Book Of Knowing

by Leonard Cohen

Last week on Radio 1’s new evening show there was a Leonard Cohen blitz, a build up to the two tribute concerts at the Point where the maestro himself was not scheduled to perform. It’s the nearest he’s been to these shores since his last Concert at the Stadium on June 4th 1988 when at the end of his show women rushed the stage wielding red roses. In 1994 he gave up his career to become a Zen Buddhist monk at Mount Baldy, California, but is now happily back with us again in the secular world. During his time away his 1984 song ‘Hallelujah’ has become a standard, a heart stopping four minutes sung at weddings and funerals, the sacred and profane with heavenly choir. Though it has been recorded by many other artists Cohen’s own live recording from 1992 is still the best. In a Cohen song he briefly gets the girl but the major part is sensual lament at the mystery of her going. Prince Charles recently admitted a kinship with the singer’s melancholia. Cohen is poet of the dark stuff, the stuff Missioners railed against, the poet of carnal knowledge. He was a novelist/poet before he became a singer and this book containing poems, prose and drawings published in his Seventy-second year is very accessible. His subjects: Sex, Religion, Death, Spirituality, Love and Cigarettes. He is as ever, witty, wry, self-mocking, full of longing, yes, but no bitterness, just mellow acceptance.” I never found the girl – I never got rich – follow me,” he writes alongside an unusually sanguine drawing from 2003. The drawings are most telling; moods of depression, despair, disgust, self-loathing, but lighter moods too and he frequently cheers himself up with an abundantly thighed girl. What if instead of all that navel gazing time spent at Mount Baldy he had gone on never ending tours like Robert Allen Zimmerman, might he have been happier? Who knows? He needed time away from modernity’s treadmill. In the piece ‘Moving into a Period’ he explains:

“We are moving into a period of bewilderment, a curious moment in which people find
light in the midst of despair, and vertigo at the summit of their hopes. It is a religious moment also, and here is the danger. People will want to obey the voice of Authority, and many strange constructs of just what Authority is will arise in every mind. The family will appear again as the Foundation, much honored, much praised, but those of us who have been pierced by other possibilities, we will merely go through the motions, albeit the motions of love. The public yearning for Order will invite many stubborn uncompromising persons to impose it. The sadness of the zoo will fall upon society,”

He offers no solution. ‘ The Energy of Slaves’ was the brilliant title of an earlier collection. So much energy spent for such little reward. And like Becket he still went on. Towards the end of the ‘Book of Longing’ a short poem with depth charge sums up. Sorrows of the Elderly: The old are kind, the young are hot, Love may be blind, Desire is not. Essential for Cohen fans and aging Romantics alike.

October 2006

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