A book of Leonard Cohen’s famous last wordsby Diana Wichtel
In The Flame, Leonard Cohen reminds us of the humour beneath his melancholy.
He could also look on the bright side. In a New Yorker interview not long before his death in 2016, he spoke of his “predicament” – age, illness – offering a certain freedom from distraction. “You have a chance to put your house in order.”
He was working on poems that would end up in The Flame, a collection of poetry, lyrics from his last four albums, prose and “scraps”. The book is not so much a house in order as a work in progress, a box of mementos, a bag of tricks to sort through.
It’s also a reminder that his music, in his later years a gravelly road to transcendence for even his least-religious admirers, brought him fame, but it was as a writer that he started and stopped.
“It was what he was staying alive to do, his sole breathing purpose at the end,” writes his son, Adam Cohen, in the foreword. He recalls a father always scribbling. Once, Cohen Jr was looking for tequila. “I was directed to the freezer, where I found a frosty, misplaced notebook.”
Pen-and-ink drawings, mostly unsparing self-portraits from over the years, reveal that Leonard Cohen was never really a young man. A chance to linger over his words reveals he wasn’t really that melancholy. The lyrics of Almost Like the Blues, published as a poem in the New Yorker in 2014, show his eye for the absurdity of his situation as a singer with something to say: “There’s torture and there’s killing/ And there’s all my bad reviews/ The war, the children missing/ Lord, it’s almost like the blues.”
The Flame, a title chosen by his son, sounds a little reverential. The voice captured in this terrific last volume is always on guard against that. One particularly flayed-looking portrait is captioned with this summation of Canadian humour and, possibly, the human condition: “This is no joke that’s what makes it funny.”
THE FLAME, by Leonard Cohen, (Allen & Unwin, $45)
This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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