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Essay

Somebody said, “Lift that bale.”

THE EPIGRAPH to Leonard Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers, is attributed to “Ray Charles singing ‘Ol’ Man River.’” Not to Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote the lyrics, but to one of the song’s many singers. This was back when Cohen was known primarily as a novelist and poet, before he had performed his songs for any audience larger than a gathering of friends, so there’s a certain humility in the attribution, with its recognition that the voice can be nearly as important—as important? more important?—than the things it says or sings.

The voice. I’m a word man, myself, but when you’re talking about Leonard Cohen, there’s no getting around the voice. Just when you think it can’t get any deeper than it has, it does. In “Tower of Song” from I’m Your Man he sings or, rather, rasps,

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice

Nowadays, after all the time and touring and tobacco, with his voice increasingly de profundis, Cohen would be in a position himself to do a convincing version of “Ol’ Man River.” Maybe he already has, in a sense, though he isn’t singing about the Mississippi per se:

By the rivers dark
I wandered on
I lived my life
In Babylon

And I did forget
My holy song
And I had no strength
in Babylon

(“By the Rivers Dark”)

Leonard Cohen wanted to be a country singer. At least, that was one of his ambitions when he was a teenager playing dances in church basements in Montreal. That was his ambition at one point in the late sixties, too, when he left the Greek island of Hydra, headed for Nashville. He’d published two novels and several books of poetry, but he was barely scraping by, even in the on-the-cheap Greece of the 1960s. His solution, to become a country singer and songwriter was, he admits in hindsight, madness. Thank God, I say in hindsight, for his lack of foresight.

The second verse of “Tower of Song” goes like this:

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song.

We know the answer Hank Williams gave to the question in life:

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to cry
The midnight train is whinin’ low
I’m so lonesome I could cry.

“A hundred floors above me.” He’s being modest. He’s every bit as good as Hank Williams, though he may not know it. But this humility is part of the tradition. In the Divine Comedy Dante praised the greatest of the troubadours, Arnaut Daniel, as “il miglior fabbro,” or “the better craftsman,” the same praise that T.S. Eliot lavished on Ezra Pound in his dedication of The Waste Land. “The only wisdom that we have,” Eliot would write twenty years later, “is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless.”

Ironic, referencing Eliot and Pound, the former arguably an anti-Semite, the latter unquestionably one, in talking about Leonard Cohen. But then, anti-Semitism in the West as a whole, and within the church in particular, is the irony, the lacerating irony, par excellence. (If humility is endless, irony seems to be practically inexhaustible.) Cohen grew up Jewish in Catholic Montreal, with grandfathers on both sides who were rabbis, grew up to be the most famous of the great Anglophone Jewish writers—A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, Mordechai Richler, David Solway, Robyn Sarah—to come out of that city.

He grew up Jewish in French Catholic Montreal and fell in love with the music of the predominantly Protestant American South, of Ray Charles and Hank Williams. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. The motto of the province of Quebec is Je me souviens, “I remember.” There’s a song by The Band from their album Northern Lights–Southern Cross called “Acadian Driftwood” that tells of the expulsion of French inhabitants from Acadia—parts of Quebec, the Maritime Provinces, and what’s now Maine. Robbie Robertson, son of a Jewish father and Mohawk mother, wrote the song. As they did so often, The Band divide the verses up among their three singers, and the second verse is sung by the Canadian group’s one American member, the man who sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Levon Helm of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, the son of cotton farmers:

They signed a treaty and our homes were taken
Loved ones forsaken. They didn’t give a damn
Try’n’ to raise a family. End up the enemy
Over what went down on the Plains of Abraham

The Plains of Abraham, where the French lost Canada, named, proximately, after the farmer Abraham Martin, who first held title to the land, but ultimately, of course, after the patriarch whose descendants would “multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore.”

