LETTERS FOR LEONARD
LEON WIESELTIER & PICO IYER
seemeth to me there is as it were a plague in the house".
Those are the mysterious words, from the Book of Leviticus,
that the owner of a house addresses to a priest when he notices
a strange lesion on his dwelling, and seeks relief from the
impurity that is denoted by this wound to his walls. What is
so striking about this voice, what struck the commentators about
it, is its tentativeness, its imprecision, its uncertainty.
It is rare in Scripture that somebody does not know for sure.
But this man does not report a plague in his house, he reports
his impression of a plague
in his house. Why? Perhaps his fear has rattled his confidence
in his mind. But another explanation (always another explanation!)
was given. The point of this locution, so unfamiliar in the
biblical universe but so familiar in the human universe, is,
in the words of an ancient rabbi, to "teach your tongue
to say: ‘I do not know’".
endeth the midrash for Dear Heather. But it is precisely
from such a tongue that this reflective and lovely and companionable
record has fallen. For poets, for artists, for thinkers, there
is no more perilous illusion than the illusion of the last word.
There is no such thing as the last word, because in another
moment the light will change, the page will turn, the caress
will end, the ice will melt, the shadow will pass, the glass
will break, the news will arrive – the world will no longer
look as it did, the world will no longer be what it was, when
you wrote or spoke or sang the words that were designed to capture
it, and to fix it, and to settle the matter of its meaning once
and for all. The ideal of the last word represents only a desire
to be released from the variety and the mutability of life,
to bring experience and expression to an end. Behind the grandiosity
of the last word, the big statement, the final image, the ultimate
conclusion – behind all these conceits and coercions lies
a sorry exhaustion and a specious authority.
Heather is a retort to such exhaustion and a rejection
of such authority. Its achievement is owed to the reduction
of its scale. Cohen
has always been fascinated by his own smallness: he does not
rebel against it so much as he rebels within it. His art has
been a long and invigorating endeavor to coax significance out
of insignificance. He never introduces anything large or anything
lasting except wryly, as if to say: here is what he who does
not know knows. And Dear Heather is a perfect document of this
brilliant humility. Here the form has caught up with the philosophy.
The record is a notebook, a scrapbook, a sketchbook, a miscellany
of ideas and moods and observations and diversions -- the definitive
declaration of Cohen’s glad loss of interest in the definitive.
The temper here is provisional, digressive, incomplete, quiet,
experimental, generous, artisanal. Dear Heather is
located in the middle of the work and in the middle of the world.
Cohen sings, but not always; sometimes he lets others sing (especially
Anjani Thomas, in whose preternaturally gorgeous voice Cohen
has found the most angelic of all his "angels"), and
sometimes he speaks, his own words or the words of others. He
wishes to give what he loves a hearing. Even in sadness, he
comes to praise.
record revels in its own lack of monumentality. No emotions
are exempted from its insistence upon the reality, and the beauty,
of the ordinary. Consider "On That Day", Cohen’s
contribution to the mourning for September 11, 2001. On the
occasion of "the day they wounded New York", he has
written a ditty. It is all of two minutes long, and it includes
the unplangent twanging of a Jew’s harp. But there is
no blasphemy in this simplicity. Not at all. The song is deeply
affecting because of its refusal of the temptation of magnitude,
and also because of its argument that one may respond to evil
with madness or with service. Compare this unlikely commemoration
to the bombastic arena-rock threnodies that were provoked by
the catastrophe in New York and you will have a lesson in grief’s
integrity. Or consider "Dear Heather", the wickedly
amusing title track. Here it is not sorrow that is translated
into the idiom of the actual, it is desire. A woman walks by
a man and undoes him so completely that he must teach himself
again to spell. Cohen is tickled by the banality of his own
lust. Where anguish once was there now is silliness. The longing
persists, but the slavery is over. And the evidence of inner
freedom is everywhere in Dear Heather. It is a window upon the
heart of an uncommonly interesting and uncommonly mortal man,
a man with the stomach for transience.
a leave-taking, with light," I found myself saying, to
my own surprise, the first time I listened to Dear Heather.
I was sitting in a small cottage in central Los Angeles, looking
out on a sunlit garden, flowers, a constant trickle of water
from a fountain where birds splashed (the freeway nearby seeming
a million miles away), and what I was hearing might have been
a transcription of the
scene around me. In the past, especially on his last album,
Ten New Songs, Leonard Cohen often seemed to push his
songs towards darkness and silence, the place where everything
gives out. Indeed, the power of that record seemed to me to
lie partly in its singleness, its unity of tone, the songs flowing
one into the other with a grave, contained intensity. This was
the beauty of a small cabin beside a Zen meditation-hall high
up in the mountains.
new record, for me, is the beauty of returning to the world
again, celebrating its beauties, even though they will pass.
