The Flame by Leonard Cohen
I have been reading more poetry this year, and one of the things that I have enjoyed is the variety – the use of language to create both pictures and messages. Variety in the way things are said, the rhythm of the verses and even the way they look on the page, all combining to create something special or unusual, in a way that prose rarely does.
All these elements were missing in The Flame. This is a big book of poems, at 275 pages, together with lots of art, some song lyrics and a speech. I felt that too much of the poetry was the same, a similar tone and rhythm. Normally I will find a handful of poems in a book which stand out, either for their style, the use of language or something that they say. In this collection, I was struggling to find the stand-out poem. Occasionally, I would find a phrase I liked, a line or two that said something different, but on the whole, I was disappointed.
For example, I liked the first two lines of ‘Different Sides’:
“We find ourselves on different sides
of a line that nobody drew” But I was disappointed by the rather old-fashioned sounding start of ‘My guitar stood up today’: “My guitar stood up today and leaped into my arms to play a Spanish tune for dancers proud to stamp their feet and cry aloud” The poems are very ego-centric; they are mostly about Cohen’s life and sometimes his religion and his love life. The best example of this would be the short poem ‘What I do’:
“It’s not that I like
to live in a hotel
in a place like India
and write about G-d
and run after women
It seems to be
what I do”
My search for a stand-out poem led me to ‘Homgage to Rosengarten’, which is longer, wider and more sensual that the others. Not representative of the collection as a whole, but enjoyable and challenging. Cohen reflects on the bare walls in his house and his desire to place works by the artist Rosengarten on those walls and on his old wooden tables.
“A Rosengarten produced with a wooden
Comb and black ink
Going nowhere forever in a swirl of indelible parallel curves
Is it a letter or a woman?”
“The Flame” is full of Cohen’s art, primarily his self-portrait sketches, which he always seems to over-embellish with more facial lines than are needed. There are more than sixty versions of his own face spread through the book, each with its own subtle differences; with hat, without hat, with a beard, spiky haired, flat haired or no-haired. They give the pages vital movement and hint at moods. The occasional female face is always young and beautiful, in stark contrast to his own age and downturned features.
Cohen’s son gives us a little background in the introduction, saying that it is hard to date some of the poems, due to his father’s habit of coming back to revise them time and again. This lack of sequence bugged me, as I wanted to be able to put a date or a period to the verses, place one before another or connect them to passages of his life, to know if something related to a time when his children were young or when he was with a particular partner. There are only a handful of poems that give us an exact timing or a specific event; a place, a concert, or a certain hotel room. The majority have no time line to place them on. For the true Cohen fans there is plenty to enjoy, the rest of us will have to look hard to find gems.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Allen & Unwin, RRP 39.99