I will not forget the day Donald Trump became President Elect of the USA, because it’s the same day Leonard Cohen died, and that is almost too much of a coincidence to bear.
It seems excessive, that one should have to deal with the arrival of Trump and the leaving of Cohen in the same twenty-four hours. As the poet departs the soulless prepare to take over: it’s a bad succession and I can’t help wondering if there are too many of us who took the poetry for granted and lost our focus, and while we weren’t paying attention the hollow men moved in.
The two men, Cohen and Trump, represent extreme points on a continuum of human possibility. The former mined the infinite richness of love, sex, loss, grief, joy: the mysteries of feeling, experience and meaning. The latter reduces human experience to its most crude and its most base: not for him the mystical transports of a thousand kisses deep, his desires are far more readily satiated.
It’s the poet’s task to find words that express the inexpressible. The poet/musician Cohen found the chords as well and while he didn’t think of himself as possessing a voice of any great interest, like Bob Dylan his voice, its timbre and rhythms, its hesitations and its forcefulness, its yearning, its anger and its joy, struggled to describe what it is to be here, to be human and divine, to love and to hate, to fully live this inexplicable life on earth.
While Trump knows the power of words as well as Cohen did, he uses them to conceal truths rather than unveil them, and there is no music to be found in him that makes any sense. Trump is discordant, senseless, unconnected, deadly. Cohen knows this darkness:
Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it’s lonely here,
there’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
that’s an order!
Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
and stuff it up the hole
in your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother:
it is murder.
I’m mourning Cohen and I understand that this mourning is complex. That he should die at this precise moment in the history of the world is significant. It’s as if his death is an alert to examine what might have died unnoticed in us, leaving an absence of feeling that permitted the ascension of Trump and those like him. They represent a world without poetry, and I use the word in its broadest sense, that of a sensibility that permits the recognition of another’s humanity, vulnerability and frailty as being common to all of us rather than the characteristics of an alien other, to be despised and denied. A sensibility that recognises tenderness towards others and our earth as strength, and not as weakness ripe for exploitation. Cohen died, but what Cohen represents has been slowing dying in many of us, and perhaps a poet had to die before we could understand what we’ve been losing.
There’s a more personal sorrow: Arnie, my husband, loved Leonard and bore a remarkable physical resemblance to him, especially, I realised today looking closely at images of Cohen, their hands and fingers. They shared a similar sensibility and they were both Jews, with a certain ambivalence towards their traditional culture and religion. Cohen spent five years living as a monk in a Buddhist monastery, Arnie cherry-picked his religious observances and like Cohen, never quite turned his back on his heritage. I think most days Cohen sang in our house.
So for me, Cohen is inextricably bound up with our love and our life. Losing Cohen is like losing another part of us, and I am staggered, still, to find that there are yet more aspects of us I must lose and grieve over.
Cohen left behind a body of work from which can be constructed a soundtrack for a revolution. This is the man’s miraculous gift: he created a soundtrack for the most intimate of relationships, and a soundtrack for a world that must, if it is to survive, find poetry again. In that poetry must be found the means to overcome the hollow men who today, the day after the poet’s death, the day after the most hollow of hollow men was appointed leader of the most significant country in the world, seem disastrously, unassailably powerful.
Come healing of the reason, come healing of the heart: