The Book of Longing,
Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-06-112558-4, 229 pages, 2006, $24.95.
Die-hard Leonard Cohen fans are used to waiting years for his next CD of songs or book of poetry.
The Book of Longing is Cohen’s first book of poetry since 1993’s
Stranger Music, and like Stranger Music it is made up of poems, song lyrics, prose and something new: original Cohen drawings.
I initially became acquainted with the work of Leonard Cohen in the early 1970’s through his first books of poetry published in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, his two novels, and only later grew to know him through his music. At that time, three things struck me about this writer: 1) his morose, sometimes self-deprecating narcissism, 2) his ability to make the erotic seem holy, and 3) his occasional sardonic social commentary. Needless to say, I looked forward to his new book with great anticipation.
The Book of Longing brings together a hodgepodge of Cohen poems from the 1970’s through 2005. The book is dedicated to Irving Layton, fellow Canadian poet and Cohen’s mentor, and displays the typical Cohen
Beautiful Loser attitude:
Always after I tell him
what I intend to do next,
Layton solemnly inquires:
Leonard, are you sure
you’re doing the wrong thing?
Many traditional Cohen themes are covered in this book, but new wrinkles are introduced with the poet’s recognition of his own aging and impending death, and his multi-year sabbatical as a monk in the Zen monastery on Mt. Baldy, near Los Angeles. But if one poem sums up the book it is:
I had the title Poet
and maybe I was one
for a while
Also the title Singer
was kindly accorded me
I could barely carry a tune
For many years
I was known as a Monk
I shaved my head and wore robes
and got up very early
I hated everyone
and no one found me out
as a Ladies’ Man was a joke
It caused me to laugh bitterly
through the ten thousand nights
I spent alone
From a third-storey window
above the Parc du Portugal
I’ve watched the snow
come down all day
there’s no one here
There never is
the inner conversation
by the white noise of winter
“I am neither the mind,
nor the silent voice within…”
is also cancelled
and now Gentle Reader
in what name
in whose name
do you come
to idle with me
in these luxurious
and dwindling realms
of Aimless Privacy?
The Book of Longing has the intimate feel of a poet’s working notebook or journal. Not every poem in the book is profound or polished to the n-th degree. Some of the most interesting poems offer a glimpse of Cohen’s life as a monk on Mt. Baldy, a lifestyle which seems so contrary to his nature:
The Lovesick Monk
I shaved my head
I put on robes
I sleep in the corner of a cabin
sixty-five hundred feet up a mountain
It’s dismal here
The only thing I don't need
is a comb
His Master’s Voice
After listening to Mozart
(which I often did)
I would always
Carry a piano
Up and down
And I don’t mean
I mean a full-sized
Made of cement
Now that I am dying
I don’t regret
A single step
Or from the poem Leaving Mt. Baldy:
I came down from the mountain
after many years of study
and rigorous practice
... I finally understood
I had no gift
for Spiritual Matters.
The tension between spiritual matters and physical longings, between the desires of youth and the memories of old age gives this book much of its energy and propel it along:
Disturbed This Morning
That’s what I was so disturbed
about this morning:
my desire has come back,
and I want you again,
I was doing so fine,
I was above it all.
The boys and girls were beautiful
and I was an old man, loving everyone.
And now I want you again,
I want your absolute attention,
your underwear rolled down in a hurry
still hanging on one foot,
and nothing on my mind
but to be inside
the only place
and no outside.
These tensions give this book its title, occupy Cohen's mind in his travels from Mt. Baldy to Los Angeles to Montreal to Greece and Mumbai, and fill the pages with personal remembrances from these diverse places, giving the book an unexpected
As much as there is to like about this highly personal portrait of Cohen, there are a few annoyances: 1) too many throw-away poems that shouldn't have made the cut, 2) the self-portraits of the sad-faced artist lamenting his fate as well as drawings of nude women are overdone and, in the Zen-sense, less would have been more, and 3) the book has a rushed feel to it— the quality of many of the drawings, the layout and blurry back cover photograph
of the artist could have been done better.
Whether Cohen will produce another book of poetry in his lifetime remains to be seen, but with The Book of Longing he adds another chapter to his legacy, his unique artistic vision, which
can be described as:
I followed the course
From chaos to art
Desire the horse
Depression the cart
Cohen’s fans, who make up a cult-like following, will rave about this book. In truth it is a book of good poetry, but not great poetry.
