there was good light then


I remember hearing Leonard Cohen’s songs for the first time. I was in grade ten so it must have been 1970. I’d already discovered his poetry. The first poem I memorized, took to my heart, was his “There Are Some Men”:

There are some men
who should have mountains
to bear their names to time.

Grave markers are not high enough
or green,
and sons go far away
to lose the fist
their father’s hand will always seem.

I had a friend:
he lived and died in mighty silence
and with dignity,
left no book son or lover to mourn.

Nor is this a mourning-song
but only a naming of this mountain
on which I walk,
fragrant, dark and softly white
under the pale of mist.
I name this mountain after him.

And the songs, oh, those songs. I was immediately taken by the voice, how it caressed the lyrics. And how the lyrics were so beautiful to a girl of 15, trying to figure out about poetry and why it made her feel she knew a different language, one created for her alone. These were poems but they were also songs and how was that possible? (This was the time of Black Sabbath, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and even if you liked those songs, it was hard to think of them as literary texts as well, capable of leading you into the world, a traveler, an explorer. Or maybe I mean that the person they led into the world was not the person I wanted to be, knew I was on the cusp of being.)

And it has to be said: he was devastatingly sexy. The voice and the face.

All these years later, he feels like he’s been a companion. Someone thinking deeply and writing beautifully and remembering.

Days of Kindness

Greece is a good place
to look at the moon, isn’t it
You can read by moonlight
You can read on the terrace
You can see a face
as you saw it when you were young
There was good light then
oil lamps and candles
and those little flames
that floated on a cork in olive oil
What I loved in my old life
I haven’t forgotten
It lives in my spine
Marianne and the child
The days of kindness
It rises in my spine
and it manifests as tears
I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world

Hydra, 1985

And now it seems he was a prophet too. I’ve hesitated to write about the recent American election results. It matters, of course it does. Power has shifted and someone utterly unsuited (poor impulse control, no record of public service, a history of dreadful employment practices, just to begin the list) to lead one of the most militaristic and  powerful countries on earth has been elected by people who believe him to have their interests at heart. I don’t know what to say. But it turns out Leonard Cohen was predicting it all along. (And was he being ironic or hopeful when he said this:

From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Ironic, I think.)

But yes, predicting it all along:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

As he said in that first poem I memorized (before Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet, before Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”), “Nor is this a mourning song.” He lived a good life and he gave us so much. I’m looking at a mountain as I write, “fragrant, dark and softly white/under the pale of mist”, and although it already has a name, this morning it’s for him.