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The Book of Longing

Leonard Cohen
Cohen's poetry – the title of the book makes no mystery of it – deals essentially with longing: longing for women, for God, or simply truth. What emerges from the whole book is the idea of an irretrievable loss. From the beginning, we learn that in spite of the author's retreat on Mount Baldy, enlightenment has hardly touched him: he has found neither God nor any essential truth. The reader is then at a loss and enters a world he did not expect to find, a world inhabited by people he has never heard of, among whom a certain Roshi, whose identity is only disclosed in the very last pages: Roshi was Cohen's mentor during his retreat. The development of the book seems therefore to be a reversed one, as for instance with “A Note to the Chinese Reader”, which although it is one of the last poems, takes the form of an address to the reader that we would normally expect at the very beginning of such a book.

Retrieve. Retrieve. When the basket is full someone will appear to whom you can present it. "Basket" (p.51)

The drawings The drawings accompanying almost every poem were drawn by Cohen himself, and have a role of their own in the book, sometimes repeating or echoing one another. The most repetitive ones are those figuring on the front cover: they represent a parrot on a branch, two hearts entwined in the fashion of the Star of David, and an enigmatic drawing, maybe a Chinese pictogram. Cohen also shows his love for the female body by repetitively drawing naked women throughout the Book of Longing, not with a perverse, pornographic goal, but to conjure up the sensuality that can emerge from the very fact of drawing a naked body.

If loss is what the Book of Longing expresses, what is to remain then? First and foremost, desire: desire is indeed the engine that makes the book take real life and form. This desire can take many forms, and is expressed in very different ways: of course in the beginning, there is the desire for women, but behind (and above) it, we soon find that it is in fact the desire to create pure beauty that first animated the poet, as expressed by the poem Better in the first pages of the book. It is then an absolute desire, concerned with absolute truth, and maybe this is why the Book of Longing is not an answer but a progress to these essential truths. The poet does not find God (whom he doesn't name but by G-d), but he finds faith; the poet does not find a woman, but he finds love; the poet does not find any answer, but he finds poetry. This is the great strength of Cohen's writing.

What is also striking in the Book of Longing is the diversity of Cohen's work. Indeed, he allies a more traditional form of poetry - with the use of punctuation and stanzas and a regular

rhythm - and a more modern one, devoid of all punctuation, or composed of only two lines in the form of a joke, like for instance in Butter Dish: Darling, I now have a butter dish/That is shaped like a cow (p.129). Cohen can also suppress all the capital letters in a poem - as is quite usual in modern poetry - while  in A Life Of Errand ea ch word begins with a capital letter: and indeed, when we come to think of it, each of these ways are equally relevant to grant every word the same importance. With the suppression of all the capital letters, each word is levelled with one another, but if every word begins with a capital letter, then all the words are dignified, and the prepositions themselves have an incompressible meaning - this is only a matter of perspective, but certainly not a matter of rule. As an ultimate proof of it, Cohen even manages to create poetry with prose in a few poems, as if to tell the reader that poetry does not lie in a specific form or rhythm, but in the word poetry itself: if I enclose this text in a book of poetry, then this text becomes a poem. To my mind, this creates such a complicity, such a powerful relationship between the poet and the reader, that we are almost compelled to read it from cover to cover, in spite of the words of A Note to the Chinese Reader.  

Mélanie Roche mai 2008


Leonard Cohen, Book of Longing. Penguin Books, 2006. First published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 2006

Leonard Cohen is on NPR's Fresh Air programme, talking about The Book of Longing. Listen to him read from and sing his poems.
Mise à jour le 10 mars 2009
Créé le 3 mai 2008
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues