Curious, how very differently two people can read the same poem.

For John Ashbery’s ninetieth birthday, the Guardian’s poetry critic reproduces and discusses this late-career poem of his:

Life is a Dream

A talent for self-realization
will get you only as far as the vacant lot
next to the lumber yard, where they have rollcall.
My name begins with an A,
so is one of the first to be read off.
I am wondering where to stand – could that group of three
or four others be the beginning of the line?

Before I have the chance to find out, a rodent-like
man pushes at my shoulders. “It’s that way,” he hisses. “Didn’t they teach you anything at school? That a photograph
of anything can be real, or maybe not? The corner of the stove,
a cloud of midges at dusk-time.”

I know I’ll have a chance to learn more
later on. Waiting is what’s called for, meanwhile.
It’s true that life can be anything, but certain things
definitely aren’t it. This gloved hand,
for instance, that glides
so securely into mine, as though it intends to stay.


In her telling, it’s bristling with homophobia, Auschwitz, coming of age, and love; UD on the other hand reads it as a mildly anxious gloss on Yeats’s similar late-career poem, Circus Animal’s Desertion.

Both poems, IMHO, feature old poets reflecting on the process of aesthetic creation, on the way some people – people like them – are sort of both blessed and cursed with the ability to take the random broken stuff of the world and transform it into art. In Yeats, the poet mucks around in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Ashbery’s in the same trash- and lumber-yard:

A talent for self-realization
will get you only as far as the vacant lot
next to the lumber yard

Same point, no? A capacity for transforming the vague fallen dross of the world into meaningful formal beauty is only a capacity – all your poetic life you must try to get farther than the vacant lot (note the nice internal contradiction of that phrase, the word “lot” meaning not only enclosed place, but many – so again the rag and bone shop, the lumber yard, is full of things; there’s a lot in or near that lot; but since nothing has been done to transform any of its objects and make it meaningful, it is vacant, expressionless). The vacant lot is the abundant object-nothingness, the object-silence, of the world that confronts the poet again and again as he attempts to write a poem and give the world words. At this late stage in their poetic lives, both Yeats and Ashbery are feeling some degree of panic, let’s say, as their imaginative powers wane (What can I but enumerate old themes) and their profoundest images begin to look old.

Letters, being “read off,” the beginning of the line: The rest of Ashbery’s first stanza expresses – in his typical oblique vague dreamy way – the difficulty of beginning a poem — beginning an Ashbery poem, with a capital A. This poem self-reflexively elaborates upon the perennial gnawing anxiety of the poetic vocation, the creative imperative; and the surrealistic introduction of the nasty urging rodent-like man in the next stanza would, in this account of the poem, be the poet’s own anxious impatient self-punishing insistence on a life of continued artistic productivity: Don’t just muck around inside this dream, you fool – you’ve learned how to make anything “real” – that is, you’ve learned how to give anything persuasive aesthetic shape and life – and your vocation is to continue to do so. Take whatever you like from the lumber yard/rag and bone shop. Take

The corner of the stove,
a cloud of midges at dusk-time.

And fashion it into poetic form.

Or maybe Ashbery’s poem/poetic dream is the temporal inverse of Yeats’s – maybe this is the old Ashbery remembering himself as a young poet, a poet just beginning to be “schooled” in poetry. If so, his last stanza is the old poet reflecting on his subsequent decades of education in world-transformation:

I know I’ll have a chance to learn more
later on. Waiting is what’s called for, meanwhile.
It’s true that life can be anything, but certain things
definitely aren’t it. This gloved hand,
for instance, that glides
so securely into mine, as though it intends to stay.

What is life, and what is a dream? Both dream and life are dream, and if you are a poet “It was the dream itself enchanted me.” Dream is anything, but sly life slips in things that boast of solid empirical real life, like the sudden feeling in your hand of a gentle, guiding, and loving gloved hand that slips so easily into yours and seems destined to stay by you permanently — that’s a certain thing that definitely is not life. That is the poet’s writing hand gloved into a false comfort and ease which amounts to an evasion of the artistic imperative. Think of the complex invitations and evasions of the painterly hand that dominates Ashbery’s most famous poem; “Life is a Dream” is yet another enumeration of the theme of poetic consciousness and poetic procedure:

Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed […]
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.

Spencer’s Fair Queen

Spencer’s Fair Queen

More than most, Fair’s full of the living fire,
Kindled within to make the nazi feare:
No feare of noise to make while he perspires,
Not loath to spit upon his training gear.
Through your disdain blindsided guest
Denies his name and utters not a sound.
But you will not allow mad minds to rest
In fascist hopes on race war futures bound.
You stop his thoughts and pinion him within,
You stop his tongue, and teach his gym to freake,
You quick’n the storme his passion did begin,
Strong through your cause as you your vengeance wreake.
Dark is the world, where your rage shined never;
Sad is he borne, that may behold you ever.