The title of a 2002 documentary film about anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi sentiments and propaganda in 1930s and ’40s Quebec is Je me souviens. The poet David Solway remembers the taxi driver in his hometown who ran over the family dog telling him later that “a Jewish dog doesn’t deserve to live.” That things could, mercifully, be quite otherwise is clear from, among other testimonies, this brief poem by A(braham) M(oses) Klein:

For the Sisters of the Hotel Dieu

In pairs,
as if to illustrate their sisterhood,
the sisters pace the hospital garden walks.
In their robes black and white immaculate hoods
they are like birds,
the safe domestic fowl of the House of God.
O biblic birds, who fluttered to me in my childhood illnesses
—me little, afraid, ill, not of your race,—
the cool wing for my fever, the hovering solace,
the sense of angels—
be thanked, O plumage of paradise, be praised.

A lovely detail that I only noticed after years of knowing this poem: Klein, that unmistakably Jewish name, means “little”: “me little, afraid, ill, not of your race.”

Leonard Cohen, whose family name means “priest,” recalled in an interview that, “The figure of Christ touched me very early in my life. My radical Catholic friends were very angry with me for this Christological infatuation. Because they had really been oppressed by the church. To me it was romance. And there were many georeligious ideas I could speculate on. For one thing, I could see Christianity as the great missionary arm of Judaism. So I felt a certain patronizing interest in this version of the thing. I didn’t have to believe it.”

What appeals most to Cohen about Christianity, and about the figure of Christ, is its insistence on the power of powerlessness, of victory rising from defeat. In “Suzanne” he describes Jesus as “broken,” and the desire for brokenness goes through nearly every poem, novel and song that Leonard Cohen has written, whether on the new album, Old Ideas

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

(“Come Healing”)

—or on Recent Songs, from more than thirty years ago—

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul

(“The Window”)

—or, most grandly and compassionately, from his 1984 masterpiece, Various Positions:

Now I greet you from the other side
Of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere
And I sing this for the captain
Whose ship has not been built
For the mother in confusion
Her cradle still unfilled
For the heart with no companion
For the soul without a king
For the prima ballerina
Who cannot dance to anything

(“Heart with No Companion”)

The kind of serious wit he displays in a phrase like “the whole broken-hearted host”—the host of heaven, all the angels and saints, ready to rejoice over the salvation of a sinner; the Eucharistic host, elevated and broken—is practically my definition of poetry. The suspenses and multiplicities of meaning created by the line breaks—“I greet you from the other side…” Of death? “Of sorrow and despair”—should be noted in textbooks of versecraft. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great philosopher and aesthetician, reminds us that the root meaning of sophia, or wisdom, is skill.

§

The when: I remember listening to The Best of Leonard Cohen with the girlfriend I had senior year of high school. As for how I discovered him, I’d probably run across his name in an interview with some other singer-songwriter: Dylan, Van Morrison, Mike Scott from The Waterboys. I was big into singer-songwriters at the time, my interest in progressive rock and jazz fusion having gone into temporary eclipse when I realized just how bad a guitar player I was. Maybe, I thought, I could do something with words; I’d been using words since I was old enough to talk.

I didn’t know what to make of him at first. On the sepia-tinted cover of The Best of he’s dressed entirely in black—a black jacket, black shirt, and black tie, mind you, not at all like Johnny Cash—and stands considering himself pensively in the mirror, looking for all the world like a young Dustin Hoffman. Or like that guy in black pants and turtleneck sitting on the stairs and serenading a group of toga-clad coeds in Animal House: “I gave my love a chicken that had no bone….” And at first, the songs themselves struck me as strange, delicate, unlikely things. Actually, I thought the singer sort of sounded like Dustin Hoffman, too, or like Dustin Hoffman might have sounded if he’d picked up a guitar and started crooning “The Sounds of Silence.” But I was drawn in—drawn under?—by the lyrics of “Suzanne,” the first song on the album:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.

“The river.” The Saint Lawrence, named after the martyr to whom the Grail was entrusted, and who said to his killers, as he was being grilled to death, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” The Yangtze—the tea and oranges, after all, “come all the way from China.” The Mississippi, Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River,” which birthed the Blues, and which Eliot described as a “strong brown god…with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops.” And the Jordan, emptying into the Sea of Galilee:

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.

