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How to say goodbye to the world with peace? How accept everything around us, including the fact that “us” itself is something of an illusion, and certainly about to be no longer? How take leave of things with light? Those questions have been circling around the later songs of Leonard Cohen, as the man who has undertaken Zen practice for more than thirty years now, and has even been ordained as a monk, moves toward his seventies and ever further from a sense of being the center of the world. Everything is passing, and he’s watching it all fall away, and yet the impulse, over and over, is to acclaim the world that remains, complete in itself. The only suitable gesture is a raised hand of Zen salute.
When Cohen brought out his last album, Ten New Songs, just before September 11, 2001, listeners were carried off to the Mount Baldy Zen Center, where he has been studying with Joshu Sasaki Roshi for decades. There was a grave, contained intensity to all the songs, as if they issued from the meditation hall itself; they flowed in one single dark current that seemed always to be coming from the same place, or no place at all. Their subject was farewell; but what one heard in the deep, chant-like mumblings was a man in the dark, alone, bearing witness to his position on a mountaintop where impermanence is the only truth.
The new collection, titled, much more intimately, Dear Heather, and released this fall, just after the ageless singer turned seventy, gives us the other side of the coin; not the solitary soul contemplating last things, but the beauty of all the things he’s leaving. Light is its theme and setting, not the dark; the singer skims from one musical form to another like a bee buzzing among the flowers. The first time I heard the record, appropriately enough, I was in a small cottage in central Los Angeles, looking out on a sunlit garden, flowers, a constant tinkle from a small, stone fountain; the songs could have been a transcription of the scene.
An offering for a Sunday morning at home in the sun.
Those who have been listening to Leonard Cohen for many years will remember that his first album explicitly tending to the Zen experience, Various Positions, contained a song called “Night Comes In,” about that pull that every sometime hermit feels. The poet longed to court Our Lady of Solitude; he wanted to go out into the dark, into silence and emptiness, and find all the dissolutions that wait for us there. But the world, his children, his duties, the need to serve and report, kept pulling him back, refusing him the easy solace of contemplation. In Dear Heather, which finds him fully back in the world, among the morning glories, it is as if the movement is reversed. Light comes in, and night recedes. The singer has left the monastery behind, and now his saying good-bye to the world takes the form of celebrating its graces.
A large part of this involves taking leave of self. It’s as if one can see and feel, more and more, Cohen setting himself aside, packing himself up, as one might a suitcase that is no longer of use. Some listeners may remember how, on the last record, in “Alexandra Leaving,” he took an exquisite poem of Cavafy’s, about watching one’s home pass away, and wove it into his own reflections. On the new record, the song that sounds most like vintage Cohen, “Villanelle for Our Time,” actually takes its lyrics from a poem written by a law professor from Cohen’s days at McGill University many years ago. With most singers, these might be considered “cover” versions; with Cohen, it is as if they are uncovered versions: the songs that unveil the hidden, unchanging truths not particular to him or anyone. The liner notes for the CD are full of the names of loved ones and teachers who have passed on; the bright melodies that tinkle through are memorials of a sort to who they were.
One of the other curious features Cohen has always brought to the popular song is a readiness to put his own name into his lyrics, as if to make of “Leonard Cohen” a makeshift illusion. Like Nagasena telling King Menander that his name is “a mere sound,” a “practical description,” Cohen ends songs “Sincerely, L. Cohen,” or entitles them “Field Commander Cohen.” The second song of the new CD finds naked women crying out, “Look at me, Leonard,” as he passes through old age. It’s as ifhe’s playing with the Cohen we imagine, taking leave of the public, fixed self, as of everything else. “Leonard, Leonard, Leonard,” the name recurs in the song, and then, for the rest of the album, it departs.
And all the while, his voice, which began to recede in Ten New Songs (where Sharon Robinson, conspirator and coproducer, led on many tracks), fades further and further away from us, as Robinson and Anjani Thomas replace Cohen’s somber darkness with their more light-filled decorations. You can almost see him slipping out the door.
The first time I listened to Dear Heather, as modest and everyday on the surface as a recipe hung on a refrigerator door, I wondered what listeners would make of it. Many of us look to Cohen for deep poems of questing, for complex parables or harrowed stories of the search; these songs are so transparent they dissolve almost at the touch. Every time you expect him to go deeper into a song, he steps back and gives us the same verse again; every time you imagine he will surprise us with an unexpected word, as he’s always done before, he surprises us instead by giving us just the words we expect. The title song lasts all of five lines; and very soon, it stops bearing meaning, and becomes prayer or ritual incantation. “And your legs all white from the winter.” Repeated and repeated, till the legs, the white, and the winter disappear altogether.
It’s almost as if the singer is deliberately stepping away from complication or momentousness, and giving us nothing but jottings, moments, portraits of things that point to nothing but themselves. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure—details are precise and reflected on Cohen albums—that in the liner notes there are sketches on almost every page, and on many pages the drawings swallow up the words.
The mystery of transparency, I’m tempted to say; the central con un- drum of the world being just that it is there, outside us, indifferent to us, beautifully rounded in itself. When we describe things, famously, we muddy them with our thoughts or projections, our notions of them, our confusions and chatter. Just to give us the thing as it is may be the hardest task of all, which is one reason we admire a Cezanne still life, or a William Carlos Williams poem about a small red wheelbarrow.
The words here are deliberately straight for the most part. There’s no spin on them, no gloss. The man who has traditionally been one of our great voices of striving, of conflict and the search, now becomes something almost harder to accept, a voice of contentment. Again, it’s hard not to see a complete withdrawing of the self, as if to say, “This is what the world is, worthy of celebration. It has no need of me.”
There’s no explicit mention of Zen, but—as on the previous album—one cannot help but think of Japan, and the grasp of the now, at every turn (“No words this time? No words,” one song begins). The central Buddhist poets of Japan, Basho and Issa and Ikkyu, give us their worship or attention simply by giving us the world. The sight of a white plover in the autumn sky. The sound of a temple bell along the eastern hills at dusk. That morning glory in the sun. Observation of the world for them becomes something very close to what might be observation of a religion, or at least a ritual, for us. The poems, like the moon they point to, become elusive precisely because they stand in full view before us, illuminated.
No need to look for depth or explanations or the wisdom of the mind, they say, no need to search and fret and cavil. It’s all right here, in front of our eyes.
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