The dark vision of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen in their younger days…..

The music and poetry of Leonard Cohen is dark indeed, but has always drawn me to it. Not because I like to think darkly but because it’s somehow deeply interesting. Here is the opening stanza of his poem, Bird on the Wire:

Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
Like a worm on a hook,
like a knight from some old fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee.
If I, if I have been unkind,
I hope that you can just let it go by.
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you.

Is freedom really possible or is it an illusion we seek in vain, but do anyway because we must? The full poem is here.

a-cohenCohen is 82 now, born in 1934. [UPDATE: Leonard Cohen died in Los Angles on November 7, 2016, a little less than month after I first posted this] Cohen and a beautiful Norwegian woman by the name of Marianne Ihlen were on and off lovers for most of their lives since first meeting on the Greek Island of Hydra in 1960. David Remnick has a profile of Cohen in the current issue of The New Yorker.  Marianne Died at age 81 this past July. She and Cohen had not seen each other for quite some time but before she died some friends contacted Cohen to tell him she was sick.

A Young Marianne Ihlen

In late July this year (2016), Cohen received an e-mail from Jan Christian Mollestad, a close friend of Marianne’s, saying that she was suffering from cancer. In their last communication, Marianne had told Cohen that she had sold her beach house to help insure that Axel would be taken care of, but she never mentioned that she was sick. (her son, Axel Joachim, at the age of 20, entered a long life in psychiatric institutions in Norway.)

Now, it appeared, she had only a few days left. Cohen wrote back immediately:

Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and 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 I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

Two days later, Cohen got an e-mail from Norway:

Dear Leonard

Marianne slept slowly out of this life yesterday evening. Totally at ease, surrounded by close friends.

Your letter came when she still could talk and laugh in full consciousness. When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can. She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her.

It gave her deep peace of mind that you knew her condition. And your blessing for the journey gave her extra strength. . . . In her last hour I held her hand and hummed “Bird on the Wire,” while she was breathing so lightly. And when we left the room, after her soul had flown out of the window for new adventures, we kissed her head and whispered your everlasting words.

So long, Marianne . . .

I can’t read that without getting a little emotional, and these are people I do not know except by their music and poetry. I think it’s the beauty of their words that gets me. I hear a few words of John Donne from a poem he wrote in 1624, in which he contemplates how the death of others affects us because, “No man is an island.”

Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Here is the audio of a song from the Leonard Cohen album, The Future:

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