“In 1932, some German people were probably saying between bites of wiener-schnitzel, ‘this is some fucked up shit,’ and then didn’t do anything.”

Christine Fair

To An Athlete Dying Young

There is always a required and bittersweet rhetoric of death in moments like these, especially when it involves a once-star athlete dying young.

The time you won the champions’ game
Gainesville sang and cheered your name
Prof and prez let out a cry
And home they brought you shoulder-high.

That school so hard recruited you!
Yet now it’s silent. (Aaron who?)
Hero of a college town
Now a god without a crown.

Smart lad, who slips away
From fields where glory does not stay;
Or fields that never glory knew —
For all who saw the truth of you.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than jeers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now round that early-laurelled head
Gather fans who sometime said
He’s made us proud to be UF!
… Why don’t we feel too much bereft?

A Reclaimed Poem Reclaims Westminster Bridge.

Colin Bancroft is the author.

The original.

When to the sweet silent thought of Sessions (Sonnet 30)

When to the sweet silent thought of Sessions
He summons up remembrance of things past,
He finds himself caught up in indiscretions
In answer to the questions Franken asked.
Now does he drown an eye, unused to flow,
For Russian friends with whom he used to play,
And weep afresh what he pretended not to know,
And moan the absence of his vieux Sergey.
Now can he grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which he new pays as if not paid before.
But all of this might be excused
If he be granted his recuse.

An excerpt from a poem that puts today’s exciting astronomical news …

… in perspective.


Sawyer was drunk when he delivered his opening remarks
onstage at Stardome Planetarium. He
stood below a slide show of “The Emptiness of Outer Space”
— stars and planets, scattered like the scantest
motes of dust in unimaginable void — and was about
to make the leap to what percent of us,
our dearly thumping bodies, is a corresponding emptiness . . .
when one foot met a wire that had strayed
outside the curtain, and a wild arc of hand undid
the podium, which canted off its casters sidelong
into the 3-D galaxy props, and you could say whatever
thimble or pustule or hackle of grief was his,
it had toppled the whole damn universe.


Tonight, though, after show time,
he’s just soused enough to wander through the mock-up
stage-set milky ways agog with child-wonder:
all those luminescent islands! all that vacuum!
Look: a planet floats, there’s that much cosmos
all around it. A planet! While we . . . we couldn’t
squint and levitate a half inch, not the guru-most
among us. Well, we could: if the laws of the universe changed.
It’s only the Earth that makes us so heavy.
It’s only our lives that keep our lives
from floating off into the nothing.

Dam Good Poem

With everyone thinking about Oroville, UD shares Harriet Monroe’s little meditation on the ambiguity of progress.

During construction of the Aswan Dam, some antiquities were salvaged by moving them to the new lake’s banks; others were allowed to go under. Monroe notes the obvious goods of the dam (“starving mouths are fed”), and considers “the old gods of the desert” left to “sleep in the river’s bed.”


The Assouan Dam

There is a lake at Philae
Where once a temple rose.
Steel walls confront the river,
The great gates open and close;
And through parched wastes the wilful Nile
Obediently flows.

There is a lake at Philae
And starving mouths are fed.
The old gods of the desert
Sleep in the river’s bed.
So still in wave-locked halls they lie —
It may be they are dead.


A Magazine Poem.

[A poem drawn from words and phrases in this essay, in the New Yorker.]


Survival Condo Project

I will arise and go now, and go to Wichita.
I keep a copter ready, gassed up all the time.
For to think ad infinitum is to think dystopia:
Quake on the fault, pandemic, dirty bomb.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from silo walls to where the bitcoin rings;
There the prairie’s all aglimmer on the live video
And evening full of taped birds’ wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear disaster slapping with loud sounds on the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

A Poem for January…

…whose last few lines echo – uncannily – Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise.

Go here for the poem unaccosted; what follows is the poem plus UD‘s commentary in brackets.



[By Alfred Corn.
Written in 1977.]

[January can be a month of renewal — or a cold dark drag, a calendrical crystallization of every warm and vital thing frozen within you. Corn’s poem is like that. The frozen thing.]

Night swallows up everything but doesn’t
Alone cast the shadow inside, this sense
Of incompleteness, lack
Of echo…

[No, not night alone. My own despair helps cast the shadow.]

I expect
Too much? Too little?

[The poet grapples with his poetic ambition. At the moment he is, like Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind,” writing a lyric about being unable to write a lyric.]

