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)


Having reached day thirteen of my #PoetryinJune Reading Challenge, we come to another literary festival marking the life of a famous poet. I have therefore decided to choose a poem by W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) in honour of Yeats Day today. This was originally the title poem from the Cuala Press volume (published in 1904) that I mentioned in my feature on Lily and Lolly Yeats. I have copied the text of this short poem from my Everyman’s Poetry edition which contains a selection of verse spanning Yeats’ career.

I first encountered Yeats’ work on my ‘O’ Level literature syllabus, which was more years ago than I care to remember. We also studied W.H. Auden and Wilfred Owen’s poetry, though sadly I don’t have a copy of the text-book. Since Auden has already had a spot in my #PoetryinJune series, I should certainly make room for Owen at some point this month. But in the meantime I hope you enjoy this evocative piece from W.B. As someone who tries to attract our stripey furry friends to the garden, I love the thought of the bees humming in the flowers in this scene. The contrast of the lime-tree flowers with paper flowers a few lines later seems to me to point up the beauties of the country.

book cover of Yeats Selected Poems

Everyman paperback edition, 1997

In the Seven Woods

I have heard the pigeons of the Seven Woods,
Make their faint thunder, and the garden bees
Hum in the lime-tree flowers; and put away
The unavailing outcries and the old bitterness
That empty the heart. I have forgotten awhile
Tara uprooted, and new commonness
Upon the throne and crying about the streets
And hanging its paper flowers from post to post
Because it is alone of all things happy.
I am contented, for I know that Quiet
Wanders laughing and eating her wild heart
Among pigeons and bees, while that Great Archer,
Who but awaits His hour to shoot, still hangs
 A cloudy quiver over Pairc-na-lee.

There’s lots going on in Sligo today to honour its former resident and his creative siblings. The Yeats Society in Sligo was formed in 1958 ‘to promote appreciation of his poetry and other writings, and an awareness of the other members of this talented family‘. The society, based in the Yeats Memorial Building has been running both a summer and a winter school for several years as well as being involved in many other literary and cultural activities.

Click on the Press Release Link for more information about the Second Annual Yeats Day events in Sligo which runs from 8am until late.

Now, I must go and peruse the shelves for tomorrow’s #PoetryinJune verse…