POETRY AND HEALING
You Want It Darker, But Who Is The You? A Dialog Between Leonard Cohen and Peter Dale Scott
by David Shaddock
You Want it Darker, Leonard Cohen, Columbia Records, 2016, CD $11.45.
The Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings, Leonard Cohen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2018, 288 pages, $28.00.
Walking on Darkness, Peter Dale Scott, Sheep Meadow Press, Rhinebeck New York, 2016, 90 pages, paperback.
This is the first of a column I will be writing for Poetry Flash that looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health and coping with our lives today. The series title is meant to be taken as broadly as possible. This first column looks at an exchange of poetic letters between Leonard Cohen and Berkeley poet Peter Dale Scott.
SO MANY OF US WERE struck by the song "You Want it Darker," the title song from Leonard Cohen's last album. The curious mixture of dark prophecy and spiritual depth made the song both inspiring and puzzling, especially its refrain, "You want it darker/ We kill the flame" which seems to have both man and god participating in the darkening of the world. The song was released online in September 2016. Leonard died on November 7 of that year, and Donald Trump was elected on November 8. Hard not to put the three of them together.
The song features a speaker's voice that is in turn both mournful and prayerful. It includes bits of the Bible and Jewish liturgy: an English translation of the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, the cantor from his childhood synagogue in Montreal chanting the word hineni, "I'm here." This last is Abraham's reply to God's query in Genesis, "Abraham, where are you?" [Here's a link to the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0nmHymgM7Y]
From its first moments the song evokes two sides of the Old Testament God, which the Kabbalists call din or judgment, and chesed, compassion or lovingkindness:
If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, I'm broken and lame.
A clear preference is expressed, but do we get to choose between a God of compassion or a God of judgment? Or are we complicit in which one we get?
The occasion for this column is the just-published posthumous book The Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings,, by Leonard Cohen. The book includes a section entitled "Leonard and Peter," which reproduces a dialog in verse between Cohen and his fellow Canadian poet and friend Peter Dale Scott. Peter is a close friend of mine and I followed a bit of this after Leonard died, but seeing it in print provides an occasion for a closer look at this seemingly flip but profoundly serious bit of verse dialog. I hope you will find their dialog particularly relevant to our struggle to make sense of a sudden-seeming turn toward the darkness in the world. Let's dive in.
After a brief introduction that sets the stage, the section opens with a citation of the refrain, "You want it darker/ we kill the flame," followed by a quatrain of Peter's that he inscribed (presumably to Leonard) in his book Walking on Darkness. It seems to be an answer:
If you want it darker
This book is not for you
I have always wanted it lighter
And I think that God does too.
(from The Flame, page 159)
Here Peter sounds Jeffersonian, a voice of the enlightenment's belief in progress at the human level with the endorsement of the divine. Peter was raised a protestant, studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and currently is a practicing Jew. He is also a profound political philosopher, one who has written extensively about genocide, war and imperialism.
But Peter's inscription seems confused and perhaps a bit too waspish for Leonard, who answers:
Who says "i" want it darker?
Who says the "you" is me
More than wordplay. The confusion of pronouns gets at the question of our relation with the God, especially the God of judgment and destruction, which the Enlightenment elided and supplanted with its view of human progress. And of course, for Leonard, as for most Jews, he immediately associates to the Holocaust, the rocks the ship of enlightenment broke upon:
god saved you in your harbor
while millions died at sea.
Who among us has not worried that our optimism isn't grounded in our first world experience. How dare you purport to know the mind of a God who would let the Holocaust happen, Cohen asks sarcastically "You and god are buddies/ you know his wishes now." Is this the voice of the near dying, of the traumatized survivor, scathing our confidence in a world that makes sense?
Of course there is a Biblical proof text here of a bourgeois life brought low by god—Job.
Here's broken Job all bloodied
Who met him brow to brow.
Job's unbearable suffering was meant by god as an instruction, a humbling, a preparation to hear the voice from the whirlwind, God invoking his powers of creation and of life and death. Without being brought that low, Cohen is saying, you are deaf to that voice, to the true nature of reality:
if you have not been asked
to squat above the dead
be happy that you are deaf
not something worse instead.
And here's the extra point after the touchdown:
he will make it darker
he will make it light
according to his torah
which Leonard did now write.
Perhaps the point.
I have spent the last few years studying the Book of Psalms—I am interested in the swing of emotions in them, a seamless mix of adoration, comfort and praise one minute with rage despair and the wish for revenge the next. Each emotion invokes a wish for/belief in a god that mirrors it. Here in his reply to Leonard, Peter introduces (at least for the non-traumatized) the possibility of choice between these two extremes:
But we who were raised in harbors
while others burned at war
have been free to choose which voices
made us what we are.
A possibility of hope, however modestly proposed, that we might come to choose the more benevolent voices from the cacophony going on inside our heads and all around us. And Leonard, perhaps tiring from his battle with illness, lovingly and with an upward lilt in his voice proposes a truce, then signs his Hebrew name:
Leonard (October 4, 2016)
That was great fun.
Be well, dear friends.
To me what is most moving here is the way these two friends are not engaged in debate, but in the loving holding of both sides of an ineluctable paradox. As if to emphasize the point, Leonard, who has been appearing in the guise of an Old Testament prophet, closes by quoting Jesus, from the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
I shuddered when Peter showed me that text on his phone, shortly after Leonard died; it may be the last thing he ever wrote. And I shudder now with the charge it gives us: to go forth in our work, in our walk, and create a bit of peace, a bit of light in our darkening world.
David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His most recent book of poems is Vernal Pool. His newest book, Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field, is due in 2019 from Routledge. A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes is also forthcoming. He is the author of two books on relationships and couples therapy and lectures widely on those topics. He has a private practice in Berkeley.
— posted May 2019