My copy of Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems 1956-1968 is not actually mine. I stole it from my childhood home eight years ago.
When my parents split I was 18 years old, and it came down to me as the eldest child to sort through the attic full of books they had accumulated over their 25-year marriage. Not only did they want rid of all the books they’d owned together, but they weren’t concerned about the books they had brought to the marital home from their single lives. Anything I wanted was mine; everything else was gone. But how could I throw these books away? I recognized spines, titles and cover art from my childhood, when I would spend hours pawing through the floor-to-ceiling shelves in my father’s study. I didn’t read a Stephen King novel until I was 16, but I could have recited the titles from the age of seven. When I was nine I spent three weeks ‘reading’ George Orwell’s 1984, though all I could remember was the rats and the sex; the paperback still had greasy marks on pages 45-70 where I dropped a piece of buttered toast. Many of the books were inscribed with my mother’s maiden name and schoolgirl marginalia. You don’t just throw those things away.
I took Leonard Cohen’s Poems 1956-1968 for the sole reason that it had my father’s name written on the inside cover. For the next eight years I dragged it from four years of student digs to my mother’s new flat (because English Lit degrees do not lead to rent payments) to my first flat with my girlfriend, and I never read it. Sometimes I would pull it off the shelf and flip through it, scanning for my father’s handwriting in the margins. josephine – medicine 1971-72. anne without the e, 1974. susan brown, my love, jan 75. I didn’t know who these women were, but I knew they weren’t my mother. These insights into my father’s past were enough; I put the book back on the shelf and forgot all about it.
Six months ago, I developed a predilection for reading poetry in the bath, accompanied by a glass of red wine and enough candles to burn down the flat if they got too near the shower curtain. I’d always been a bit scared of poetry so all I had were my university course books – Palgrave and Norton, Yeats and Blake – and a few books salvaged from my parents’ house. Not surprisingly, I was soon bored by Songs of Innocence and Of Experience; call me a yob, but I’m not inspired by lines like “Little lamb, God bless thee!”. The only poetry that didn’t seem to concern itself with wars or flowers was Leonard Cohen’s Poems 1956-1968, so it accompanied me to my next bath.
And then I had a revelation. When I read Leonard Cohen, I was not me; a tattooed, queer, broke 26-year-old writer with two useless arts degrees and a waitressing job. I read the poems as I imagined my father read them. I read them as the boy he was: a sombre rugby player, a heartbreaking poet, a middle child in a strict and silent family. I read them as the man he would become: an overeducated, soft-voiced, manic-depressive, shake-handed man who always knows the answers. Just for a few grasping seconds, I understood him.
But at times I think that maybe I just don’t like Leonard Cohen at all. I don’t like that his poems can be conceited and unromantic, such as ‘These Heroics’:
If I had a shining head
and people turned to stare at me
in the streetcars
do you think that I would remain in this room,
reciting poems to you,
and making outrageous dreams
with the smallest movements of your mouth?
Maybe I’m a romantic or maybe I just have blinkers on, but I think that poetry is all about making outrageous dreams from the smallest movements. I also don’t like that Leonard Cohen’s women are just for fucking or writing poetry about – usually both. I don’t like that he takes himself too seriously, or not seriously enough, depending on your reading:
I want your warm body to disappear
politely and leave me alone in the bath
because I want to consider my destiny
But then I wonder: did my father lust after the powerful and damaged Queen Victoria, as Leonard Cohen lusted after her “skin slightly musty with petticoats”? Did he wish he could demand elopement with the bus driver, like in ‘The Bus’? Did he see himself in the tongue-tied man searching for words outside poetry, as in ‘Gift’? And then I remember why I love my imperfect-perfect father, and why I love this book.