I pretended to hear the rest of what he said. He pretended not to know. At home, as I went through the notes he’d given me, Lionel magically transformed me into a writer. His words were precise. Most were critical, but some obscenely complimentary. The only words that I could take in that night were, “poetic vision.” He had suggested I’d written poetry. Real poetry. That was the cliff I’d been hanging on for weeks.

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On my third visit, Lionel spun me into his magical web. I learned how to discern his words and as I did, his disabled body became invisible. His intellect, of a kind I had never seen before and have never again, crafted a new planet that I would forever walk on from that day. My experience was not unique. Journalist, Mark Gevisser, wrote, “He entices you so fully, through his communicative powers, into the world of his intellect […] A few hours later you go back into the ambulatory world and realise that it, rather than Lionel Abrahams, is different, strangely deficient. And you’re incomparably richer for the insights you have just gained.”

Lionel had a peculiar fondness for my writing, or he had a particular fondness for my enthusiasm, and he offered to teach me privately at no charge. He would teach me about this grand new subject called ‘literature’.

Module One: Typing

Lionel had a thumb and one working finger, so he typed grasping a pencil, which would shiver its way down, hit the wrong key, rise impossibly slowly, move towards delete, and then he’d try again. I wondered how long it had taken him to type out my two pages of criticism. I wondered how long it had taken him to type out notes just like mine to all the other writers in his workshop, how long to write his seven books, how long to produce the heavily edited shelves of novels and stories his mentor had rattled out on his vintage typewriter. How long does it take to type an ‘a’?

“Lionel, I want to go to university.”
“No. If you do you will never write again.”

Module Two: Pretension

Lionel would ask me,

“Have you read ‘A Country of My Skull?”
“No.”
“Oh, you must. Get it off the shelf.”
“Have you read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird?”
“No.”
“Oh, you must. Get it off the shelf.”

Two years went by, and this habit continued, with no question arriving with a negative review. Lionel had a long held friend, Nadine Gordimer, a woman he’d fought the apartheid regime next to, who he’d published with, and who he’d socialised with for more than a decade. She was also a Nobel laureate and one of the most important novelists in the country.
He said, “Have you read Nadine Gordimer?”
”No.”
“Don’t…” he drawled the words out, “Don’t bother.”

“Lionel, I want to submit my work for publication.”
“No. They will only publish you because the standard of literature in this country is a disgrace.”

Module Three: Pretension 2

“Lionel, I want to meet Nadine Gordimer.”
“You already have.”
I have done no such thing.”
“She was at the launch. You met her.”
“I want to meet her properly then. And I want to go to university.”
“No.”

Module Three: Pretension 3

I visited Lionel on my 25th birthday for an arranged lunch. I was disappointed to find that he wasn’t alone. A grey, dry knot of a woman was standing in his study.

“This is Nadine.”

Nadine was the kind of woman who didn’t seem to exist in her body, who was nothing but body, whose words came out like straw. I evaded her during the visit feeling hard done by that I’d been partially jilted.

“Lionel, I want to meet Nadine Gordimer.”
“You already did.”
“I’ve done no such thing.”
“She was at your birthday lunch.”
“You told me she was ‘Nadine.’ You didn’t tell me she was ‘Nadine Gordimer’!”

I was horrified. Why had he let me believe she was a person like everyone else?

“Lionel, I want to submit my work for publication.”
“No. You’re not good enough yet.”

Module Four: Disability

It was at 25 that my epilepsy spun out of control. I was constantly having seizures and no medication could change that. I was recommended surgery but refused it. The complexity of Lionel’s evolution with Jewish Torsion Dystonia had spanned 40 years and then he’d found peace with his useless body. His poem, ‘Meditation with a Cat,’ speaks of a day when he was lying on the bed watching the motions of an animal, “She unfolds her curious elastic ease/through the rich space of the room/testing the limits of the moment/her motions, her motives/ are less hers than mine/ Perception and concept and design/ are the space wherein I am free.”

Living outward with utter focus was not the only lesson he had for me. Acceptance of your body requires acknowledgement of a disability. He taught me instead to exist in my body.

“Lionel, I want to go to university now.”
“No. But I want to publish you.”

Module Five: Things That Matter

“Lionel, I want to go to university now.”
“I’ve taught you everything already. If you want the piece of paper, you can write an honour’s equivalency.”
“But what good does a piece of paper do me?”

Module Six: Friendship–2004.

“Lionel, how old do you feel?”
“Six.”

“In the outpouring of grief at the death of Lionel Abrahams, South Africa acknowledged its love for and its debt to the indomitable spirit that guided to a large extent moulded its literary sensibility.” Marcia Leveson,

On the day of his death I went walking. I walked to one house, left, walked to another, left, walked home, left, walked across town, walked back. It was at 4 am when I felt I had done enough walking. I came home, and I lived a dead life.

Module Seven: Literature

Lionel’s posthumous collection was released months after his death. He had always told me that he was not a ‘real’ poet. He just knew enough about poetry to fake it. This book was his opus, a final salute, an ultimate crowning of the talent he never knew he had. Unlike his previous books, it spoke all the words he’d ever said to me. He came alive again.

An earlier poem he wrote reads:

“It is not my self I wish remembered
when I’ll have gone into the lesser death:
it is those things in which I have rejoiced
to find the human fact affirmed, mankind’s
memorious possibilities proposed.
While those never old
and ever ancient Yeas survive,
I, brothered in tomorrow’s generations,
have my continuance.

and if swift shifting language
should rupture our connecting lines
to pastness, love and loveliness,
pity and piety, the cool patience of science,
the practised forms, the lights of paradox,
my kind would have no way to recognise my kind:
then I’d be lost, then I’d be dead in death.”

He wanted us to exist as an affirmation of humanity, to live with belief in the possibilities of mankind, to hold onto piety, love, science…

…but most intimately, he asked us to protect and use language, which he had sewn his life around with absolute generosity. He’d finally gotten around to teaching me what literature was: something that connects us. I gradually resurrected Lionel’s principles, which allowed me to let go of his ‘lesser’ life.

“I’ve just gone about my life, doing what I feel I must and can, as the demand arises, and the demand is as likely to be an internal as an external one. If the results add up to a particular position of guruhood, well, that has never been aimed at.” – Lionel Abrahams

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2 thoughts on “Journal of a New Woman

  1. What a great story! I loved the form of this and the tidbits you decided to include. Poignant and endearing.

    Like

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