“Forsaken,” Christ’s next-to-last, his penultimate, words on the cross, like so much else he said, a literary allusion: Psalm 22, To the chief Musician upon Ai’jeleth Shahar, A Psalm of David: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

That “and.” Just one conjunction to bridge the sexual and the sacred. That union is everywhere in Leonard Cohen’s work: in “Suzanne,” in “Sisters of Mercy,” in “Stories of the Street” (again, from that first album) where he describes himself “with one hand on the hexagram and one hand on the girl,” on the cover art of New Skin for the Old Ceremony with its depiction, taken from an alchemical text, of two fully anthropomorphized angels, naked except for their crowns, making what Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have called “the beast with two backs,” in the symbol that he’s used since the mid-1980s, a Star of David formed by two interpenetrating hearts.

It’s all over my paperback edition of Beautiful Losers. There’s the artwork, which manages to be bad, vague, and obscene all at the same time, a sketchy illustration of a naked man and woman again making—even if it’s not exactly clear how—the beast with two backs. The fact that I’ve only read the book twice has less to do with its literary quality than with my reluctance to be seen in public with it. And then there are the various blurbs for the book, which practically scream from the cover thanks to a large, boldface font, all caps, and extravagant use of exclamation marks: the most daring new novelist on the scene today! first time in paperback! unexpurgated the complete $5.75 hardcover edition! “gorgeously written….” “fuses sexuality with spirituality….”

But that’s an old, if only ever semi-respectable, tradition: “The Song of Song’s which is Solomon’s,” the bridal imagery of Christ’s parables, the Vita Nova and Divine Comedy of Dante, where he raised the tradition of courtly love to its highest pitch, making Beatrice, remembered as a living girl, into a saint, the vehicle of divine revelation. In The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante, Charles Williams summarizes the poet’s method in a passage that is itself a little work of art:

There were, in his mind, many other shapes—of people and places, or philosophies and poems. All these had their own identities and were each autonomous. But in his poetry Dante determined to relate them all to the Beatrician figure, and he brought that figure as near as he could to the final image, so far as he could express it, of Almighty God. It is, we all agree, one of the marks of his poetic genius. But it is something else also. It is the greatest example in European literature of the way of approach of the soul to its ordained end through the affirmation of the validity of all those images, beginning with the image of a girl.

It occurs to me that Leonard Cohen is the one artist who’s made me think at the same time of Ray Charles, Hank Williams, and Charles Williams.

§

“Courtly.” The media does violence to language so frequently, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes quite deliberately, that it’s striking when they get it right, when a chosen word is not only accurate and unobjectionable, but when it perfectly expresses the essence of an event or thing or person. Yet given how unfailing polite Leonard Cohen is in interviews, how thoughtful (in several senses), and how well spoken, there’s really no other word that will do. Only gentleman comes close, and that word, too, comes out of the tradition of the troubadours. Leonard Cohen is, as a friend of mine who once interviewed him said, “a perfect gentleman.”

Courtly. Watch the speech that Leonard Cohen gave in October of last year on accepting the Prince of Asturias Award in Literature in Oviedo, Spain. He acknowledges, as he has numerous times, the transforming effect that Federico García Lorca’s poetry had on him, and he talks about the only guitar lessons he ever took, three sessions with a Spanish immigrant living in Montreal, who took his own life shortly afterwards. It’s less an acceptance speech than a prose hymn of praise to Spanish culture, an expression of gratitude for the ways in which that culture initiated and fed Cohen’s career as an artist. His manner is courtly, certainly, and with the crown prince of Spain and his princess in attendance, so is the occasion.

Court. As defined by the OED: “The place where a sovereign (or other high dignitary) resides and holds state, attended by his retinue.” But also, “Each of the uncovered enclosures surrounding the Jewish tabernacle, and constituting the temple area round the fane or sanctuary on Mount Moriah,” Mount Moriah being the traditional site of Solomon’s temple. The experts tell us there’s no common root between “court” and the French cœur, or heart—Sacré Cœur (sacred heart), crie de cœur, cry from the heart. I don’t believe them. The heart is the court, the dwelling place of the king: “The heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, but the heart of a true believer can,” says one hadith.

