Leonard Cohen writes in The Flame
In verses, lyrics and notebooks, the late poet and songwriter’s voice lives on, Pat St. Germain writes.
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It is primarily composed of 63 previously unpublished poems, the poems that were rearranged as lyrics for Cohen’s last albums and entries from a treasure trove of notebooks he kept over six decades.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.