the book of longing

Leonard Cohen's 'Book of Longing' with bird in a tree cover drawing

As the world mourns the death of legendary songwriter and musician Leonard Cohen, his art lives on.

The Hallelujah singer’s death last week sparked a massive outpouring of grief across the internet, from fans and fellow musicians alike, including Beck, Courtney Love, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Nick Cave.

“For many of us, Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all. Utterly unique and impossible to imitate, no matter how hard we tried,” Cave wrote.

News of Cohen’s death, coming on the heels of the US presidential election results, was also praised by tweeters as the singer’s last compassionate corrective to hateful political chatter, bringing the world’s attention back to the redeeming beauty of art.

“The date of Leonard Cohen’s death is not a coincidence,” went one widely shared tweet. “He did it so we’d stop talking about an imbecile, and instead focus on poetry.”- Sydney Morning Herald

Leonard Cohen made his name as a poet before he came to worldwide attention as a singer and songwriter.

He wrote the poems in Book of Longing his first book of poetry in more than twenty years during his five-year stay at a Zen monastery on Southern California’s Mount Baldy, and in Los Angeles, Montreal, and Mumbai. This dazzling collection is enhanced by the author’s playful and provocative drawings, which interact in exciting, unexpected ways on the page with poetry that is timeless, meditative, and often darkly humorous. An international sensation, Book of Longing contains all the elements that have brought Cohen’s artistry with language worldwide recognition. – Book Depository

The poems in Book of Longing show the full range of one of the most influential and enigmatic writers of his generation.

The book of longing

I can’t make the hills
The system is shot
I’m living on pills
For which I thank G-d
I followed the course
From chaos to art
Desire the horse
Depression the cart
I sailed like a swan
I sank like a rock
But time is long gone
Past my laughing stock
My page was too white
My ink was too thin
The day wouldn’t write
What the night penciled in
My animal howls
My angel’s upset
But I’m not allowed
A trace of regret
For someone will use
What I couldn’t be
My heart will be hers
Impersonally
She’ll step on the path
She’ll see what I mean
My will cut in half
And freedom between
For less than a second
Our lives will collide
The endless suspended
The door open wide
Then she will be born
To someone like you
What no one has done
She’ll continue to do
I know she is coming
I know she will look
And that is the longing
And this is the book – Leonard Cohen

Who do you think should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?

Fortnightly Story: The Backpack

 

view of Villefranche sur Mer harbour from Mt Baron

What can a man who meets you at the station and offers to carry your backpack mean to a woman traveling the world alone?

I was scared, like anyone who has no sense of direction.  The journey was a series of stops and starts.  Whether to use the Eurail pass or post it back home and ask the kids to get me a refund.  Giovanni appeared one European winter, thick padded jacket, woolen beanie, scarf and gloves, tall and imposing,  I’ll carry your bag.

I was small, the backpack the length of my spine, the zip-off bag on one shoulder, the daypack positioned in front like a nine-month baby bump.  That evening, as we climbed the steps of the Corniche – the wind bitter across the Mediterranean, the metal stairs covered with slippery ice, the railing melting beneath my hand.  Soon it would become my railway platform, my steps, and Giovanni my landlord.

We walked there in the crisp night air.  My own place.  It didn’t cost much.  No-one yet knew I was here.  I could ask Giovanni if I needed any help.  I knew my children would be pleased I had a base.  I didn’t want them to worry.  It was the thing I wanted the most secretly, studying maps, absorbing travel books.  To be safe, a desire whispered to the moon that moved behind my shoulder at night.  If you guide me to a safe haven I promise to be happy.  And the moon listened.  I did my best.

The winter sky closed down and the spring began its flowering.  I took photos and painted and rang the children every week.  Watch your money, don’t talk to strangers, be careful walking at night – you know the drill.  The pebbly beach, the weekend markets, it was all there for the exploring.  A glimpse of the sea between terracotta roofs – a vision in turquoise.  The cobbled streets could show which way to follow – and none of them wrong.  A room at the top of the stairs – till June I stayed reading the English books Giovanni had left in the bookcase, shopping for food, telling my kids and friends they should come for a visit.

Where had the months gone?  Almost two years on the road.  Summer approached. The rents would go up and the tourists arrive.  Time to move on.  I could only take with me what I could carry on my back.  A Jewish gypsy they said.  One more step into the unknown.  Pack up, give away what I couldn’t manage, but keep the palette knife and miniature easel.  There was stuff happening back home.    The boys were grown and earning a living.  Their sister turned twenty-one.  People were reinventing themselves all over the place then coming back home.  A thousand train rides later, my mother nearly eighty.  I won’t be around much longer, she cried.

His was a helping hand in a world that says, but what are you doing there?  What are you doing?

First published in Quadrant

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2016