I’ve spoken somewhat bravely above about brokenness, as if I knew what I was talking about. Certainly there have been times in my own life, when I’ve been utterly abject, when no other artist would do, when I needed to hear Leonard Cohen. Sophomore year of college I spent a month in bed. Alone. With the lights out. Probably I should have sought professional help. Undoubtedly I should have prayed. What I did instead was listen to The Best of Leonard Cohen. Over and over. Whether that helped or hurt I can’t say. All I know is that at the end of the month I got up, went to my teachers, apologized for my absence, and finished out the semester as best I could. It helped that the instructor for my poetry class was a kind soul, and that “Suzanne” was in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, and therefore fair game for the final paper and presentation.

Even early in his career, Cohen was taken to task for romanticizing victimhood, and he’s talked in interviews about the grateful letters he’s received from mental institutions, and wondered about the extent to which he may have “bound these people to their suffering,” rather than sustaining them through it. How to tell the difference between “a broken and contrite heart,” and morbid self-indulgence, between being crushed, pressed further in upon oneself, and broken, and thereby opened? I think of Eliot yet again, possibly because I’m so immersed in his work, though possibly also because Cohen, coming of age in the fifties, must have been as well: “Do not let me hear / Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly, / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession / Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.”

In 1961, in The Spice Box of Earth, Cohen could write:

I have not lingered in European monasteries
and discovered among the tall grasses tombs of knights
who fell as beautifully as their ballads tell;
I have not parted the grasses
or purposefully left them thatched.
I have not held my breath
so that I might hear the breathing of God,
or tamed my heartbeat with an exercise,
or starved for visions.
Although I have watched him often
I have not become the heron,
leaving my body on the shore,
and I have not become the luminous trout,
leaving my body in the air.

By 1984, on the album Various Positions, he’d changed his tune, a bit:

We were locked in this kitchen
I took to religion
And I wondered how long she would stay
I needed so much
To have nothing to touch
I’ve always been greedy that way
But my son and my daughter
Climbed out of the water
Crying, Papa, you promised to play
And they lead me away
To the great surprise
It’s Papa, don’t peek, Papa, cover your eyes
And they hide, they hide in the World

(“The Night Comes On”)

In 1994, Leonard Cohen moved to the Mount Baldy Zen Center. Two years later he was ordained a monk, staying until 1999.

I’m a poet, it’s my vocation. I’ve never phrased it that nakedly before, and I worry that it sounds pretentious, or pitiable, or some unwholesome mixture of both, as if I were declaring myself a phrenologist. But it’s true: I’m a poet. And it’s partly Leonard Cohen’s fault, partly a result of listening again and again to that album, Various Positions, back in the late eighties. The last song on Various Positions, the lovely, lullabyish “If It Be Your Will,” I found truly terrifying. A retreat from the world can seem romantic; it may seem less so when one remembers that the world is, in the final analysis, everything that is not God. No sooner had I identified my calling and taken Cohen as my chief master and model, than here he was breaking the news that the calling might not be forever, and that the Caller was in any case more important than the call:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

It could be anybody’s prayer, of course, in one sense. Everyone’s called to say, “Thy will be done,” to be broken, to open. But for a word man, as I realized that I was now, there was a terrifying poignancy in hearing Leonard Cohen singing words like the above. And while it was impossible not to sing along—the words were too well chosen, the melody too lovely—it was terrifying to find myself singing “If it be your will,” knowing that the answer just might be, “Be still” (some translations say be quiet) “and know that I am God.”

I’m a poet. The great Australian poet Les Murray has for years now dedicated each of his volumes “To the Glory of God.” My own motives for writing are, I suspect, more suspect, less in line with those of Leonard Cohen the sage than of Cohen the lady’s man:

The reason I write
is to make something
as beautiful as you are
When I’m with you
I want to be the kind of hero
I wanted to be
when I was seven years old
a perfect man
who kills

(“The Reason I Write”)

A vision of the poet not as saint, but as James Bond. “Seven years old” is perfect here—the age of reason, of accountability. Childish, but not childlike, or not enough like a little child, anyway, to enter the kingdom. Not broken, not open.

§

For two semesters my junior year in college, early most Saturday and Sunday mornings, my roommate, Doc, and I would return from whatever party we were at, crack beers, light cigarettes, pop Various Positions into the CD player and get down, albeit very informally, to the business of literary criticism. I had found this Cohen album while traveling overseas—Columbia Records had so little faith in the record that several years passed before they released it in the US—and it immediately became, and has remained, a favorite.