In one of his early songs about the monastic pull, Cohen wrote
of how "night comes in," as he goes into the dark
to court Our Lady of Solitude; here I feel as if night is receding,
as light comes in. The first surprise of the record is how various
and almost floral are its musical arrangements, the singer hopping
from style to style like a bee buzzing amidst the flowers. The
first time I heard the record I imagined a series of objects
lined up on a table, all precisely rounded, like brightly colored
balls, entire in themselves and lucid, but not pointing to anything
beyond themselves. Offerings
for a Sunday morning, you could say, at home in the sun.
has suffered more than almost any songwriter or poet alive from
assumptions about his life, or at least that shadow-life that
is his legend; people seize on the songs with women in them,
or using his central (often metaphorical) word "naked,"
and miss the point often. The second song here teases us with
the Cohen we expect--women, naked, crying "Look at me,
Leonard." The fact he uses his own name, again and again,
is almost a way of stressing that he’s talking about the
figure who moves through the world, in rumors, in gossip columns,
in listener projections. With that second song, Leonard departs.
others startle with their sense of completeness -- or, put another
way, with their lack of obvious gravitas, their freedom
from obvious depth. They’re transparent: notebook entries,
or a series of recipes hung up on a refrigerator door. When
you expect Cohen to go deeper into a song, to give us a new
verse, a different turn, as he’s always done before, he
steps back, gives us the same verse again. When you expect him
to surprise us, as he’s always done, with an unexpected
rhyme, he surprises us by giving us just the word we expect.
And often the words more or less dissolve, as the singer experiments
with chant, or incantation, the place where music becomes something
more than music, closer to prayer or ritual recitation. "And
your legs white from the winter."
all the while, his voice, which had already begun to recede
from view in Ten New Songs, where Sharon Robinson,
his conspirator and co-producer, led on many tracks, fades further
and further away from us, until Robinson and Anjani Thomas take
over, and replace his dark sonorities with their more light-filled
decorations. A ceremony of farewell, in a way.
first time I listened to this record, I couldn’t help
but wonder what listeners would make of it. Many of his fans
look for long, gnarled poems from Leonard Cohen, for parables
and theological mutterings; they’re not ready for songs
as straightforward, and full of fresh air, as a 16th century
lyric. He’s giving us here, essentially, jottings, moments,
the things he might collect for a letter to a friend. It’s
no coincidence, I’m sure--things are precise on Leonard
Cohen albums--that, in the C.D. brochure, there are sketches
all over the place, simple, whimsical, unfancy, and on many
pages the drawings drown out the words.
who writes knows that transparency is at least as hard to catch
as mystery. Mystery means taking on all that is beyond the self
(or inside the self); transparency means recording all that
is outside the self, and independent of it. Usually, when we
describe something, we cloud it over with our thoughts, our
projections, our hopes for it, our confusions. Just to give
the thing as it is is often the hardest task of all, which is
why we admire a Cezanne still life, or a small red wheelbarrow
in a William Carlos Williams poem.
also the easiest thing to underestimate, or look past. I can
imagine a music critic rejoicing in the way this record -- quite
literally, a record of a life, a day -- opens up the palette
to admit new colors; but the exegete will be confounded by the
fact that the words just stand there, giving up nothing but
themselves. There’s no spin on them, no gloss. Cohen has
traditionally been the voice of striving, of conflict and seeking;
here he becomes something harder for us to accept, a voice of
contentment. It’s as if he’s withdrawn his self
from things in order to say, "This is what they are. They
have no need of me"
I was trying to grasp this record, elusive precisely because
it sits in full view, illuminated, less hidden or in shadow
than is usual with Leonard Cohen, I thought of the poems of
the Japanese among whom I live. A plover. A temple-bell. A marigold.
Observation of the world for them becomes observation of a ritual,
even of a religion. Indeed, it is from their straight-on renditions
of the world that Pound got his imagism, from which William
Carlos Williams took his wheelbarrow. The Zen discipline tells
us to look at what’s in front of us, and what’s
beneath our feet. No need to search for enlightenment or beauty
or analytic wisdom, no need to seek out meaning or depth. It’s
all right there, in front of our eyes.