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Book of Longing

by Leonard Cohen
240 pages,
ISBN: 0771022344


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Gypsy Boy
by Asa Boxer

One of the most horrifying moments in Leonard Cohen's oeuvre occurs in his novel The Favourite Game, when the young protagonist, Lawrence Breavman hypnotises Heather, the house maid. He has her undress and hold his penis, exulting in his magical prowess, then has her dress and forget everything. Excitedly, he rushes through the de-hypnosis process, but in his haste, he fails to completely release her suspended psyche.

Three hours later he heard laughter from the basement and thought that Heather must be entertaining friends down there. Then he listened more carefully to the laughter and realised that it wasn't social.
He raced down the stairs. Thank God his mother was out. Heather was standing in the center of the floor, legs apart, convulsed with frightened hysterical laughter. Her eyes were rolled up in her head and shone white. Her head was thrown back and she looked as if she was about to fall over.

Unfortunately, Cohen can have this kind of debilitating impact on his fans, who are sometimes so mesmerised by the virile "gypsy boy" that their critical faculties can do little else but shower praise on his music and poetry.
The praise, mind you, is deserved. Cohen's gifts as lyricist are rivalled only by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash; and like his songs, his poems deliver phrasings that embed themselves in the listener's mind, helping shape his or her consciousness of the world. But his oeuvre should come with a "dangerous to your health" warning. Cohen is not the guru-poet many mistake him for. The art behind his bohemian-romantic persona has no truck with the kind of domestic wisdom most of us ultimately seek. In his own words,


I greet you from the other side
Of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere

The reason that Cohen's stuff is a salve to the lonely, the recently betrayed, broken-up, separated, or divorced is because his work is often an amplified expression of emotional distress. A line like, "you go to heaven, once you've been to hell," is not an aphorism to live by, it's a clichT. When this line appears in the song, "Paper Thin Hotel", for instance, it is cast as an expression of sour grapes, a way of dreaming up justice in a jealous mood. In other words, Cohen's writing represents catharsis; and his success rests almost entirely upon a confessional technique that leads to a kind of private, almost introverted myth-making.
Indeed, the title of Cohen's 1956 poetic debut, Let Us Compare Mythologies, still makes a fitting description of his career. He has created scores of memorable mythological figures and archetypal tropes: Suzanne, The Sisters of Mercy, Anne, The Tower of Song, Closing-Time, Joan of Arc and the Fire, Chelsea Hotel, Eichman's Portrait. He has always been interested in symbol-suggesting metaphors, either of his own creation (as in Death of a Lady's Man, the book), or borrowed from old stock (as in Beautiful Losers). Most of all, he has¨improbably¨achieved brilliant success by marrying mystical and religious themes to sexual innuendo and folk/ pop-music truisms.
His recent collection of poems, Book of Longing, shows Cohen still writing with the old troubadour's intensity, still sexually alert; but with a depth of thoughtfulness that defies any sense of redundancy in relation to his earlier work (this is especially impressive given that the book contains previously unpublished poems dating as far back as 1970). Here's a characteristically cheeky example called, "Other Writers":

Steve Sanfield is a great haiku master.
He lives in the country with Sarah,
his beautiful wife,
and he writes about the small things.
Kyozan Joshu Roshi,
who has brought hundreds of monks
to a full awakening,
addresses the simultaneous
expansion and contraction
of the cosmos.
I go on and on
about a noble young woman
who unfastened her jeans
in the front seat of my jeep
and let me touch
the source of life
because I was so far from it.
I've got to tell you, friends,
I prefer my stuff to theirs.

Don't we all? Sex and divinity have long enjoyed a well-established relationship, but aside from the Song of Solomon it's hard to think of another body of work where the connection is as natural-feeling and appealing. The comedic structure of the poem reveals Cohen's method to be a refined form of insinuation that joins love of the flesh to love of the spirit. And he accomplishes it by using clichT. Notice how the bits about Sanfield and Roshi depict them as clichTs in their spiritual pursuits; and then, how Cohen self-consciously associates himself with the pop-culture clichT of sex in a vehicle.
ClichTs are commonly understood as trite expressions within easy reach, such as "ruby lips", "white as snow", "purling brook". ClichTs are also the old standards of refined expression, as for example, Shakespeare's "the clothes make the man," or Burns's, "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men,/ Gang aft agley," or Ben Franklin's, "early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." ClichTs, then, can be thought of as the living influence of the world's most finely penned thoughts. So overwhelming is that influence that poets tend to steer clear of them entirely for fear of being derivative. Cohen, however, has no qualms with clichTs. In fact, he uses them to mint new ones; or, more accurately, he reworks clichTs to such melodic¨and mnemonic¨effect that they effortlessly reenter the linguistic stream. Many of Cohen's lines sound as if they had been forgotten among the old standards and dead metaphors until he resurrected them. To achieve this effect, he often nestles his new coinages within existing clichTs. One of the most remarkable examples of this occurs in the song, "Everybody Knows":

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded. Everybody
rolls with their fingers crossed. Everybody knows the
war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed: the poor stay
poor, the
rich get rich. That's how it goes. Everybody knows.