My undetailed season
Only appears in the bright particulars
Of paired headlights flooding an avenue,
It seems, at cross-purposes with Number.

[I’m like an aimless car at night, turning on the floodlights but illuminating no meaningful location – no detail; no Number.]

If the worst certainties were skill – but now
The mind goes begging, words crumble, refuse
To render anything at all, except
The barrenness their failure parallels.

[Maybe I could at least – being a skilled wordsmith – write a kind of empty but stylish tour de force… Just to get something verbal out there… But my wintry despair is such that even words now fail me, revealing only my existential barrenness.]

People, like a people, do have slumps, when
Nothing wants to be said, and what is,
Hardly worth anyone’s staying awake for –
A satire for unaccommodated men.

[The world fails to accommodate my mind, my heart, my soul, the enormity of my desire for completeness, my desire that the world outside reverberate with – echo – my inner world.]

Best, they claim, to remount the horse that threw
You (in the present case, a horse with wings)

[That’s Pegasus – poetry – there. That’s the particular horse the demoralized poet must get back on. Did it throw him, indeed, because he tried to fly too high for his mundane times? Wanted too much, that is?]

So as to demonstrate –
To show that you are … what?
I’ve forgotten. Given that I can do
Only as well as my times, just how much
Will they sustain?

[Another statement of the same idea: How high can I fly, given where and when I live?]

Or the doubtful subject
Of a self in neither sense exemplary?

[There is moral as well as aesthetic judgment here. The problem is not perhaps in our unpoetic stars as in ourselves.]

[Corn will close – as so many lyricists do – by shifting his focus from himself to his setting, his city.]

In those doorways several will freeze tonight,
Disappointment’s victims, failures at love,
Dazed benumbed – but this is self-description.
Pure perversity, I guess, leads me to search
The mirror of my self-imposed city for
What, if anything here, holds a promise,
The gift of speech that comes to those who hear
A word sounded through the white noise of the world.

[Very DeLilloesque, that. The novel White Noise is about the very same thing – listening so intently to the empty background noise of the world (“white” here has a nice extra symbolic resonance, since we’re January and that’s about benumbing and even killing white snow) that you begin to discern something other than white noise. A word sounded through the white noise of the world. Only the poet’s ear can catch that hidden resonance, which inevitably has to do with suffering (here, the homeless in the doorways) outside of you which somehow “accommodates” the suffering within you. The writer at the center of DeLillo’s novel Mao II has always made a point of listening very closely to the things ordinary people say – because if you listen closely enough, they are saying something extraordinary:

[I]t made his heart shake to hear these things … the uninventable poetry, inside the pain, of what people say.

It’s cold out there. In there. Gotta get the old ticker shaking again.]

So here’s a companion poem to the one I just talked about. Notice that they both conclude with the word “trick.”

This one, Lullaby, is by a Canadian poet, Amanda Jernigan. It shares with Aleksandr Kushner’s poem (see the post just below this one) an attempt to comfort the cold mortal self as it suffers the briefest and darkest and deadest days of the year, which inevitably means that it suffers a reckoning with its own deadly fate.

These are late December, everything winding down, poems. Winter solstice poems.

From its title (Lullaby) on, Jernigan’s poem makes explicit its aim to console. It’s a curious little poem, a tightly rhymed, iambic pentameter, song addressed either to one’s self or to one’s child, and most of its lines are very bleak indeed (even bleaker than Kushners’), very morbid, as the poet describes a life of darkness visible.

My little lack-of-light, my swaddled soul,
December baby. Hush, for it is dark,
and will grow darker still.

Born in darkness, then right away swaddled into more darkness (William Blake: ‘Struggling in my fathers hands: /Striving against my swaddling bands: / Bound and weary I thought best / To sulk upon my mothers breast.’), we shut up our souls and our children (Hush) because life is dangerously dark and will only get darker, and we are afraid. The event of the winter solstice expresses the truth of life as it slows and narrows and darkens over time.

We must embark
directly. Bring an orange as the toll
for Charon: he will be our gondolier.

Bring a brilliant sunny emblem of the lost world of light to the underworld’s ferryman who sits just across the river (both poems feature ritual gathering at a river) waiting to escort us to the end of life. Many of the world’s winter solstice celebrations involve offerings of fruit.

Upon the shore, the season pans for light,
and solstice fish, their eyes gone milky white,
come bearing riches for the dying year:
solstitial kingdom.

Pans is beautiful – a delicate, frail, one-syllable word painting the weak sun as searching for gold in the shallow water. “Solstice” fish, their pale eyes dead from weak sunlight, are tokens of the kingdom of unmoving darkness.

It is yours, the mime
of branches and the drift of snow. With shaking
hands, Persephone, the winter’s wife,
will tender you a gift.

