Leonard Co­hen writes in The Flame

In verses, lyrics and note­books, the late poet and song­writer’s voice lives on, Pat St. Ger­main writes.

Windsor Star - - WEEKEND REVIEW -

To all of you / with whom I ate the fish / and clicked my glass / & never said a word / be­fore I go / I want to say hello / from the stranger / who lived among you.

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 self­por­traits.

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, 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, old age and death, 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 An­ge­les-area Mount Baldy Zen Cen­ter, where Co­hen lived in near-re­tire­ment be­fore learn­ing his ex-man­ager had em­bez­zled mil­lions of dol­lars, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a late-life 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 — Suzanne, Chelsea Ho­tel #2, So Long, Mar­i­anne — and the 1984 al­bum Var­i­ous Po­si­tions, which in­tro­duced his most fa­mous song, Hal­lelu­jah, edited from an 80-verse poem.

But Co­hen’s cre­ative resur­gence and world tours in his 70s in­tro­duced him to a new gen­er­a­tion.

The mid­dle sec­tion of

The Flame is de­voted to the lyrics from four late al­bums; girl­friend An­jani Thomas’ Blue Alert (2006), which Co­hen pro­duced, and his last three al­bums, 2012’s Old Ideas, 2014’s Pop­u­lar Prob­lems and his 14th and fi­nal stu­dio al­bum, You Want It Darker, which was re­leased in Oc­to­ber 2016, just a few weeks be­fore his death.

It’s Darker’s lyrics, most no­tably from the song Leav­ing the Ta­ble and the ti­tle cut’s He­brew “Hi­neni, hi­neni (here I am) / I’m ready, my lord,” make for an ap­pro­pri­ate swan song. But Adam Co­hen, who pro­duced You Want It Darker, an­nounced re­cently that a post­hu­mous al­bum is in the works.

Cana­dian pub­lisher McClel­land & Ste­wart has reis­sued eight pre­vi­ous books. The col­lec­tion in­cludes two nov­els — 1963’s The Favourite Game and 1966’s Beau­ti­ful Losers — and six po­etry col­lec­tions: Co­hen’s first pub­lished work, Let Us Com­pare Mytholo­gies (1956), The Spice Box of Earth (1961), Flow­ers for Hitler (1964), Par­a­sites of Heaven (1966), The En­ergy of Slaves (1972) and Death of a Lady’s Man (1978).

Given his pro­lific na­ture, it seems likely that Co­hen’s re­main­ing po­ems and note­books will see the light of day at some point in the fu­ture. But if not, The Flame of­fers some fit­ting last words: “To all of you / with whom I ate the fish / and clicked my glass / & never said a word / be­fore I go / I want to say hello / from the stranger / who lived among you.”


The Flame is a new col­lec­tion of pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished works and draw­ings by the late Leonard Co­hen.

Leonard Co­hen, seen in 1978, recorded his thoughts in note­books and on scraps of pa­per. His son, Adam, once found a stray note in the freezer.

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