The first two lines are derived from, and are an expansion of, the clichT of playing with loaded dice. This technique blurs the distinction between fresh writing and old standards, so that what "everybody knows" (i.e clichT) is used to create, as Pope wrote, what "is often thought but never so well expressed." What follows to the end of the stanza is a pileup of catchphrases, but they are so compacted and compressed that they feel revitalised.
Consider these lines from Book of Longing's "Boogie Street": "It is in love that we are made; in love we disappear." This is "ashes to ashes" reformulated. And "The Sweetest Little Song", from the same book, provides another excellent example of Cohen reworking clichT:

You go your way
I'll go your way too.

The "twist"¨or punch line¨of the couplet is what singles him out as an exceptional artist who has significantly developed particularly weak areas of our language. ClichT has been a bogeyman of poetic expression, but Cohen challenges the received critical attitudes by re-categorising it as prosodic strength rather than as a point of failure. How else to explain the quotability of the following phrases: "love and chains and things you can't untie"; "the duty of lovers is to tarnish the golden rule"; "like a bird on the wire, I tried in my way to be free." These are but a few instances in Cohen's writing where the language achieves a proverbial life as rich as anything by Mark Twain, Ralph Emerson, Oscar Wilde, or Alexander Pope.
Book of Longing continues to pack memorable metaphors in unforgettable phrasing. It has a wonderful new figuration of Babylon, for instance, in a piece called, "By the Rivers Dark":

I did not know
and I could not see
who was waiting there
who was hunting me

by the rivers dark
I panicked on
I belonged at last
to Babylon

then he struck my heart
with a deadly force
and he said, 'This heart:
it is not yours.'

and he gave the wind
my wedding ring
and he circled me
with everything

by the rivers dark
in a wounded dawn
I live my life
in Babylon

Now here are some lines from Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" with the lineation altered to emphasise the enchanting rhythmic resemblance to "By the Rivers Dark".

A bow-shot from
her bower-eaves,
He rode between
the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling
through the leaves,
And flames upon
the brazen greaves

Of bold Sir Lancelot.

Cohen uses a similar spell-like rhythm; and the over-arching sense-making, in the case of both poems, is evasive. In the Cohen piece, who is the hunter, and who, the hunted and why; and what exactly does this strange Babylon represent? In the Tennyson piece, one wonders who is the lady, what is the curse, and what does this strange Camelot represent? A stanza from Tennyson's "In Memoriam" seems to anticipate Cohen's Biblical allusiveness, subject matter, and formal poetic measures:

And bore thee where I could not see
Nor follow, though I walk in haste,
And think that somewhere in the waste
The Shadow sits and waits for me.

It is worth recalling here, that like Shakespeare, Tennyson was a rewriter of folk-tales and myths. To many of his contemporaries, Tennyson's revival of Arthurian Romance was contemptible and his ornamental language, inscrutable; he remained as unconcerned with "the language really used by men" as Cohen seems to be with "mak[ing] it new" (at least in the way that phrase is commonly understood). As early as Let Us Compare Mythologies, Cohen reveals an interest in Tennyson in a poem called "Ballad" where he states, "My lady was a tall slender love,/ like one of Tennyson's girls,/ and you always imagined her erect on a thoroughbred/ in someone's private forest." The Cohen/Tennyson link gets one thinking: "In Memoriam" is one of the greatest gifts to the English language, an elegiac tour de force that states in part five:

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

Cohen seems to be in a direct line with this tradition: highly formal, sombre, and even sepulchral, he operates in the realm of established magical themes and explores those hallowed subjects, love and death, by far the most compelling to audiences at any time. "Nightingale" is a fine example of the Tennysonian strain finding form in his new book:

I built my house beside the wood
So I could hear you singing
And it was sweet and it was good
And love was all beginning

Fare thee well my nightingale
'Twas long ago I found you
Now all your songs of beauty fail
The forest closes 'round you

The sun goes down behind a veil
'Tis now that you would call me
So rest in peace my nightingale
Beneath your branch of holly

Fare thee well my nightingale
I lived but to be near you
Though you are singing somewhere still
I can no longer hear you

