Friday, February 17, 2012
LETTERS FOR LEONARD
LEON WIESELTIER & PICO IYER
"It seemeth to me there is as it were a plague in the house". Those are the mysterious words, from the Book of Leviticus, that the owner of a house addresses to a priest when he notices a strange lesion on his dwelling, and seeks relief from the impurity that is denoted by this wound to his walls. What is so striking about this voice, what struck the commentators about it, is its tentativeness, its imprecision, its uncertainty. It is rare in Scripture that somebody does not know for sure. But this man does not report a plague in his house, he reports his impression of a plague in his house. Why? Perhaps his fear has rattled his confidence in his mind. But another explanation (always another explanation!) was given. The point of this locution, so unfamiliar in the biblical universe but so familiar in the human universe, is, in the words of an ancient rabbi, to "teach your tongue to say: ‘I do not know’".
Here endeth the midrash for Dear Heather. But it is precisely from such a tongue that this reflective and lovely and companionable record has fallen. For poets, for artists, for thinkers, there is no more perilous illusion than the illusion of the last word. There is no such thing as the last word, because in another moment the light will change, the page will turn, the caress will end, the ice will melt, the shadow will pass, the glass will break, the news will arrive – the world will no longer look as it did, the world will no longer be what it was, when you wrote or spoke or sang the words that were designed to capture it, and to fix it, and to settle the matter of its meaning once and for all. The ideal of the last word represents only a desire to be released from the variety and the mutability of life, to bring experience and expression to an end. Behind the grandiosity of the last word, the big statement, the final image, the ultimate conclusion – behind all these conceits and coercions lies a sorry exhaustion and a specious authority.
Dear Heather is a retort to such exhaustion and a rejection of such authority. Its achievement is owed to the reduction of its scale. Cohen has always been fascinated by his own smallness: he does not rebel against it so much as he rebels within it. His art has been a long and invigorating endeavor to coax significance out of insignificance. He never introduces anything large or anything lasting except wryly, as if to say: here is what he who does not know knows. And Dear Heather is a perfect document of this brilliant humility. Here the form has caught up with the philosophy. The record is a notebook, a scrapbook, a sketchbook, a miscellany of ideas and moods and observations and diversions -- the definitive declaration of Cohen’s glad loss of interest in the definitive. The temper here is provisional, digressive, incomplete, quiet, experimental, generous, artisanal. Dear Heather is located in the middle of the work and in the middle of the world. Cohen sings, but not always; sometimes he lets others sing (especially Anjani Thomas, in whose preternaturally gorgeous voice Cohen has found the most angelic of all his "angels"), and sometimes he speaks, his own words or the words of others. He wishes to give what he loves a hearing. Even in sadness, he comes to praise.
The record revels in its own lack of monumentality. No emotions are exempted from its insistence upon the reality, and the beauty, of the ordinary. Consider "On That Day", Cohen’s contribution to the mourning for September 11, 2001. On the occasion of "the day they wounded New York", he has written a ditty. It is all of two minutes long, and it includes the unplangent twanging of a Jew’s harp. But there is no blasphemy in this simplicity. Not at all. The song is deeply affecting because of its refusal of the temptation of magnitude, and also because of its argument that one may respond to evil with madness or with service. Compare this unlikely commemoration to the bombastic arena-rock threnodies that were provoked by the catastrophe in New York and you will have a lesson in grief’s integrity. Or consider "Dear Heather", the wickedly amusing title track. Here it is not sorrow that is translated into the idiom of the actual, it is desire. A woman walks by a man and undoes him so completely that he must teach himself again to spell. Cohen is tickled by the banality of his own lust. Where anguish once was there now is silliness. The longing persists, but the slavery is over. And the evidence of inner freedom is everywhere in Dear Heather. It is a window upon the heart of an uncommonly interesting and uncommonly mortal man, a man with the stomach for transience. Leon Wieseltier
"It’s a leave-taking, with light," I found myself saying, to my own surprise, the first time I listened to Dear Heather. I was sitting in a small cottage in central Los Angeles, looking out on a sunlit garden, flowers, a constant trickle of water from a fountain where birds splashed (the freeway nearby seeming a million miles away), and what I was hearing might have been a transcription of the scene around me. In the past, especially on his last album, Ten New Songs, Leonard Cohen often seemed to push his songs towards darkness and silence, the place where everything gives out. Indeed, the power of that record seemed to me to lie partly in its singleness, its unity of tone, the songs flowing one into the other with a grave, contained intensity. This was the beauty of a small cabin beside a Zen meditation-hall high up in the mountains.
