Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The History of the World & Leonard Cohen

Pardon me, lords and ladies,
if I do not think of
myself as the disease.
Pardon me if I receive the Holy Spirit
without telling you about it.
Pardon me,
Commissars of the West,
if you do not think
I have suffered enough. (p 187, Book of Longing)
In 1987, when I was seventeen, Leonard Cohen was my favourite Canadian poet; I wrote lousy love poems and played his songs on guitar. This is probably true for so many other readers, seventeen years old and lost in the lyrics of Montreal-born Leonard Cohen. This is something a body never grows out of, despite growing up; that we, somehow, never lose. I remember the apartment I lived in for a weekend in Montreal during the first week of September 1989, and pouring through Death of a Lady's Man (1978), again and again. I was attempting to enter the creative writing program at Concordia University, and Cohen's book was one of my bibles, along with Eli Mandel's Poets of Contemporary Canada (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1971). As far as Concordia was concerned, I could not get clear; I left Montreal and followed my heart to Ottawa. What else was I to do?

In 1990 or so, Ann-Marie and I (my own Marianne…) found an article in Saturday Night magazine on Cohen (back in the days when Saturday Night magazine was writing an article on Leonard seemingly every five years or so) that talked about a drink called the "Red Needle," something he invented in Needles, California in 1976 (a drink old enough to be my sister). Considered to be constructed out of (in our memories and experimentations) equal thirds of tequila, cranberry juice and 7-Up, it became our drink of choice, as we made pitchers of it for the front porch with friends, in the days when we lived on Pretoria Street, and our toddler would run around the yard and the twilight with our friends' toddlers. I swear to god, it goes down like love; by the time you begin to feel the tequila, it is far too late. I've changed the lives of a few people over the years by introducing them to the drink (including a night with Jonathan Wilcke and Cybele Creery in Calgary in 1999), but my ex-wife is now the only one I know who drinks it regularly, working years to put it on the menu of the Elephant and Castle in the Rideau Centre.

What, after all this time, would trigger such a memory? Thanks in part to the release of Leonard Cohen's first collection of verse in years, his Book of Longing (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2006), there have been Cohen appearances everywhere, from pages in the Globe & Mail, book reviews and book articles, television appearances, as five of his songs were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in February 2006, to an interview conducted with Cohen by Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio, transcribed in the new issue of Brick: A Literary Journal (Toronto ON: summer, 2006) that, among other things, talks about his interest in the Red Needle:
LC: I invented the Red Needle in Needles, California. I can't make it anymore,
like most things. I can construct a facsimile of the Red Needle now—because
basically it's tequila and cranberry juice, and a little bit of soda water to
give it a bit of a fizz, and some fruit—but when I invented it and proselytized
it, I was the evangelist of the Red Needle for a number of years and it took
off. But I've forgotten now, like most things, like an opinion. The Red Needle
has fallen into disuse.

SR: I'm so sorry.

LC: There are other practitioners of the Red Needle who can accomplish it. (Brick, p
Ladies and gentlemen, wonderfully evasive, Mister Leonard Cohen. Following the interview, Brick even includes an "Introduction to the Chinese edition of Beautiful Losers" that Cohen wrote for it, a novel that, rumour has it, couldn’t be included in McClelland & Stewart's New Canadian Library Series (the only ongoing reprint series in Canada) until Malcolm Ross, who hated the novel, died.
Dear Reader,

Thank you for coming to this book. It is an honour, and a surprise, to have the frenzied thoughts of my youth expressed in Chinese characters. I sincerely appreciate the efforts of the translator and the publishers in bringing this curious work to your attention. I hope you will find it useful or amusing.

When I was young, my friends and I read and admired the old Chinese poets. Our ideas of love and friendship, of wine and distance, of poetry itself, were much affected by those ancient songs. Much later, during the years when I practiced as a Zen monk under the guidance of my teacher Kyozan Joshu Roshi, the thrilling sermons of Lin Chi (Rinzai) were studied every day. So you can understand, Dear Reader, how privileged I feel to be able to graze, even for a moment, and with such meager credentials, on the outskirts of your tradition.

