Book of Longing

By Leonard Cohen

Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos

We all long for something: community, conversation, sex, love, friendship, and many other things.  Most people do not express what they long for.  Artists tend to be the bold of society who want to be heard and will tell anyone who will listen what is on their minds and in their hearts. 

Leonard Cohen, one of Canada’s most famous singer-songwriters, is one of those bold artists who are talented enough to express themselves on the mic and on the page.  And he doesn’t hold back.  Although you are reading Cohen in his Book of Longing you can hear him too, and much of his poems are contemplative and about pain.

Many male artists sing and write of loves lost.  Cohen is no different.  There are many poems dedicated to the women of his past: Sahara, Sandy, Shirley, and Claire.  But there is one poem dedicated to the most important woman in Cohen’s life—his mom.

You never find out Cohen’s mother’s name.  He introduces her to the reader via descriptions of shared moments in the past, and through the emotion that is the title of his book.

In Who Do You Really Remember Cohen reveals that his mother died when he was forty-six.  To most, that is not only normal, it is a good amount of time to spend with your mother.  To Cohen it was nowhere near enough.  You can see this in My Mother Is Not Dead.  “My mother isn’t really dead” is the first line.  He writes of fathers and relatives and goes back to his mother:

“Mother, mother,

I don’t have to miss you anymore.” 

Cohen is fooling himself on the page.  It’s a coping mechanism he does to make himself feel better.  Other pages are filled with memories and the acceptance that his mother is gone.

In my My Mother Asleep Cohen takes you to a theatre in Athens where his mom fell asleep during a performance.  Mandolins and great harmonies entertain an audience in an open-air theatre where the show started a midnight.  Written thirty years after it happened, Cohen writes of being young and not having kids yet.  You can feel his pain at the poems end:

“I didn’t know how far away

your love could be

I didn’t know

how tired you could get.”         

It could be the absence of his mother that has Cohen fall in love and lust with so many women.  His biggest fans admit that Cohen has a large ego and that he is a womanizer.  Both could be attempts to fill the emptiness he has for his now gone mother.  The title I Miss My Mother leads the reader to believe so.  The loneliness written of on many pages is evidence of this as well.  Cohen does not hide his loneliness, ego, or his womanizing; he writes cleverly about all three.

In The Remote, a five-line poem, Cohen writes in a minimalist style.  The titles object is a metaphor for the loneliness that is the focus of the verse.  Sitting in a room, T.V on, remote at his side, Cohen longs for a woman.  Is it his mother?  Is it a lover?  Is it a daughter? 

His mouth is “open” in the poem.  Does anguish leave Cohen gasping for air?  Is he yelling to himself, to Creator, to the woman?  Is there a gun present?  Is the poem about suicide?

“I think about you

when I’m lying alone in

my room with my mouth

open and the remote

lost somewhere in the bed”.

Cohen is entertaining and he leaves you with questions.  A good writer does both.  And Cohen knows he is a good writer.  The problem is that he tells you he is:

“better than poetry

is my poetry”

With so much talent, and him showing you how talented he is, there is no need to tell the reader about his talent.

Cohen’s poems about love are erotic, emotional, and clever.  Lines like “her nipples rose like bread” are accompanied by the writer’s art that compliment his words. Such artwork is seen throughout the collection giving the reader a break from words taking him/her somewhere other than the page. 

Similar to The Remote, many Cohen’s poems have you guessing who he is writing of: 

“Beloved, I’m yours

 As I’ve always been

From marrow to pore

From longing to skin”

The Book of Longing is rhythmic, circular, and takes the reader on a ride from the past to present and back again.  Cohen writes short poems, long poems, and prose poems that use detailed description.  The poet rhymes a lot but never tires the reader.  Poetry is song and song is poetry, Cohen shows this throughout; his music has influenced his writing and vice versa.

What is appreciated in Cohen’s collection is his honesty:

“I don’t want to be a friend to everyone

I haven’t got that much time.”

With dedications to great poets like Frederica Garcial Lorca, advice on keeping a diary, warnings of controlling ones anger—“don’t waste it in riots”—and his own philosophy (“life is a drug that stops working”), Book of Longing is a great read.

All good writers are good readers and Cohen shows why he is the writer he is and how Book of Longing and his previous collections came to be:

“Books lie open all around me

Despite my efforts

They keep coming into my room.”

Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Wednesday March 2, 2011 for an interview with Toronto poet Jenny Sheppard.


About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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