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‘The Flame’ blurs lines between the sacred and secular

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Leonard Cohen

In his final month of life, as his sense of self was dissolving into the limitless sea of nothingness, Leonard Cohen shared unsung verses with fellow poet Peter Dale Scott, son of Canadian poet F. R. Scott, who was Cohen’s tutor at McGill University. Unheard gems, like those he exchanged with Scott, proliferate throughout Cohen’s posthumous collection, The Flame: Poems and Selections From Notebooks. In these pages, there is a directness in Cohen’s introspection unlike other moments. “Here I am, ready to serve you,” he seems to be saying throughout.

Cohen’s gift was his ability to dance between the sacred and the secular, echoing the Havdalah flame, which marks the boundary between the sacred Shabbat and the secular week. Two years after his death, when the Montreal bard “ascended heavenward” – as per his tombstone nestled into the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery plots on Chemin de la Forêt in Outrement – his presence continues to hover here in Montreal and beyond.

The collection’s poems, lyrics, koans and literary fragments, accompanied by self-portraits and sketches, rekindle a flame, returning us to the lyrics of recent Cohen albums not collected in his 1993 anthology, Stranger Music, including: Old Ideas, Popular Problems and his finale, You Want it Darker. Of all the material collected in The Flame, the most remarkable gems, to my mind, are the series of unsung verses Cohen communicated to Scott in talmudic-Zen fashion:

“Who says ‘I’ want it darker?/ Who says the ‘you’ is ‘me’?/ God saved you in your harbour/ While millions died at sea.

“You and God are buddies/ You know His wishes now/ Here’s broken Job all bloodied/ Who met Him brow to brow.”

These words constitute a most explicit “manual for living with defeat” to mitigate human suffering after the biblical Job. These words emerge in the torn-open moments of life. Cohen wrote them on Oct. 3, 2016. He died a few weeks later on Nov. 7. They are lyrics from the cutting room floor – a lyrical Mourner’s Kaddish to his Hineni. It takes a sort of poetic matchmaker like Leonard Cohen to see and sing.

Cohen’s earthly waltz, not present in this anthology, took him to Israel in 1973 during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. He sang for IDF troops during those dark October days. Even when the divine countenance feels eclipsed, as it did during the Shoah and, for many, the Yom Kippur War, Cohen’s poetic position suggested the fault was, by and large, ours – a result of our own disconnection from Zion, our own lapse of trust in the divine. As he sang on “Lover, Lover, Lover” from 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony, “It was you who built the temple/It was you who covered up my face.

When the beloved calls, you can run, but you cannot hide. Cohen ran from London to Hydra to Mount Baldy, then back to Montreal, but knew he could not escape, acknowledging that to be human is to be entangled in that “tangle of matter and ghost,” as he sang in “The Window.Perhaps Cohen’s most poignant prayer and greatest contribution to contemporary spiritual seekers is offering the space for doubt to emerge amidst the dark night of the soul.

READ: GLAZER: THE MIRACLE OF FRANZ ROSENZWEIG’S STAR OF REDEMPTION

In our confessional age, all we have are our broken prayers and imperfect offerings. We transpose liturgy to urgent human concerns. That self-effacing accessibility and playfulness is in full effect in many of the poems collected in The Flame, especially “Kanye West Is Not Picasso,” which jumps quickly into deep waters where the poet riffs on apophasis – the turn to negation in language, normally reserved for mystics trying to engage in the hopeless task of describing the divine and lapsing into negative language. Here, Cohen negates today’s Don Juan, the current American idol of rap culture, Kanye West, while yearning to recover the more classic lady’s man in the late artist Picasso.

Such a playful turn reflects Cohen’s quest to empty the self toward spiritual fullness. His longstanding commitment to Zen Buddhist techniques shines through everything, from his fragmentary koans to selections from 365 morning drawings of his “original face,” all to empty the self of arrogance, conceit, jealousy and desire. Cohen’s Jewish way is not to be controlled by desire. Rather, following the rabbinic teaching in Pirke Avot, his heroism shines through in how he “pickles his desire” through decades of meditation.

“I love the country, can’t stand the scene” Cohen sang on “Democracy,” from his 1992 album, The Future. His heart was always returning home to 30 Rue Marie-Anne near Parc du Portugal. If it were not already obvious, this new collection proves that, for Leonard Cohen, the Torah was his songbook, his shirah.

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Rabbi Aubrey L. Glazer is the senior rabbi of Shaare Zion Congregation in Montreal and the author of Tangle of Matter & Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-Secular Songbook of Mysticism(s) Jewish & Beyond.