Leonard Cohen, Book of Longing (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 232pp
"Better than poetry / is my poetry / which refers / to everything / that is beautiful and / dignified, but is / neither of these itself."
-- 'Better' (pg. 11)
I don't usually read poetry and so I'm a bit unsure how to review it, but I am a fan of Leonard Cohen's music and I can say that his work holds up as well on paper as it does on vinyl. From the very first poem of this modest collection, in which he proclaims "Desire the horse / Depression the cart" (pg. 1), Cohen is on top form. Of course, given his fame as a songwriter, it is easy to forget nowadays that Cohen started out as a poet and so he is on familiar ground here. He still has great affection for music (see 'His Master's Voice' on page 3), but his skill with the written word ensures that many of the selections in Book of Longing are stand-alone poems that you don't dismiss as merely song lyrics without the beat.
The selections herein are also impressively diverse, being romantic, spiritual, humorous, profound, self-deprecating or erotic, sometimes all at once. Many of the poems deal with his experience with Buddhism and invoke such teachings though, as he amusingly notes, these lessons were "so imperfectly grasped that I cannot be accused either of stealing or absorbing them" (pg. 232). Indeed, his attitude towards spirituality is often grumpy and humorous, and one can detect a longing for materialism in 'The Lovesick Monk' (pg. 13). But whilst Cohen can be cynical ("The book of love I read was wrong / It had a happy ending" (pg. 191)), most of his songs are positive ("When hatred with his package comes / You forbid delivery." (pg. 55)), if not necessarily upbeat ("In spite of the ache / in your heart / about the girl you / never found / and the fact that / after years of / spiritual rigour / you did not manage / to enlighten yourself / a certain cheerfulness / will begin to / arise out of your crushed / hopes and intentions." (pg. 66)).
Cohen also warns us against reading too deeply into his words ("Do not decode / these cries of mine / They are the road / and not the sign." (pg. 42)) but simply enjoy them (Undeciphered / let my song / rewire circuits / wired wrong." (pg. 43)). And enjoy them we do.
Personal favourites include: 'My Life in Robes', 'S.O.S. 1995', 'Seisen is Dancing', 'You Are Right, Sahara', 'My Baby Wasn't There', 'If You Knew', 'How Could I Have Doubted', 'The Paris Sky', 'The Faithless Wife', 'Suggestions' and 'Report to R.S.B.' Oh, and of course:
"You go your way / I'll go your way too."
-- 'The Sweetest Little Song' (pg. 111).