Remarkably simple-feeling, yet extremely moving; it rings all kinds of idiomatic bells, yet is completely original. The sense of tradition that powers a poem like "Nightingale" reminds us that poetry, for its success, depends on the mixing and matching of old and new vernaculars; that the best moments of poetic expression are those that, rather than feeling "new" feel urgent, as though they had no choice but to be written.
There are a group of poems in Book of Longing that don't convey that urgency, and that I number among Cohen's weaker efforts. I'm referring to the confessional type most fully developed in Energy of Slaves (1972). Amongst these poems, Cohen has one that speaks directly to the compulsion to write. It's called, "My Time":

My time is running out
and still
I have not sung
the true song
the great song

I admit
that I seem
to have lost my courage

a glance in the mirror
a glimpse into my heart
makes me want
to shut up forever

so why do you lean me here
Lord of my life
lean me at this table
in the middle of the night
wondering
how to be beautiful

Pieces like the one above feel too caught up in the theatre of being a Poet. Too much self-advertising is afoot. It reads, between the lines, like a personals ad. Nevertheless, Cohen has always included such writings in his collections and they do serve a purpose; they impress us with the sense that we are gaining a glimpse into the private world of Leonard Cohen, poet. They appeal to our curiosity and to our voyeuristic impulse; these verses evince the poet's sensitive and sometimes mischievous character; but most importantly, they describe the passage of his moods, and by extension¨from book to book¨they form a record of his life-phases over the course of decades.
Grouped among these confessional poems are the urbane Catullus-like pieces, in which Cohen occasionally indulges. Here's a magnificent, fresh example from Book of Longing, "Early Morning at Mt. Baldy":

Alarm awakened me at 2:30 a.m.:
got into my robes
kimono and hakama
modelled after the 12th-century
archer's costume:
on top of this the koroma
a heavy outer garment
with impossibly large sleeves:
on top of this the ruksu
a kind of patchwork bib
which incorporates an ivory disc:
and finally the four-foot
serpentine belt
that twists into a huge handsome knot
resembling a braided challah
and covers the bottom of the ruksu:
all in all
about 20 pounds of clothing
which I put on quickly
at 2:30 a.m.
over my enormous hard-on

Catullus's version of the morning wood poem, as rendered by Ewan Whyte, "I lie on my back/ and my desire is poking/ through the covers bumping/ into my breakfast plate." Once again, as Cohen rewrites the old standard, he adds a mystical or occult tie-in, always with an eye on his signature concerns.
So there's the endearing work and the enduring work; and of course, in certain places, they overlap. The personality poem is a hit-and-miss business, but I don't mind it in Cohen the way I don't mind the nonsensical, self-indulgent wailings that often fill the pages of Dylan Thomas's Collected; or the way I forgive Blake his mystical indulgences; or Yeats, his sometimes gushy sentimentality; or Wordsworth, the absence of a sense of humour.
A significant portion of Book of Longing consists of self-portraits accompanied by marginalia¨the sort of thing for which Jean Cocteau is well known. Unlike Cocteau's eternally melancholy, brooding, and angst-ridden work, however, Cohen's drawings and words display varying moods: at times entirely humorous, at others, self-mutilating and self-critical; but never without a sense of humour and a charming sense of self-consciousness. Also included are numerous marginalia-type sketches and doodles of houses and naked women. Now, we are privy to the private notebooks of Leonard Cohen, and our sense of intimacy with the master is complete. In one instance, he scrawls next to a portrait: "We will all be airbrushed /// we become/ frail/ and people/ see us naked/ who are/ forbidden/ to see us/ naked."
Indeed, as the Cohen mystique wanes, the hypnotised Heathers of this world may awaken to find that they've been following the faraway voice, not of a prophet, as they'd always assumed, but of a lost soul looking at itself and entirely unconcerned with them. Worse, this voice hasn't the power to lead them out of a self-indulgent morbidity, as it promised: "And I swear by this song,/ And by all that I have done wrong/ I will make it all up to thee." It is the same voice that later sang, "Even though it all went wrong,/ I'll stand before the Lord of Song,/ with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah." A less psychological, less solipsistic poetry¨one concerned with worldly and domestic pursuits, often focusing on the trials of others¨is and has been the work of a handful of great poets. Unfortunately, these writers enjoy far fewer fans; and poor Heather may have to wait quite awhile in her mirrored tower until her armour-clad Lancelot happens along. Until then, she will have to rely on Cohen's lighter-hearted and more buoyantly humorous moments, of which, to the poet's credit, there are plenty in Book of Longing. ˛

Asa Boxer's first book of poems is forthcoming from Signal Editions in 2007. He lives in Montreal
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