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Five minutes alone with Leonard Cohen

Guests were due in five minutes, and everything was ready: fresh towels in the powder room, champagne chilling in the fridge, kicked-off shoes and old magazines banished from view. Without its familiar overlay of clutter, our living room had the anticipatory stillness of a stage set just before the curtain rises.

1In five minutes, I could have applied fresh mascara and selected a suitably dramatic pair of earrings. Instead I picked up the only book that hadn’t been tidied away to make room for pate and crackers—Leonard Cohen‘s collection of poems, Book of Longing. I’ve always had a soft spot for Leonard Cohen, that most melancholy of rogues. When I was 20 or so, I burned with envy at the news that he’d propositioned a friend of mine. Now in his 70s, he’s not looking for women anymore; he’s just trying to make sense of life’s complications in the time he has left. I’ve clearly missed my chance for tea and oranges with Leonard Cohen. But in five minutes with his poems, I could alight for a while in Cohenland and still be home in time to welcome guests.

A poem slips into my day’s unexpected quiet places like a cat into my lap, like one more guest at the dinner table, like a string of pearls into a corner of a weekend bag that only looks full. A poem makes no demands: I’m committing minutes, not days. I don’t have to follow an argument, or remember who received a mysterious package a few chapters ago. A poem is patient, at least in the early stages of our acquaintance. It waits on its page or two to be called to life by the gift of my attention.

If it’s not the right poem for this moment, I can turn the page and choose another one. But if it reels me in, it doesn’t let me go. It pulls me back for another reading, and another after that, each time revealing new facets of itself, like Rouen Cathedral painted over and over by Monet in the changing nuances of daylight. Next thing I know, I can practically quote the whole poem by heart. But not quite, so I return to it one more time.

When I stole five minutes with Book of Longing, I had never opened it before. I had no favourite poems to muse upon, and no idea if anything between these covers would draw me back for a second read. I thought I’d miss that world-weary voice and the doleful guitar. But on page one, in the title poem, I found the complete experience I was seeking, or perhaps it was simply the completion of something that began long ago. The poem concludes like this:

For less than a second

Our lives will collide

The endless suspended

The door open wide

Then she will be born

To someone like you

What no one has done

She’ll continue to do

I know she is coming

I know she will look

And that is the longing

And this is the book.

So Leonard Cohen had been waiting for me after all. The doorbell rang. Our guests held out a bouquet of lilies that filled my arms. I breathed in their fragrance. My husband popped the champagne cork. I longed for nothing that I didn’t have.

Five other poems that reward and refresh me in five minutes:

During Wind and Rain” by Thomas Hardy. The first poems I loved were all about desire. Now I’m drawn to poems about time, change and mortality, none more powerful or startling than this one.

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Another rueful take on the transience of beloved things, but so beautiful it’s still uplifting. I was thinking about this poem when I wrote “Looking for Mousie,” about the loss of my son’s favourite stuffed toy.

“What the Doctor Said” by Raymond Carver. Justly famous for his terse short stories about brief encounters with vast implications, Carver also wrote some wonderful poetry in a similar vein. Here, you’re eavesdropping on a life-and-death conversation that both captures and transcends the rhythms of everyday speech.

“Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats. My father used to quote this poem to us at bedtime. I didn’t know what Yeats meant by “the deep heart’s core,” but I’ve been trying to get there, and stay there, ever since.

“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. The sexiest poem I know (sorry, Leonard) with a wink to time and change.

Posted by Rona

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