From the Blackening
Pages of The Leonard Cohen Files
He is fierce
and beautiful, elegant and enigmatic; but, above all else, he is
Canada's legendary Leonard Cohen, world-class wordsmith,
iconoclastic tunesmith, Zen master Jikan and, just now -- beg
pardon -- he's hanging a rat.
What's up with that?
At first glance, some may consider "The Moon," from Cohen's
forthcoming Book of Longing, a pissant little trifle of
accidental prosody and casual tone. After all, it rather prosaically
states the obvious concerning the moon and micturation: "The moon"
appears four times in a lyric containing 50 words total, many of
which are articles, pronouns, and passive verbs. What's left?
Outside . . . great uncomplicated thing . . . leak . . . looked .
. . longer . . . poor lover . . .
Right? Well, not quite. Wild enjambments bring the reader up
short. This sly guy who "went to take a leak" and peek at the moon,
"just now?" He's inside. It's "outside." (Outside of what or whom?)
Now that he's returned, he reports, with ironic gravitas,
that he's "a poor lover of the moon."
Meaning that after a lifetime of singing its praises, from 1956's
Let Us Compare Mythologies (where the moon is "dangling wet
like a half-plucked eye") to 1992's The Future (where
listeners to "Closing Time" discover "the moon is swimming naked"),
the moon no longer holds sway? Or that he's so smitten by its charms
that he's a goner?
More likely, you must remember this: A piss is still a piss and
the moon is just the moon and just now, "the great uncomplicated
thing" doesn't give a rat's ass for the pisser and his puny
problems. The post-romantic pointedly misses the mark with the
juxtaposition of the immortal moon and the representative man
watering the lilies by its light, effecting rough justice in
relation to the central crisis of the poem -- eternity set against a
piddling human span.
Traditionally passive, the moon symbolises the exalted feminine,
the beloved, as well as the reflective synthesis balancing night and
day, ebb and flow, dark and light, the moon and "me." It illuminates
landscapes within and "outside" the narrator's frame of reference.
Inviting comparison with Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the Zen monk who
revitalised haiku, Cohen elects to translate hai (amusement)
and ku (sentence) literally -- emphasising the associative
(while permitting differentiation without exclusion).
Here, too, he reveals a poetic aesthetic founded upon principles
of Imagism: Common speech, precise language, arresting diction, and
compressed imagery combine with novel approaches to form and content
to elucidate the drama of quotidian existence. In lieu of metrical
embellishment, sibilant consonants ("is outside," "I see . . .
that's it") surround the liquid and calculous "uncomplicated,"
"leak," and "looked," seamlessly reinforcing the poem's
And if Cohen's moon poses a thematic puzzler, you might look to
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Morituri Salutamus: Poem for the
50th Anniversary of the Class of 1825 in Bowdoin College
(1875): "Whatever poet, orator, or sage / May say of it, old age
is still old age. / It is the waning, not the crescent moon . .
When nature calls, Cohen answers, making a virtue of necessity.
What's apparent here is the artist's self-possession, the magic of
the maestro at his most understated or, well, over-exposed. Not
since The Village Voice interviewed him in a flimsy New York
hotel room in 1967 has Cohen so publicly signed his name in the
snow: "You can't help hearing [the beautiful creep] in the toilet,"
notes the scribe, "he pisses in quick panting spurts."
© 2003 The Leonard Cohen Files (Electronic Edition)
2002-2003 Judith Fitzgerald (Print Edition)
is a 2003-2004 Poetry Fellow
of The Chalmers Arts
All Rights Reserved.
Duplication in whole or in part in any medium without the express
written permission of the copyright holders is forbidden.
Lyrics cited by written permission.
© 1968-2003 Leonard
Cohen, Stranger Music Inc. (BMI)
All Rights Reserved.