As 2016 continues to steamroll our tired hearts, I can’t help but see yesterday’s passing of beloved, iconic Canadian poet-minstrel Leonard Cohen as yet another thread unraveling from the very fabric of society. I can see Uncle Leonard in the corner of a dive bar, clouded in smoke, a notebook and pen on the table in front of him next to a tumbler of whiskey, nodding along with me, his eyes sad but ever hopeful.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
He gets to be with his beloved Marianne now, and while we who live need his voice and presence more than ever, I can’t help but feel happy that he’ll be back in her arms. I have their kind of love in my own life, and I know I wouldn’t survive long without it.
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
I’m grateful that he will be spared the American horror show that has already begun in the wake of the election results. He doesn’t need to see his own dystopian visions come to life.
Give me back the Berlin Wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother:
it is murder.
“Leonard spoke to our deepest darkest places, and put them to lilting tones of sound,” lifelong Cohen fan Tamara Riley writes me. “I don’t know of any woman who wasn’t under his spell. Hypnotic and genius.”
While Uncle Leonard never explicitly claimed he was a feminist, his songs display a profound understanding and respect of women and the often difficult choices that we have to make. Some activists have said some of his songs have an anti-abortion bent, but I disagree. He understood, on a physical and spiritual level, the toll these choices take on women, how our bodies become sites of contention and control, how our emotional labor is taken for granted and abused, and he put all of this in his songs. I also found this charming story by Roz Warren for the New York Times about the night he slept fully clothed, side by side with two feminists after a show, a perfect gentleman. I think he was always sympathetic to our cause.
Our law of peace
A husband leads
A wife commands
While the women in his songs are often sad and struggling, they are also surviving through their pain. And if they haven’t survived, he remembers them and honors their memory. He taught us there is power in moving on while never forgetting. Because while the women were battling their demons, sometimes even through him, he was right there with them, never judging. He understood that women’s lives will always be more complicated than his. I’ve always found something incredibly empowering in this.
Ah the silver knives are flashing in the tired old cafe
A ghost climbs on the table in a bridal negligee
She says, “My body is the light, my body is the way”
I raise my arm against it all and I catch the bride’s bouquet
Leonard Cohen’s words and music have made us feel our lives are poetry in motion. That our pain, our love, our fights through difficult lives are actually moving and breathing art projects; we ourselves, our lives are art. Between the suffering and the hope, we are beauty personified.
And she’s moving her body so brave and so free
If I have to remember, that’s a fine memory.
He sat with us in our dark nights of the soul and always had his gaze trained on even the smallest slivers of light. He showed us how that small sliver of illumination grows and grows the longer you focus on it. He taught us so many ways to talk about love. He gave pain lyrical shape. He taught us how to heal.
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine
But it wasn’t just Leonard Cohen’s music that was a teacher. In high school I read a poem by him called “All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann” which goes like this:
NUMBER OF FINGERS:………..Ten
NUMBER OF TOES………………Ten
What did you expect?
This poem changed everything for me. Uncle Leonard help me understand that monsters are fundamentally human, fundamentally flawed. This is what makes them so terrifying: they look just like everyone else. And that is the thing that also makes them so tragic: they are cut from the same cloth as the rest of us. The moment you realize that in real life monsters are broken humans — that evil is a divisive label that makes compassion and empathy impossible — your entire worldview shifts and you never see anything the same again. At least, I didn’t. This poem and its 13 lines has shaped my writing every single day; it marked my birth as a writer and empathic human being.
And what can I tell you my brother, my killer
What can I possibly say? I guess that I miss you,
I guess I forgive you. I’m glad you stood in my way
If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me
Well, your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free
Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried
I hadn’t been able to cry since we got the horrific election news. I was starting to think that I was properly broken inside, that this year would be my ultimate undoing. But I’m sure crying now. Once more and certainly not for the last time, Uncle Leonard, you have helped me realize that I am not defeated. I am the crack where the light comes in. We all are.
But still, I wish you were here.
And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind
Thank you, Uncle Leonard, for having been a divine constant and for so long. What an honor it’s been to share this planet with you. Your beauty and the moonlight overthrew us.
Goodbye, Uncle Leonard. Godspeed to that great beyond. We miss you so much already.
So we struggle and we stagger
Down the snakes and up the ladder
To the tower where the blessed hours chime
And I swear it happened just like this:
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since but closing time.
Many thanks to Karen Singer, Laura Bibby-Bell, Katya Gichunts-Dove, Tamara Riley, Desmond Reddick, Pamela Robinson, Fester MacKrell, Bob Mohr, Angie Lea Tupper, and Deirdré Straughan with their help in compiling the lyrics featured here and inspiring this piece so I didn’t have to compose this dirge alone.