Leonard Cohen died today, at the age of 82. He was ready to go, as he sang in his final album. But we’re less ready to let him go: we lack that grace, yet. At any rate, I do.
We have lost the poet whom we most needed, the poet of darkness, for every November when the earth tilts us away from the sun, and we prepare to face the shadows we’d left in the cold-freeze of winter – the poet we needed especially this November, as we gaze out on an unruly world, wondering whether in the end we’re all destined to be ruled be fools and liars. Within the repeated cycle of history’s violence, it is the troubadors, the poets and the wandering singers, who remind us that we are fools and liars too.
…Ah we’re lonely, we’re romantic
and the cider’s laced with acid
and the Holy Spirit’s crying, “Where’s the beef?”
And the moon is swimming naked
and the summer night is fragrant
with a mighty expectation of relief
So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
to the tower where the blessed hours chime
and I swear it happened just like this:
a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
the Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since
but closing time…
It’s said often that we live in a time of fragmentation – that modernity itself, from Descartes and Bacon onwards, has been in a state of constant fragmentation. I think it’s not just modernity; it’s the nature of things. As another poet wrote: things fall apart. We need our poets to put them together again. Leonard Cohen put together sex and remorse, religion and rebellion, ecstasy and rage, connecting the broken pieces so we get this brief glimpse of something whole, a way that things make sense. And he did it without evading the physical. It wasn’t some ethereal “spousal embrace” he wrote about, it was sex, the raw thing. It wasn’t a refined bourgeois religion, but the bitter joyful touch of the finger of a creator from behind a curtain of night.
Like many, I discovered Cohen’s music via his most well-known song, “Hallelujah.” I had a bad cover of it by a local artist, on the jukebox at the bar I owned. In the afternoons, cleaning up the vomit and the cigarette butts, hiding the coke baggies, looking ruefully at the box of chicken wings that had been left out to rot, I played it over and over. Even without his extraordinary voice, even with the bad cover, the lyrics couldn’t lose their power. Cohen sang to me about how to put together the painful infinitude of desire, the praise of the Lord, the longing for that “secret chord.”
…I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,
And love is not a victory march,
It’s a cold and it is a broken Hallelujah…
If one could find the secret chord, perhaps one could get the attention of the Lord, I think, sometimes. But here I am, challenging him with pistols and rapiers. Will he show up to meet the challenge?
…Well, maybe there is a God above,
But all that I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you…
If what we’ve been told is true, we find God in the darkness, and in beauty also. Cohen gave us both of those, because beauty and darkness need one another. And he gave us a way to hear the things said, that we didn’t know how to say:
The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat.
You win a while, and then it’s done –
Your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat,
You live your life as if it’s real,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.
Cohen’s life was full, fascinating. His art was momentous. Always will be. One can not think of “defeat” in light of his grace and genius, but his work remains to speak to us of the something invincible, amidst the inevitable defeat we all face, no matter how high we rise or low we fall.
And sometimes when the night is slow,
The wretched and the meek,
We gather up our hearts and go,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.
Just last month I attended the funeral of another Jewish man, my grandfather, a World War II vet who fought the Nazis and almost never talked about it. “War is stupid,” he told my brother, in their final conversation. In our Jewish history there is so much sorrow we bear along. Easy platitudes and “God has a plan” is paltry religion, against the heavy weight of the things we have survived. The religion Cohen showed us, so deeply connected with the pain and joy of earthly life, a spiritual passion tethered true to the bodies which we are, is more real, like the religion we find in the Book of Job: it’s something that God shows up. And God wants it darker, it would seem.