However, that being said, this is vintage Cohen aging gracefully and
poetically so it is worth the investment and the read. Additional
samples from the book can be found at
The Leonard Cohen Files.
a chaos of angels, edited by Lois P. Jones and Alice Pero, Word
Walker Press, ISBN 978-1-84728-673-4, 130 pages, 2006, $18.00.
Taking their queue from a tag line used in the 1997
film Gattaca that “there is no gene for The Human Spirit,” editors Lois
P. Jones and Alice Pero have assembled an ambitious and heartfelt
anthology on the broad topic of chemical driven happiness, the
propensity of our society to look for quick-fixes in pills. The book is
tastefully laid-out from the front cover to the contributor notes, and
the editors have done a skillful job in selecting an interesting and
varied mix of poems. This is no easy feat, considering most of these
poems deal with the effects of psychiatric drugs on individuals and
their loved ones, and the pretensions and mind-sets of those who
practice in this field. There is the occasional rant, but given the
subject matter the anthology is surprisingly rich, complex and
One hundred poems written by both well-known and
lesser-known poets fill the pages of this book. The background of these
poets range from full-time writers to teachers, computer programmers,
psychologists. The styles of the poems run the spectrum from rhymed
formal verse to confessional, avant-garde and experimental.
A poem by Amanda Crowell Steibel, a teacher, touches upon the human price
of over-medication in a very personal and disturbing way:
There are two years missing
I had lost my job
Lived in a one-room mouse hole
And coughed up blood from a month's
Got so bad I needed help
The shrink I paid $150 an hour
Asked me 30 minutes of questions
About sleeping, money, sex and wine
Diagnosed and wrote two 'scripts
Life slowed, stopped
Doubled over in a week's withdrawal
Jeanette Clough, with two collections of
poetry to her credit, explores healing and rejuvenation:
Something has its fingers around my lungs.
Non-breath. Constriction. Also release
when I reach into that vacancy.
Hearsay of elsewhere- hobbles me.
Perhaps I sought to fall freely into the void.
Instead I find myself grasped, grasping,
adding lengths to my rope.
Alas, poor self. Shall I tell stories about you? Tattle & gainsay?
Something has cut through. Phlegm rattles in protest
then yields to another invasion of air
Flighty and casual, this vital exchange:
an open poppy, and the same ruffled color.
I picture myself shouldering through the soil.
My bloom is said in many ways.
Laura Freedgood, another teacher and writer, pens a tender poem about
letting go of a loved one after a death:For my Mother
You asked for ashes,
fearing the heft of dirt,
a box where you could not breath.
Last year on this date you were gone,
a small plastic pouch
I hugged to my chest
as I walked along the pier
until it bucked up against the river,
undid the tie and looked:
no flecks of bone,
no smell of the oven
where they sized you down to an urn
you didn't want
preferring brine and
the swoon of seagulls.
So I let you go,
watched your ashes
settle on the waves
the drift towards the ship
in the next birth,
promising to carry you
across the Atlantic
where it turns aquamarine and exotic,
swirling about the city
you found irresistible,
with its piazzas and palazzos,
its Titians and Tintorettos,
the sea folding you
in its arms,
a sign on the salt spray.
This sampling of poems demonstrates the diversity and
wide range of themes contained within the volume. While ostensibly
focused on the pill-dependent society, these poems really are a study of
the spiritual potential that exists inside of all humans free of the
outside influences of chemicals. In a sense, it is an invitation
to turn away from the artificial utopias of Huxley's Brave New World
or Vonnegut's Harrison Bergerson. In a world where the
pharmaceutical companies regularly encourage TV viewers to lobby their
doctors for the latest miracle cure for the slightest ailment, it is
refreshing to see a different point of view presented where humans long
to be rugged individuals embracing their quirks and idiosyncrasies
rather than searching for the chemical compound that brings lasting
happiness or the boredom of conformity or the norms of behavior.
How many great artists (painters, writers and musicians) of previous
ages would be numbed into mediocrity by today's doctors? The
pharmaceutical industry has certainly helped those with the most extreme
cases of psychiatric problems, but it has gone overboard and to extremes
to medicate where other alternatives are more healthy and appropriate.
Thanks to Jones and Pero for raising these issues in the form of an
artistic discussion that all serious artists should participate in.
Now it is up to us to set the chaos of angels inside ourselves free for
the betterment of the world.
© Jim Doss