The Flame: Poems and Selections from Notebooks
Leonard Cohen McClelland & Stewart
A final tip of the fedora, The Flame is Leonard Cohen’s parting gift to the world. And like the best gifts, it’s thoughtful, nicely packaged and contains an element of surprise.
Funny, poignant, peculiar and illuminating, the book is organized into three main sections, interspersed with dozens of drawings and captioned self-portraits.
It is primarily composed of 63 previously unpublished poems, the poems that were rearranged as lyrics for Cohen’s last albums and entries from a treasure trove of notebooks he kept over six decades.
Notably, it closes with his acceptance speech for Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 2011.
While the deep, sonorous vocal tones generations of Canadians know so well came naturally, Cohen explains in the speech how he found both his voice as a writer and his “instrument,” his song. He gives thanks for the inspiration of Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca (after whom his daughter Lorca is named) and the flamenco guitar chords he learned in the early 1960s.
While it was still incomplete when he died at the age of 82 on Nov. 7, 2016, Montreal’s favourite son devoted the last chapter of his life to compiling, organizing and planning the book. His son, Adam Cohen, writes in the foreword that it was his father’s “sole breathing purpose at the end.”
Adam, a singer-songwriter and musician in his own right, chose the title.
As he explains, flames and fire were recurring themes in his father’s works and writing was “the most significant flame he fuelled. It was never extinguished.”
A compulsive writer from an early age, Cohen kept notebooks, writing pads and scraps of paper in every jacket pocket and drawer — Adam once found a frosty stray in a kitchen freezer while in search of tequila.
Several handwritten pages are reproduced here, along with transcribed fragments and longer pieces of poetry and prose, most undated and untitled, that offer a glimpse into his creative process.
The material cuts a wide swath — profound, humorous, wise and weird and wonderful. He throws shade in the poem Kanye West is Not Picasso, waxes eloquent in a notebook entry about an imagined infestation of body lice (“There are bugs / in my crotch hair”) and shares a simple, moving ode to his childhood best friend, an eternally beloved Scottish terrier named Tinkie (“You walked me to school … you protected me / from my enemy loneliness … and even today / I stop every Scottie / to claim you back.”)
More predictably, Cohen turns his attention to religion, lust, death and old age, and the book rewards the faithful with biographical references to familiar events, places and people who were prominent in his life and work.
There are nods to teachers, lovers and would-be lovers, muses and famous contemporaries Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
A wryly funny poem, Winter on Mount Baldy, finds monks shovelling snow at the Los Angelesarea Mount Baldy Zen Center, where Cohen lived in near-retirement before learning his exmanager had embezzled millions of dollars, necessitating a latelife career renaissance in 2005.
On that career, he writes in less than reverential tones, both in the poem My Career (“So little to say / So urgent / to say it.”) and in a notebook entry (“I am the light of / my generation / and the radio / and the refrigerator”).
His generation will best remember him for 1960s folk