Samarra or Isfahan?

I found this poem by Dutch poet PN Van Eyck (1887-1954) in a novel by Kader Abdolah called My Father’s Notebook (Canongate Books, 2006). I bought it in 2008 when I was working in Dún Laoghaire; you will be impressed to know that it didn’t stay on the TBR Pile for very long. It tells the story of Ishmael in exile in Europe who is trying to piece his father’s story together from notebooks written in a strange code. Poetry is a very important part of Abdolah’s book, but the following poem in particular caught my eye and I copied it into a notebook in case I ever lost track of the novel.

Van Eyck’s poem closely resembles a story that I remembered from many years ago that I never got around to tracking down. It has many variations and I think the version that I must have heard was the retelling of what is actually a very ancient story, by Somerset Maugham (1933) called Appointment in Samarra. The story that Maugham re-wrote and that Van Eyck turned into a poem is possibly a thousand years old. I’ve been delving into the history a little and it seems as though I wasn’t the only person to have this ghost of a story about Death and Samarra floating around in my head all this time.

Death and the Gardener (translated from Dutch by David McKay)book jacket to My Father's Notebook by Kader Abdolah

A Persian Nobleman:
One morning, pale with fright, my gardener
Rushed in and cried, “I beg your pardon, Sir!

“Just now, down there where the roses bloom, I swear
I turned around and saw Death standing there.

“Though not another moment did I linger,
Before I fled he raised a threatening finger.

“Oh, Sir lend me your horse, and if I can,
By nightfall I shall ride to Isfahan!”

Later that day, long after he had gone,
I found death by the cedars on the lawn.

Breaking his silence in the fading light,
I asked, “Why give my gardener such a fright?”

Death smiled at me and said, “I meant no harm
This morning when I caused him such alarm.

“Imagine my surprise to see the man
I’m meant to meet tonight in Isfahan!”

You never know when and where you are going to find literary connections; with Van Eyck, I discovered a connection to one of my previous #PoetryinJune authors, WB Yeats. Apparently Van Eyck was very interested in the Irish Question and Irish Literature. He subscribed to the Cuala Press and corresponded with Lily Yeats and WB and Georgie Yeats during the 1920s and 30s. It’s an amazingly small literary world; either that or serendipity has been at work again.

That’s all for now on #PoetryinJune…but there’s plenty here to return to discuss another time. I spotted another of Kader Abdolah’s books in the library recently so I am sure he will feature as an extra to my Landing Reading Challenge at some point.

Meanwhile, if anyone else remembers Appointment in Samarra (or Isfahan) from childhood, I would love to hear about it, so drop me a line below.

NB – the ‘history’ link above seems to work better in Firefox than IE (haven’t tried Chrome but let me know)