This is a difficult book, even in English, if it is taken too seriously. May I suggest that you skip over the parts you don’t like? Dip into it here and there. Perhaps there will be a passage, or even a page, that resonates with your curiosity. After a while, if
you are sufficiently bored or unemployed, you may want to read it from cover to
cover. In any case, I thank you for your interest in this odd collection of jazz riffs, pop-art jokes, religious kitsch, and muffled prayer, an interest that indicates, to my thinking, a rather reckless, though very touching, generosity on your part.

Beautiful Losers was written outside, on a table set among the rocks, weeds, and daisies, behind my house on Hydra, an island in the Aegean Sea. I lived there many years ago. It was a blazing hot summer. I never covered my head. What you have in your hands is more of a sunstroke than a book.

Dear Reader, please forgive me if I have wasted your time.

Leonard Cohen (p 31)
For a number of years now, Cohen's poems have looked less like poems and more like not-poems, while all the while skirting around the depths of a series of very long traditions. His Selected Poems (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1968) that won the Governor Generals' Award (an award he declined) was perhaps the last poetry collection of his that looked like a traditional collection of poems, with his Death of a Lady's Man (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1978) perhaps giving his readers and critics the most confusion of anything that followed. Even as the poems threatened to end, they would eventually return. What does anyone, man or woman, do when they have run out of love but replenish?


My dark companion photographs me among the daisies.
My life in art.
She is beautiful when she smiles.
She should smile more often.
We have the same nature.
We are lazy and fascinating.
One day we will go back to that creek in Tennessee
and she will shoot me with a .22.
Take one with my hat on.
We have lots of film.
I taught her how to greet a man in the morning.
These things have been lost
like the arch and the goldenrods.
She asked me to teach them to her—
forgotten modes I happen to remember.
I told her about the time
Adam and Eve tried to commit suicide
but unformed infants of the Milky Way
raised a house against them.
Some of the daisies are up to my thigh.
It is very bright.
The daisies shine back at the sun.
The wind polishes the air.
Some fool might try to pick out a lamentation.
Take one of us together. (p 56, Death of a Lady's Man)

Including poems, drawings, notes to himself, epigrams and other lines across the page, Book of Longing, with the appropriate line drawing taken directly from his notebook, notebook lines across the page, feels more like a direct notebook of Cohen's than the kind of practitioner of crafted verse he made himself to be throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. This is very much a different kind of Cohen; the poems are there, as is the craft, but there is something more deliberately rough and raw there too. Is this Cohen realizing, as the years progress, that the heart is not crafted but felt? Is this the longing of the title, one that can't be crafted or reworked, but pushed straight through?


My mother isn't really dead.
Neither is yours.
I'm so happy for you.
You thought your mother was dead,
And now she isn't.
What about your father?
Is he well?
Don’t worry about any of your relatives.
Do you see the insects?
One of them was once your dog.
But do not try to pat the ant.
It will be destroyed by your awkward affection.
The tree is trying to touch me.
It used to be an afternoon.
Mother, mother,
I don’t have to miss you any more.
Rover, Rover, Rex, Spot,
Here is the bone of my heart. (p 139, Book of Longing)

There is something about the work of Leonard Cohen that seems to transcend any notion of him as "Canadian," "poet," "songwriter" or any combination of the three. In the anthology take this waltz: A Celebration of Leonard Cohen (eds. Michael Fournier and Ken Norris, Montreal QC: The Muses' Company, 1994), George Bowering wrote, "Oh, I got the hots for Leonard Cohen, says some creature / thirty years younger than me. Who the hell you talking about, I / say." (p 19). There is something about the work and something about the poetry that has done something that has been long overshadowed by his early poetry, his image and his songs for years and years. Can anyone even write of his poems at all without the rest of it getting in the way? Even to think of that anthology that Fournier and Norris put together (far less famous than the two tribute albums), who else can be celebrated by Stan Dragland, Ann Diamond, Phyllis Webb, Judith Fitzgerald, John Newlove, Adrienne Clarkson, Tim Wynne-Jones and Seymour Mayne as well as Kris Kristofferson, Harry Rasky, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Charlie Daniels and Phil Spector?

