A mild, moody day at the beach this week led me to the bookshop and the purchase of The Flame, a collection of poetry and writings of Leonard Cohen. This is truly the last chapter in the great songwriter and musician’s life. It’s a collection that in the last months of his life, Cohen selected and placed in order. It was left to his editors to craft and then publish the book. In the forward written by his son, Adam says
“This volume contains my father’s final efforts as a poet.” And that is what Leonard Cohen wanted most, to be remembered as a writer and a poet.
So this book came to lunch with me and I like to think that through these pages I would have lunch with Leonard. I call it my “Self- Care” day. The once a month event when I do something special for myself- because I can. This self- care day was not a massage, nor a walk in the gardens, nor a coffee and cake at the French style café- it was a glorious paella lunch with a glass of wine by the beach- hand in book with Leonard.
I have seen Leonard Cohen in concert many times and traveled with his music and words through my life. In the 1970’s I sobbed in unison with his lyrics and drowned in cheap wine and the torment of young love. Later in life I found – A thousand kisses deep, Alexandra leaving and Dance me to the end of love. Hallelujah still tears at my heart strings. His poetry exquisite.
So listening to the waves roll in, eating seafood paella and enjoying My Time- retirement at last- what would I find in these pages of Leonard Cohen’s last words?
He designed the book in 3 sections. The first is 63 poems (until recently unpublished.) along with self- portraits and drawings. The 2nd section are the poems that became songs on his last 4 albums. Finally, section 3 contains a selection of entries from his note books. 3,000 pages of his notes books spanning 60 years were distilled and curated into The Flame.
Leonard Cohen died on November 7th, 2016. The Flame was published in 2018.
So what did I find in reading his last book?
“There’s a mist of summer kisses
Where I tried to double-park
The rivalry was vicious
And the women were in charge.” (What happens to the heart p3)
Clever, funny and a talented wordsmith, Cohen connects ideas and images that take you in- yes, that’s what it feels like- you nod and think- that’s exactly what it feels like- how does he know?- how could he choose and place those words to make such a strong connection with his readers? In Undertow he writes
“And ditched on the beach
Where the sea hates to go
With a child in my arms
And a chill in my soul
And my heart the shape of a begging bowl”
It’s so pure. Simple. Perfect. And again in Sicily Café (p23)
“And now as I kneel
At the edge of my years
Let me fall through the mirror of love.”
Page after page of beautiful words and poetry. Section 1 of The Flame was perfect. My lunch and wine was perfect and with the sun going down it was time to head back along the beach and home.
Later that evening I again delved into the treasure trove of Cohen words. As I traveled into the second section- poetry into his songs, the territory was more familiar. Listening to an old friend tell familiar tales but I wanted to keep moving so I started to skim read.
The next day it was section 3 – the collection of his notetaking over many years. It was an arduous and uncomfortable read… I didn’t want to see his dribbling and scratchings. I wanted to believe the beauty of his poems and songs came from inspiration and a flourish of creativity- somewhat naïve! But there’s the evidence of hard work- rework and reshaping and reforming- the technician at work- a largely unseen and unappreciated part of his artistic process.
I skipped and skimmed and then I found his acceptance speech for a very prestigious royal award given to him in Spain in October 2011. It’s a beautiful speech full of humility, grace and kindness. It touched me deeply and I encourage you to look at the YouTube clip below.
I did have lunch with Leonard and his poetry and it will always be remembered. The rest of the book is a reminder of his life time’s hard work and the gift he has given to us for so many years.
Also check out this version of Cohen’s Hallelujah- A choir of 1500 with Rufus Wainwright singing- stunning!
And the man himself