Dear Leonard

A Valedictory Valentine to Leonard Cohen

/ by Diane Joy Charney

On this first Valentine's Day since Leonard Cohen’s death on November 7, the day before Americans elected Donald Trump, Diane Charney felt moved to write him a Valedictory Valentine. Her letter to him includes a number of his own most memorable words that are likely to resonate with everyone who was marked by him.

 

 

Dear Leonard,

 

November started out badly with the confirmation that this year you were not inscribed in the Book of Life. You may no longer be with us in a physical sense, but you will always be here with me.

 

My awareness of you came late in life. One day your “Hallelujah” sent me reeling. I found myself trying to sort out the words amid the mystery: the danger of David gazing at Bathsheba and going for broke. In fact that last is a key word:

 

It’s not a cry you can hear at night

It’s not somebody who has seen the light

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

 

Our place here in Umbria was a total ruin, broken beyond belief, but we fixed it, and it seems to have had a similar effect on us.

 

Popular culture has never been my strong point. It's true that during the sixties, I raised my teenage head from my books long enough to notice the Pat Boone and Elvis wars, but the squeaky-clean, soothing Brothers Four were more my speed. They sang so sweetly that I never even noticed the dark side of my favorite song, "The Green Leaves of Summer:"

 

A time to be reaping.

A time to be sowing.

A time to be living.

A place for to die.

'Twas so good to be young then

in the season of plenty

when the catfish were jumping

as high as the sky.

 

I never focused on the dying and "the green leaves of summer are calling me home" part. But isn't that the way with things that sneak under your skin?

 

Let’s get back to the day I caught a few bars of a song that talked about King David getting his hair cut by a woman he had observed bathing on a roof who later tied him to a kitchen chair, and I was hooked. What could it all mean? Why did I feel you were speaking directly to me?

 

Like the baffled King knocked off his throne, I became obsessed with wanting to figure it out. This was nothing like what they'd taught us in Sunday School. Could this be the same kid with a slingshot? The guy who wrote the most perfect psalms? Whose Lord was his shepherd and whose cup runneth over? And wasn't it Delilah, not Bathsheba, who gave Sampson the buzz cut that destroyed his powers and left him so enchained that all he could do was pull down the temple pillars on his own bald pate? What lesson were we supposed to take away from that?

 

Here's what can happen to a bookish woman with an obsession. First I need to seek out all the versions I can of "Hallelujah." Then I must listen to everything else by this Leonard Cohen guy. This leads me to all kinds of crazy flashbacks and connections. And to what seem like odd coincidences: our families that spent a lot of time in the synagogue. Montreal--your birthplace and the city where a number of my immigrant relatives ended up. And where I, as a 16-year-old student at the French university, learned to be alone. My flirtation with Buddhism and integration of yoga into my life. My conviction (and I'm guessing yours) that music is the least disappointing thing in life. My recent rediscovery of what the spirit feels like under the sun of a wild Greek island--a place where in the arms of Marianne, you seem to have found yourself and your voice. Thanks to my husband, like you, I got to see Janis Joplin, but not in the way you describe in your Chelsea Hotel song.

 

Here’s a bit more about where my obsession with you has taken me. Since first hearing the line in "Hallelujah" about knowing "how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya," I wondered what it could mean. But to watch your admirable patience with intrusive interviewers whom you manage to outmaneuver with your charm may shed light on that. This in itself is an art! I would have wanted to shoot or at least punch some of them.

 

Some interviewers of both sexes like to imply that you use your facility with words to ensnare women. A line from your poem in “Let Us Compare Mythologies” reads:

 

I heard of a man

who says words so beautifully

that if he only speaks their name

women give themselves to him.

 

You laughed at the idea that that could refer to you. You said you feel it's the other way around--that it's woman who possesses the true intimate connection to poetic mystery.

 

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on "Woman as Mediatrix in the Prose Works of André Pieyre de Mandiargues," another of my letter recipients who viewed woman as being charged with special goddess-like powers. Now I have to wonder why I'd be so taken with two men who have this idea.

 

And while I'm thinking about men who have marked me, let's talk about fathers. We both had fathers we wanted to please. You lost yours when you were nine; mine was busy and unwell for the latter part of his life. I read that as a twenty-two-year-old, you dedicated your first book of poems to your father. Later, you dedicated your first album to him. I dedicated my doctoral dissertation to my father, and here I am now, as I write my first book, writing a letter to each of you.

 

Can we talk about translation? I read how long it took you to translate the Garcia Lorca poem, “Little Viennese Waltz” and what a labor of love it was to transform it into your own haunting "Take this Waltz." As someone who does translations, I'm interested in the psychology of the translator who willingly devotes so much to the art of someone else. I'm also thinking here about the delight you took in hearing others, even four amateur Norwegian guys, sing your songs, and I don't think that pleasure necessarily has to do with the royalties.

 

Then there was your initial terror at performing in public--you seemed fine with having others, professional or not, sing your creations. This reminds me of the odd mixture of self-effacement and creativity of the dedicated translator. As outraged as I was at the "outing" of the author behind the mesmerizing Elena Ferrante books, I took some pleasure and satisfaction from seeing that she had been known mostly for her translations.