The streets are full of overweight corporals,
of sad grey computer captains, the impedimentia
of a capital city, struggling through the snow.

There is a cold gel on my belly, an instrument
is stroking it incisively, the machine
in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.

It is not illegal to be unhappy.
A shadowy technician says alternately,
Breathe, and, You may stop now.
It is not illegal to be unhappy. (John Newlove, p 132, take this waltz)
With this I say: Thank you, Leonard; I will now (among other things) declare (if I may) my ex-wife the current evangelist of the Red Needle, and you the keeper of the journal of the heart, all that is essential. We will have another drink in your honour, the next time we meet.


Steve Sanfield is a great haiku master.
He lives in the country with Sarah,
his beautiful wife,
and he writes about the small things
which stand for all things.
Kyozan Joshu Roshi,
who has brought hundreds of monks
to a full awakening,
addresses the simultaneous
expansion and contradiction
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. (p 15, Book of Longing)

1 comment:

Krantzstone said...

I still have a copy of that particular Saturday Night where Cohen mentions the origins of the Red Needle, and how he brought it back for The Future sessions. Excellent photos of the legendary ladies' man and great article/interview. I also recall your early Cohenesque persona, although even relatively early on you had a distinctive voice that clearly set you apart from your influences and contemporaries alike. Anyway, Leonard Cohen is oft-quoted as having aspired to be a Canadian Bob Dylan so there's no shame in having a Cohen obsession (at least, I hope not or I'm screwed). Your entry reminded me of something... or rather, someone, who shared a passion for Cohen. Her name was Erin Johansen, a wonderful actress and fellow classmate at Canterbury High School. I had unfortunately failed to secure a ticket for Cohen's The Future tour in 1992 before it sold out, and Erin, being a fellow Cohen fanatic who had managed to get a ticket, filled a page of my yearbook with a wonderfully personal concert review of that very special night where she even got to meet Cohen and shake his hand. The thing is, I hardly even knew Erin since I'd switched high schools for my last year so I'd only known her for that one school year, and she could have just signed my yearbook with some trite one-liner, but she didn't. She was absolutely gorgeous, with the most winning and winsome smile, the kind that could make someone as love-besotted with another girl, at least somewhat smitten (oh how fickle the heart...or the loins!)- a girl you apparently also know, but that's another story. ;) Anyway, years later, I was dating a girl from work who I quite accidentally discovered was a childhood friend of Erin's, and I'd always been planning to say hi to Erin as she was still in Ottawa, working at the Brigadier's Pump with my then-girlfriend's mother. Sadly, I'd had a rather bitter fight with my girlfriend at the time and had put off visiting the Brig since I didn't really want to run into my girlfriend's mother. Later that year, my ex- called me out of the blue to tell me that Erin had died in a tragic house fire, shortly after she'd become engaged to the love of her life, a dot-com millionaire she'd met while working at the Brig... and I had entirely missed all this because I was too busy moping over my ex- and hadn't read the paper in weeks. And it makes me sad to think that if only I hadn't put off going to see Erin at the Brig instead of letting a stupid fight with my girlfriend get in the way, I might have at least gotten one more chance to see her and thank her for her kind and thoughtful yearbook entry that had meant so much to me. For me (and I say this with the hope that it won't sound terribly morbid) that she will always be my Joan of Arc. I think as a fellow Cohen fan, she would appreciate that.