Arc Publications logo

50 years at the cutting edge of poetry publishing

“A meeting point for poets of all latitudes”
— VĂ­ctor Rodríguez Núñez

Review: How Abraham Abandoned Me, by Bejan Matur

How Abraham Abandoned Me is an astonishing book. On the one hand, it takes the iconography of Islam, the One-Thousand-and-one-Nights, personal narrative, the tussles with religious doubt and the struggle of the Kurdish people, throws them up in the air and, from the resulting poetic pick-up-sticks creates a compelling, surging poetry. The ideas come with a giddying headlong rush. That places Matur's translators under a double strain, not only dealing with the wonderful complexities of Vowel Harmony in Turkish, whereby a particular vowel in a word will not only affect the grammatical endings of a word but also the suffixes as well. Thus part of the vowel music of Turkish is always going to be sacrificed on the altar of meaning. But what the translators have done is create a fine tapestry in which the layers of Matur's invention work and pull to spectacular effect:

See how the letters change
at sunset when swords gleam
they change as they speak of you.
As they speak of you an angel's wing grows thin
and covers me up.
And the angel fails to see
the anger in the eyes.

How the persons in these lines, 'they', 'you', 'me' and 'the angel' are recognised and characterised in the grammar of Turkish it's hard to tell; but reference, as we can see, is thrown continually out of kilter in English.

On the other hand, the book's trajectory is very tightly controlled. The first section 'Adam's Loneliness' follows the seven nights, but not the days, of creation. Matur's fifth day, when God created Man, is the shortest, and bleakest,

They are death's travellers
the crowd at the inn,
passengers through this world
gathered together.

The second section of the book is entitled 'And Angels Perch on his Right Shoulder', and this is equally pessimistic. In Islamic iconography, the angel on your right shoulder is the good angel, but here the angels on the right shoulder discuss, in no uncertain terms, the problem of suffering. The angels appear to ask Adam whether the source of 'the knowledge of words' and the implication is 'the knowledge of good and evil' wasn't actually God himself.

This discussion is carried over into Section Three, 'The First Conversation'; which seems to tie in with the title of the book with its suggestion of the Absconded God. If Abraham/ Ibrahim is the founder of the monotheistic religions that have gripped the Middle East since his time, then the knowledge he founded is, for Matur, deeply, deeply ambivalent. The first line of Section Three is 'the cause is absence of cause'. Here, causation is searched for in words and language, and in this section the translation seems at its most persuasive and sensitive. What might have been a dessicated post-modern rant about nothing existing but the symbolic order, becomes a profoundly moving analysis of the contemporary human condition. A condition that reaches out for meaning in the stars, the waters of the seas, sun, moon, those 'saints' who seem to have achieved greatest enlightenment, and most especially, human love.

In the final section, 'Tiger Stripes', Matur takes the progress of Adam after the fall and shows Adam learning the wonders of the world. Adam's learning here is both that of a child (of nature) and a Prophet, and we the reader, we the human race are those things too. If Eve is elided in this narrative that is because Matur makes her women literally more 'grounded'; and men must learn to see them as such,

That man who spoke of the stones and God
has found himself a sister, a sister whose white skirts fly with joy.
I remember the skirts
the unhappiness caused by a missing pleat
and the slippers
which were red.

from The Time of Skirts

In the final poem of the sequence, Home, Matur seems directly to address the fate of the Kurdish people; they have a home but with a father who is a dictator only just learning to be a father; the mother looks out on the whole world and must learn to comprehend it all, Before you can even look / it's acquired a name. And finally that home may still be only temporary, Don't leave me you said / hold me close I wanted to say / hold me close.

For Don Cupitt, the medieval mystics became mystics when they wrote, when they engaged in the necessary play of language. For Cupitt, someone like St Theresa of Avila was writing against. For Bahktin, we live in a dialogic world, where language is only ever possessed temporarily in the dialogue in which it takes place. For Bejan Matur, who denies being either religious, or a mystic, both play and dialogue offer deep truths. That the twenty-first century condition needs to understand faith in all its dimensions, to understand how people of faith are not always rigid with apocalyptic certainties, but struggle daily with the place of faith in their lives, and the dimensions of that struggle. How Abraham Abandoned Me seems to me to be a very great book indeed; a wonderful meditation on the spiritual maelstrom of early twentieth century living. Written by a secularist, this book understands that faith is not only theological but is faith in the world around us and the human beings who sustain us.