Though that’s putting it too mildly. I experienced that album as a grace. In his recent book When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison, the rock historian Greil Marcus, in trying to describe the singer’s great Astral Weeks, quotes the album’s producer, Lewis Merenstein: “To this day it gives me pain to hear it. Pain is the wrong word—I’m so moved by it.” Marcus interjects, though, that “pain is exactly the right word: the pain, the fear of knowing that to acknowledge that the music exists at all is to acknowledge that, because it might not have, it doesn’t.” Coomaraswamy, in his essay on the meaning of the Pali word samvega, “aesthetic shock,” brings the point closer to home: in a true aesthetic shock there is “a self-naughting…and it is for this reason that it can be described as ‘dreadful,’ even though we could not wish to avoid it.” “Every angel is terrifying,” Rilke said.

Doc and I regarded that album with genuine reverence, but we weren’t above poking fun at it on occasion. When Cohen sings “Hallelujah” live, he takes care to properly enunciate one phrase in particular, “do you,” as it ought to be in standard English. In a song that contains some brilliant exact rhymes, though, this bit of fastidiousness results in a slant rhyme that, at least to my ear, is deeply unsatisfying:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

In the album version, on the other hand, Cohen goes for a pronunciation that provides both a more satisfying rhyme and an edgier, more acerbic tone.

But you don’t really care for music, do ya?

It was too much to resist. Together we’d wait for that question to come around, then add in our deepest, most affectedly street-hardened voices, one word: punk. It was like Clint Eastwood, in his role as Dirty Harry Callahan, making a once-a-verse, single-syllable appearance as Leonard Cohen’s backup vocalist:

But you don’t really care for music, do ya,
punk?

We thought this was just as funny every time.

What impresses me now, though, when I look back at that time, was how seriously we took the lyrics to Cohen’s songs as texts. Doc and I were both bright enough, but I was an indifferent student and Doc, largely because he never attended classes, was a terrible one. My memories of the insights we arrived at tend to be a bit hazy, granted. But I do remember one more or less complete conversation: we were listening to the opening cut on Various Positions, “Dance Me to the End of Love.” The music sounds like a tango played by a hotel band behind the Iron Curtain. The lyrics, I realized on first listen, are extraordinary:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

It was the second stanza, though, that really knocked me out:

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

I skipped back to the beginning of the track. “Did you hear that?” Doc raised an eyebrow. “Listen to that as it comes around again.” Then, as it came around again, I recited, while Cohen sang,

Show me slowly what I only know the limits of—

Those vowel sounds, that assonance. (An indifferent student, true, but I’d managed to pick up a few things here and there.)

“Billy, are you in awe of his technique?”

I forget what I answered, or whether I even found it necessary to answer such an obviously rhetorical question, but yes, I was in awe, and I still am, twenty-odd years later. I still think that this is one of the most gorgeous lines ever written: thoughtful, evocative, erotic…apophatic. The moan—of pain, pleasure, both—the way in which those open, assonant, vowels at once move the reader through the line and slow that movement down. “Show me slowly”—how the line invites the mouth, ear, mind to linger, how that preposition falling at the line’s and sentence’s end seems to tremble, the intellect hesitating at the edge of mystery, the lover’s hand trembling at a button or buckle. The sound echoes back to, or does it issue from, “For he himself was broken / long before the sky would open”? The first word, the first sound, according to the Hindu tradition, was Om.

Show me slowly what I only know the limits of…. We don’t deserve this. I thought that, or something like it, when I first heard this verse, and I feel it even more intensely now, more than twenty years later. We don’t, or to be less presumptuous, I don’t, deserve something this lovely. If that initial reaction was conditioned in part by all the reading I hadn’t done, and by my sense of how high above the level of most pop lyrics this was, the intervening years of reading and listening, and of my own experience as a writer, have done nothing to dull that first impression. “Billy, are you in awe of his technique?” As I say, I don’t know what I answered, or if I answered at all, but in dwelling on Cohen’s skill, on his craftsmanship, I was acknowledging myself, for the first time, as a craftsman. A lesser one, granted, but a craftsman.

 

For Leonard Cohen, il miglior fabbro,
a hundred floors above me / In the Tower of Song

 


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