Leonard Cohen

Book of Longing

“I can't make the hills
The system is shot
I'm living on pills
For which I thank G-d
I know she is coming
I know she will look
And that is the longing
And this is the book”

There is a beautiful line in Maya Angelou’s last published work Letter to My Daughter where she writes about the reparations for the human heart: “The human heart is so delicate and sensitive that it always needs some tangible encouragement to prevent it from faltering in its labor.”

If nothing else, this collection of poetry and illustrations from singer, writer, poet, archivist of the human condition Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934 – November 7, 2016) is that tangible encouragement. A restorative balm for the beaten heart.

The Book of Longing, written and illustrated by Cohen, contains much of the poetry and verse written during the last two decades of his long life.

I am too old
to learn the names
of the new killers
This one here
looks tired and attractive
devoted, professorial
He looks a lot like me
when I was teaching
a radical form of Buddhism
to the hopelessly insane

From “Too Old”

Illustration by Leonard Cohen. Courtesy of Book of Longing

Compare the passive, wistful emotion in “Too Old” with the assertiveness of Hermann Hesse’s poem “I Lied,” which begins “I lied! I lied! I am not old and not at all disgusted with life, and every lady’s lovely curves still pump my pulse and passion.”

Cohen’s energy was deep but smooth, evenly distributed. A famous monastic, he writes of the fear of being interrupted, things we keep around us and make special through caring, and anxiety, which he calls longing.

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

From “The Book of Longing”

Longing for what? Life? Something that doesn’t end? To be part of poet Mary Oliver’s stream of eternity or what Thoreau called the great Something? The answer lies in Cohen’s words above: that someone, anyone, will carry this/it/all/part forward. That he and this will endure through simple human connection.

Illustration by Leonard Cohen. Courtesy of Book of Longing

A connection that extends our bounded existence outside the parameters of birth and death, a connection that returns to us throughout our lives when we cease to expect it.

I stopped looking for you
I stopped waiting for you
I stopped dying for you
and I started dying for myself
I aged rapidly
I became fat in the face
and soft in the gut

[…]

Why did you come back to me tonight
I can’t even get off this chair
Tears run down my cheeks
I am in love again
I can live like this

From “How Could I Have Doubted”

Cohen died in 2016, but he left so many albums, collections, and words of comfort in his wake he certainly endures strongly. When Christopher Hitchens was dying from cancer, he said a countless number of people sent him Leonard Cohen songs, which Hitchens found comforting (if not a bit saccharine).

Saturday night really is, as they say, ‘the loneliness night of the week.’ I hunker down with my radio and a few balls of twine, in case I want to tie something up. I let the cabin get very cold and I rejoice in my good fortune. Sometimes a spider will descend on its hideous wet thread and threaten my hard-earned disinterest.

From “The Luckiest Man in the World”

There is a beautiful section in travel writer Pico Iyer’s study of stillness where Iyer talks about visiting Cohen at his California mountain retreat. Theirs is a beautiful conversation about stillness, which Cohen professed was “the real deep entertainment in his sixty-one years on the planet.”

Illustration by Leonard Cohen. Courtesy of Book of Longing

Enjoy Book of Longing alongside other works that praise a meaningful human connection, like the warm, generous advice on life from actress Anna Deavere Smith and the work of psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, who believed human connection is an antidote to our death anxiety.

I think Cohen’s verse dances beautifully with the slow, meaningful patience and self-acceptance laid out in Kakuzo Okakura’s 1906 The Book of Tea. The great scholar writes “Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.”

Book of Longing