 

I'm still wondering what the Nobel Prize Committee was thinking when they decided who would win this year's prize for literature. Dylan instead of you? Huh? I haven't yet read your books of poetry or your novels, but I know that all your life you have been a serious writer. And that even among my well-educated friends, as was the case with me, your writing had somehow passed under their radar. Yet how many song writers have named their only daughter after Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet who knocked your youthful socks off?

 

In calling this a "valedictory valentine" and trying to process how you ended up salutatorian to Dylan's valedictorian, I went back to find a precise definition of that word.

 

The chosen valedictorian is often the student with the highest ranking in the graduating class who delivers the farewell valedictory at a graduation ceremony.

 

A salutatorian is a graduate who finished with the second highest rank in his or her class.

 

I would have liked to be a fly on the wall at those Nobel literary prize committee discussions: Let's do something really surprising--give it to a musician. But which one? Between Cohen and Dylan, who should be the valedictorian?

 

With respect to a book I've been writing, I thought my letter to my father would be the last of my Letters to Men of Letters. Not so. What do he and you have in common besides Judaism, periods of major depression, the same Hebrew name, and some relatives in Montreal?

 

He and I prided ourselves on our memory; you proudly profess total amnesia. In one of your songs, you wrote,

 

I don't remember

lighting this cigarette

and I don't remember

if I'm here alone

or waiting for someone.

 

Separately from your music, I've heard you say things of similar ilk about your total lack of recall about people and places. But then there's this:

 

People change and their bodies change and their hair grows gray and falls out and their bodies decay and die… but there is something that doesn’t change about love and about the feelings we have for people. Marianne, the woman of “So Long, Marianne,” when I hear her voice on the telephone, I know something is completely intact even though our lives have separated and we’ve gone our very different paths. I feel that love never dies, and that when there is an emotion strong enough to gather a song around it, that there is something about that emotion that is indestructible…

 

And this:

 

I'm not a very nostalgic person. I don't really look at the past and summon up regrets, or self-congratulations, it just is not a mechanism that operates very strongly in me. So I neither have regrets nor occasions for self-congratulations.

 

Maybe, however, these are examples of different types of memory, and my original definition of the sort of acute memory my father and I shared was too narrow.

 

You had been deeply depressed for much of your life. Precisely how that depression eventually lifted remains a mystery, and like so many of the mysteries to which you give voice, one best left alone.

 

As I watch videos of you at various points in your life, I feel as if you are always teaching me something.

 

You got me to ask myself, “Why would someone with a memory like mine need to be a hoarder?” You seem to have instinctively understood when to let go, and that to do so does not necessarily imply waste:

 

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

 

When words are so hard won, the idea of throwing them away can be painful to a serious writer. But what you say here shows how well you understand the lesson of the sweeping away of the mandala and the need to remove attachment. Maybe it helps to be a Buddhist monk?

 

I used to think I wanted to be a muse in service to a great man. Your Marianne, a pure, generous soul, convinced herself to be satisfied with the good seven years you had together. But the regret is palpable in her reminiscences of that time when as a young mother abandoned by her husband and totally devoted to you, she admits to having felt lost and eclipsed by the artistic people around her. I think you had a sense that this was happening when you wrote,

 

We sold ourselves for love but now we are free

I’m so sorry for that ghost I made you be

Only one of us was real and that was me.

 

As much as you like to tout your amnesia and lack of nostalgia, your poignant final message to her as she was dying belies that:

 

our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom…But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

 

In terms of journeys, there is something beautifully valiant about the way you accepted your own lack of perfection and vulnerability to crippling depression. Your manager, Robert Kory, used the word “crippling” not in the context of your depressions, but in praise of your “crippling candor.” Like a bird on a wire, you tried in your way to be free. And as Janis Joplin said to you in the Chelsea Hotel, we may be ugly, “but we have the music.”

 

In your Book of Mercy you wrote,

 

Blessed are you who has given each man a shield of loneliness so that he cannot forget you.

 

You understood that brokenness is our lot, but that we are not entitled to whine about that. Even at our lowest point, you remind us to:

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

I’ve decided that on this Valentine's Day, it’s time to say au revoir. I recognize the imperfection of this letter to you, and I am still unsure about whether to keep it. But you taught me that like the rest of what I write, I shouldn’t rush to discard it. It has to be finished before I can see “whether it shines.”

 

Something you said in your Book of Longing reminds me of the way another man of letters, Vladimir Nabokov, thought about his works as having been already written—that he was just the agent of their crystallization:

 

You should go from place to place

Recovering the poems

That have been written for you

To which you can affix your

Signature

Don’t discuss these matters with anyone.

Retrieve. Retrieve.

When the basket is full

Someone will appear

to whom you can present it.

 

You presented this to me. And I am offering it back “to ya” with eternal gratitude on this first Valentine's Day since you left us.

 

--yours in music, Diane Joy Charney

....
Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.

 


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