Thoughts: The Book of Longing, by Leonard Cohen

And with this, poetry season is finally over.

I find reading poetry as mentally tiring as reading in a foreign language, but I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m so comfortable reading English language prose that the difference jumps out at me. Anyway, Leonard Cohen is the last poet for now.

Eagle-eyed readers (or readers with eyes) may have noticed that the first book I finished this year was Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen, which was a selection of his work throughout his career. So after that, reading a full volume of his poetry was a bit strange – a bit déjà vu. I will say this, though – Poems and Songs does a good job of picking the best of his work to showcase.

The Book of Longing is true to its title – every poem, every song, every doodle (it’s illustrated by Cohen himself), is about longing of one kind or another. Angry, sad, bitter, tired, frustrated. Wanting what he used to have, wanting what he can’t have. It’s not what you’d call a happy book, though it does have glints of humour, especially in his doodles. Drawings of guitars, the hummingbirds-and-handcuffs motif from his album The Future, naked and half-naked women, a portrait of his Zen Buddhist master, a picture of a shaven-headed woman who may or may not be called Seisen, referenced in one of the poems in this volume, a man I think is Irving Layton, hands, angels, dolls, tiny still lifes… and endless self-portraits, all drawn in the scribbly, detailed style I think only old men can command. A lot of the pictures have captions, many bitingly sarcastic, some like little poems in themselves, others maybe abandoned lines of poems.

His pictures have a kind of bored, restless energy to them, like they were drawn while he was waiting for something.

I think Poems and Songs does a better job as an example of the best of Cohen’s abilities (though I do like the pictures in Book of Longing) but Book of Longing has its place too, even in the poems that are too addressed to someone else for me to get them. Poems and Songs is broad, Cohen in all his moods, but Book of Longing is a deep examination of one side of him. And it’s not an easy side. He comes across as prickly, cynical, angry even (and I didn’t think I could ever see him angry), difficult and I found myself sometimes thinking just be patient, just stick it out, which he resolutely refused to do.

I won’t list off my favourite poems this time, as there’s already a list of my favourites from Poems and Songs (actually, I really liked Titles, The Collapse of Buddhism, Roshi and Early Morning at Mt. Baldy in this collection) and I think they still hold up here, but I will say that my favourite longing was his religious longings and frustrations.

When I first heard that Cohen had been a Zen Buddhist monk for a time I groaned inwardly. I was even disappointed. You know those people. Those celebrities who take up Buddhism or kabbala or weird food fads all centred around some vague notion of purity. It’s like the spiritual mid-life-crisis motorbike.

Later, when I heard that he’d chucked the Buddhism in because he missed the women and cigarettes (I don’t know if this is true, but someone, probably my dad or Linda, said it to me and maybe they were joking) I laughed. I was glad, in a way, which is a strange thing to feel. Other people’s religions are none of my business, but there’s just something about people of a certain fame showing interest in certain religions that seems… faddish? Shallow? Predictable? …Culturally appropriating? I’m not entirely sure what exactly it is about it that makes me cringe. Either way, I enjoyed the honesty of his retreating from his retreat.

But… Cohen’s entire work has revolved around religion and spirituality. They’re always there. In Hallelujah, in The Story of Isaac, in Suzanne, the imagery comes up again and again, and the same with his poetry. Much moreso here than elsewhere – many of the poems here were written during his stay at Mount Baldy. He gives us intriguing pieces of his relationship with Roshi. He gets frustrated at the mind-bending demands of Zen Buddhism (and apparently his master was known as a particularly rigorous guy). He curses this striving for enlightenment that shuts out the other longings in his life, whether women, wine or cigarettes. It’s a very honest portrayal, unlike the fluffy spiritual nonsense I associate with Buddhism-flirting celebrities (maybe that’s what rubs me the wrong way about them?)

Thinking about it now, what it reminds me of is iaido. Iaido is a martial art that’s difficult to explain, because it’s sort of like kendo, except the swords are metal and you don’t fight with anyone. There are twelve basic kata and people spend decades perfecting them. Matches consist of two iaidoka in separate “fields”, and they perform a number of pre-determined kata. Whoever does them better wins. You don’t see what your opponent is doing because you’re focused on yourself. No strategy. No tactics. The only thing you have control over is what you are doing. And when I said you don’t fight anyone, I kind of lied. You’re fighting an invisible enemy, who is exactly your height and build, who is you, essentially. I wouldn’t say it’s spiritual exactly, but once you get really into it, it’s exactly the sort of mind-melting battle with yourself and these big imaginary things that everyone else seems to be able to see that I can imagine giving rise to some of the poems in Book of Longing.

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