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The books that got away: Leonard Cohen in the ’70s

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Leonard Cohen from the back cover of The Energy of Slaves

In the 1970s Leonard Cohen’s musical output included a couple of masterpieces; in 1971 the dark Songs of Love and Hate, and in 1974 the more blues inflected New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Late in the decade he released the much maligned but now well-received Death of a Ladies’ Man.

In the same period he published two remarkable and strange books of poetry: The Energy of Slaves (1972) and Death of a Lady’s Man (1978). The records have attained a wide-ranging audience, including younger musicians and songwriters who see in Cohen a unique model for their own art.  But what of the books?

In her recent plus-sized biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Sylvie Simmons devotes six scant pages to the poetry of the ’70s. In Simmons’ narrative of Cohen’s progress, the books merely highlight personal and musical travails in a difficult period. Marriage difficulties, complicated recording collaborations and the illness and death of Cohen’s mother Masha in 1978 are the main material to be mined.

Of the books we gain almost no sense.  Reviewers, Simmons tells us, “sneered” at The Energy of Slaves, while Death of a Lady’s Man, a gathering of poetry and prose written over the preceding decade, falls fully in the shadow of the record, released in 1977, bearing an almost identical title.

READ: LEONARD COHEN RETURNS TO SYNAGOGUE OF HIS YOUTH 

Cohen’s literary output might be said to have a number of distinctive phases. There is the early golden boy romanticism of his first collections.  But this fades into something more provocative, laced with irony and a new historical perspective in the middle ’60s, with the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler and the magnificent second novel Beautiful Losers.  After Beautiful Losers music comes to the fore, and the next decade and a half into the late ’70s is represented in Cohen’s literary oeuvre by The Energy of Slaves and Death of a Lady’s Man.

Readers who have followed Cohen from those faraway days might have bought these volumes in a Coles bookstore in a suburban mall. They may not have read them with complete appreciation or comprehension, but the books remain talismanic as physical objects, evocative not just of Cohen’s progress as a writer but of a certain era in the life of Canadian bookmaking.

The Energy of Slaves seems designed to impersonate something circulated in a police state as samizdat literature (the term refers to censored work distributed clandestinely in the Soviet Union). On its cover, the daunting title in sharp-edged black letters lies on a stark white background.  The back cover presents a full-bleed black and white photograph of Cohen, hair shorn, in what might be prison duds, smoking what is either a slim cigar or a hefty cigarillo.  The poet’s eyes are heavy, and the message seems to be: enter at your own risk.

Death of a Lady’s Man is something else altogether. It’s a bigger book, so there was more for the publisher to dress up.  Its dust cover is a kind of faux-parchment, rough and weathered so it looked a little like an old book when it came out some 35 years ago.  The image imprinted in gold on the dust cover is the same as one Cohen used on the cover of his record New Skin for the Old Ceremony.  It presents a pair of winged, crowned lovers in repose, floating ethereally amidst what looks like clouds.  The dust flap tells the reader its source is a sixteenth-century alchemical text later taken up by Carl Jung.

The heart of the matter in the later book is love, but as in The Energy of Slaves, the love is busted, marriage is “obscene,” and the outcome is the poet’s “silence,” his “loneliness.”  “Death to this book,” Cohen writes near to its opening.  Later he adds, “I had high hopes for this book.  I used to be thin, too. . . .  I am ashamed to ask you for your money.”

A failed writer writing about his own failure would be entirely unreadable.  But a writer of Cohen’s stature writing about his failure is something else.  Still, the critics and even Cohen’s famously devoted fans have stayed away.  Biographies like Simmons’ don’t help.  They treat the poetry like a sideshow, something Cohen did in his spare time while the real stuff was going on over at Columbia Records.

The Energy of Slaves opens with cold and calculated charm:

Welcome to these lines/There is a war on//but I’ll try to make you comfortable.

What follows is a suite of compact, spare poems about the fallows of a writing life and the fall-off of marital devotion. Themes that will return in Death of a Lady’s Man show themselves:

I’m living with a woman in Montreal My inspiration failed/ I abandoned the great plan/ Among other things/ I got wiped out/ by several charismatic holy men

The setting seems to alternate between a Greek village and Manhattan.  Here and there Cohen acknowledges his own peculiar kind of celebrity, “the books” in which he is “listed/ among the dead and future Dylans.”

Few of the poems have titles. The majority are topped by a tiny razor blade.  This motif is somehow the typographic counterpoint to the author’s flinty gaze on the back cover.

Both The Energy of Slaves and Death of a Lady’s Man are almost wholly bare of Jewish reference. We are nowhere near the lush and loveable biblical imagery of Cohen’s best known song, Hallelujah. In a few poems in Death of a Lady’s Man one gets the impression that Cohen has been reading his Bible.  In one he suggests that the patriarch’s prescription for building an altar there is useful material for him as he thinks of building a book of poems.   Jewishness, when it enters the poems, is a kind of occult code, as mysterious as the 16th century image on the book’s dust cover.

Cohen’s poetry volumes for the ’70s remain secret books; deeply personal, cruel in their emotional landscape; unlike almost anything else in our literature from the period. They’re not an easy read.  But they are fine to hold in your hand, like an old dinged-up but eminently playable guitar.