The new record, for me, is the beauty of returning to the world again, celebrating its beauties, even though they will pass. In one of his early songs about the monastic pull, Cohen wrote of how "night comes in," as he goes into the dark to court Our Lady of Solitude; here I feel as if night is receding, as light comes in. The first surprise of the record is how various and almost floral are its musical arrangements, the singer hopping from style to style like a bee buzzing amidst the flowers. The first time I heard the record I imagined a series of objects lined up on a table, all precisely rounded, like brightly colored balls, entire in themselves and lucid, but not pointing to anything beyond themselves. Offerings for a Sunday morning, you could say, at home in the sun.
Cohen has suffered more than almost any songwriter or poet alive from assumptions about his life, or at least that shadow-life that is his legend; people seize on the songs with women in them, or using his central (often metaphorical) word "naked," and miss the point often. The second song here teases us with the Cohen we expect--women, naked, crying "Look at me, Leonard." The fact he uses his own name, again and again, is almost a way of stressing that he’s talking about the figure who moves through the world, in rumors, in gossip columns, in listener projections. With that second song, Leonard departs.
The others startle with their sense of completeness -- or, put another way, with their lack of obvious gravitas, their freedom from obvious depth. They’re transparent: notebook entries, or a series of recipes hung up on a refrigerator door. When you expect Cohen to go deeper into a song, to give us a new verse, a different turn, as he’s always done before, he steps back, gives us the same verse again. When you expect him to surprise us, as he’s always done, with an unexpected rhyme, he surprises us by giving us just the word we expect. And often the words more or less dissolve, as the singer experiments with chant, or incantation, the place where music becomes something more than music, closer to prayer or ritual recitation. "And your legs white from the winter."
And all the while, his voice, which had already begun to recede from view in Ten New Songs, where Sharon Robinson, his conspirator and co-producer, led on many tracks, fades further and further away from us, until Robinson and Anjani Thomas take over, and replace his dark sonorities with their more light-filled decorations. A ceremony of farewell, in a way.
The first time I listened to this record, I couldn’t help but wonder what listeners would make of it. Many of his fans look for long, gnarled poems from Leonard Cohen, for parables and theological mutterings; they’re not ready for songs as straightforward, and full of fresh air, as a 16th century lyric. He’s giving us here, essentially, jottings, moments, the things he might collect for a letter to a friend. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure--things are precise on Leonard Cohen albums--that, in the C.D. brochure, there are sketches all over the place, simple, whimsical, unfancy, and on many pages the drawings drown out the words.
Anyone who writes knows that transparency is at least as hard to catch as mystery. Mystery means taking on all that is beyond the self (or inside the self); transparency means recording all that is outside the self, and independent of it. Usually, when we describe something, we cloud it over with our thoughts, our projections, our hopes for it, our confusions. Just to give the thing as it is is often the hardest task of all, which is why we admire a Cezanne still life, or a small red wheelbarrow in a William Carlos Williams poem.
It’s also the easiest thing to underestimate, or look past. I can imagine a music critic rejoicing in the way this record -- quite literally, a record of a life, a day -- opens up the palette to admit new colors; but the exegete will be confounded by the fact that the words just stand there, giving up nothing but themselves. There’s no spin on them, no gloss. Cohen has traditionally been the voice of striving, of conflict and seeking; here he becomes something harder for us to accept, a voice of contentment. It’s as if he’s withdrawn his self from things in order to say, "This is what they are. They have no need of me"
When I was trying to grasp this record, elusive precisely because it sits in full view, illuminated, less hidden or in shadow than is usual with Leonard Cohen, I thought of the poems of the Japanese among whom I live. A plover. A temple-bell. A marigold. Observation of the world for them becomes observation of a ritual, even of a religion. Indeed, it is from their straight-on renditions of the world that Pound got his imagism, from which William Carlos Williams took his wheelbarrow. The Zen discipline tells us to look at what’s in front of us, and what’s beneath our feet. No need to search for enlightenment or beauty or analytic wisdom, no need to seek out meaning or depth. It’s all right there, in front of our eyes.