I originally encountered Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing when I went to see a performance at Toronto’s Luminato festival in 2007 in which composer Philip Glass set 23 poems from Cohen’s work to music. It was the songs that peaked my interest but it was the book itself that fastened me in Cohen’s haunting and melodic world from start to finish.

 

Published in 2006, Book of Longing is Cohen’s most recent and, in my opinion, most polished collection. The hoards of women that populate his earlier work with gritty romance and an unflinching sexual consciousness are present. As is the sage wisdom of the Zen and Buddhist teachings that informed his later work (such as the meditation poetry in Book of Mercy).

 

The revelations are simple but it is the acute self-awareness coupled with his dry wit that make this book exceptional. They aren’t the stale and molding sentiments of an aging ladies’ man.  He writes from the top of a mountain both literally and figuratively. Literally, in the sense that many of the poems were written on Mt. Baldy in California where Cohen spent time studying Buddhism and meditation at the monastery there. Figuratively, in the sense that he stands upon a mountain of work and experience. Cohen shows us that the view from the top is peaceful, perceptive and uniquely free of condescension. At almost 80 years old Leonard Cohen has something else to say.

 

This is my favorite poem from the collection. Cohen later adapted it into a song but this is the original version from Book of Longing.

 

THOUSAND KISSES DEEP by Leonard Cohen

for Sandy 1945-1998

 

1.

You came to me this morning

And you handled me like meat

You’d have to be a man to know

How good that feels how sweet

My mirror twin my next of kin

I’d know you in my sleep

And who but you would take me in

A thousand kisses deep

 

I loved you when you opened

Like a lily to the heat

I’m just another snowman

Standing in the rain and sleet

Who loved you with his frozen love

His second-hand physique

With all he is and all he was

A thousand kisses deep

 

I know you had to lie to me

I know you had to cheat

To pose all hot and high behind

The veils of sheer deceit

Our perfect porn aristocrat

So elegant and cheap

I’m old but I’m still into that

A thousand kisses deep

 

And I’m still working with the wine

Still dancing cheek to cheek

The band is playing Auld Lang Syne

The heart will not retreat

I ran with Diz and Dante

I never had their sweep

But once or twice they let me play

A thousand kisses deep

 

The autumn slipped across your skin

Got something in your eye

A light that doesn’t need to live

And doesn’t need to die

A riddle in the book of love

Obscure and obsolete

Till witnessed here in time and blood

A thousand kisses deep

 

I’m good at love I’m good at hate

It’s in between I freeze

Been working out but it’s too late

It’s been too late for years

But you look fine you really do

The pride of Boogie Street

Somebody must have died for you

A thousand kisses deep

 

I loved you when you opened

Like a lily to the heat

I’m just another snowman

Standing in the rain and sleet

But you don’t need to hear me now

And every word I speak

It counts against me anyhow

A thousand kisses deep

 

2.

The ponies run the girls are young

The odds are there to beat

You win a while and then it’s done

Your little winning streak

And summoned now to deal

With your invincible defeat

You live your life as if it’s real

A thousand kisses deep

 

I’m turning tricks I’m getting fixed

I’m back on Boogie Street

You lose your grip and then you slip

Into the Masterpiece

And maybe I had miles to drive

And promises to keep

You ditch it all to stay alive

A thousand kisses deep

 

Confined to sex we pressed against

The limits of the sea

I saw there were no oceans left

For scavengers like me

I made it to the forward deck

I blessed our remnant fleet

And then consented to be wrecked

A thousand kisses deep

 

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed

I’m back on Boogie Street

I guess they won’t exchange the gifts

That you were meant to keep

And sometimes when the night is slow

The wretched and the meek

We gather up our hearts and go

A thousand kisses deep

 

And fragrant is the thought of you

The file on you complete

Except what we forgot to do

A thousand kisses deep

 

-Rebecca Pecaut, Poetry Editor

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