The poet again directly addresses her child, or her own soul, and with rueful irony bestows on her/it the gift of a dead world (the mere “mime” of branches).

On her way back to the underworld, its queen pauses with freezing hands to offer a different gift to the poet, the poet’s soul, the poet’s child. What has she bestowed upon the artist?

Born in a time
of darkness, you will learn the trick of making.
You shall make your consolation all your life.

In Kushner’s poem, he’s standing outside freezing, but

I cannot live until
I’ve learnt how this trick is done.

He’s going to keep standing out there until he can figure out a way – poetically – to thaw, reanimate, and ultimately comfort the world. He’s going to learn the poet’s art – the magic trick of bringing the dead back to life. He’s going to learn how to keep us, as Ursula Le Guin says, from dissolving into our surroundings. And Jernigan has the same trick in mind: The poet learns the trick of making. She learns how the imagination can transform, enliven, and console.

Indeed that word – consolation – though it has nothing etymologically to do with the sun, has sol in it — for that matter, has soul in it… Which suggests that the poet’s gift, trick, art, is to pan for, to gather, to consolidate, what little sunlight remains, and transmute it to real gold.

On these cold dark late December days…

… let us consider poetry as self-comforting. Poetry as an effort to thaw, somewhat, the cold dark late days. You know that feeling, after you’ve been skiing or hiking in the snow for hours, of gradually warming beside a fireplace? It’s one of life’s great feelings, the chilled body quickening back to life with a tea or a brandy… Quickening – as in that beautiful entreaty from the heavens to the windy world, in a Phillip Larkin poem:

And in their blazing solitude
The stars sang in their sockets through
the night:
`Blow bright, blow bright
The coal of this unquickened world.’

To feel your limbs radiating again under the familiar low flame — the body, frozen, has been reanimated, and it’s a gift, a reassurance, a confirmation of your warm-blooded flow.

So in these two poems – On a Dark-Blue December Morning, and Lullaby – you have writers spending most of their poem evoking the cold dark late December world, and then, at the end, insisting on their human – aesthetic – capacity to make something beautiful and glowing out of it.

Aleksandr Kushner’s 1974 poem describes a glacial Leningrad dawn:

On a dark-blue December morning
We leave the warmth of our homes
And go out silently into the frost.
The wooden kiosk is covered with ice,
Steam rises steeply into the sky.
A damp shudder runs through the trees
And you, my lovely friend, are wide awake
Rubbing your cheeks with your mitten.

I think that lovely friend is a cat the poet spies, animals being less undone by rough climate than human beings. Animals just get on with it; they’re not compelled to make anything glow, to reassure themselves that the world isn’t entirely dead.

Snow fell last night. People are scraping it away,
Some gently, others more busily.
Drowsy kiddies, warmly wrapped,
Are carried past in tears.

Those children’s tears signal, at the very middle point of the poem, a shift from unweighted to emotionally heavy description. The cat’s cheeks are dried by its mitten; children’s cheeks run with tears in the stinging cold. But of course tears signal sadness as well.

How unlike a pleasant stroll
Are these excursions towards the river!
In the dark narrow streets
We shiver in the Leningrad draft.

The “damp shudder” that runs through trees is the city’s cold wet wind, provoking not merely tears and shivers, but a feeling of deathliness: those dark narrow streets are coffins, that shiver rattling bones, and the sad silent communal movement toward the river a funereal ritual, some sort of ultimacy.

Here’s the final stanza:

And I, in my usual dogged way,
Try to restore their beauty to
The houses, the indifferent squares,
And the pedestrian on the bridge.
Deliberately I miss my bus,
And freeze now, stranded in the snow.
But I cannot live until
I’ve learnt how this trick is done.

Da, so now we’ve got the poet stubbornly assuming the poet’s role:

Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

That’s Shelley talking to the wind, but it’s the same stubborn poet, insisting on quickening the petrified world. How is the trick done? How can Kushner take all that dead stuff – houses, squares, pedestrians – and make it living beauty? Both poets expose themselves to the forces of the universe – wind, cold – in order somehow to prompt those forces not to destroy (“freeze”) them but to share with them the trick, the incantation, of their vibrancy. This is the poet begging nature to make him a verbal transmitter of its radiance. I cannot live until I figure out how to transform my extraordinary need for extraordinary intensity of life into poetic language that will quicken all those who read it.

Second poem coming up.

The Anatomy of Revolution



[To mark his death, UD looks at this poem, which reflects on the ironies of history and the disastrous tendencies of revolutions. The title alludes to Castro having in victory taken over and reclaimed the very Batista-esque Hilton Hotel, renaming it Free Havana.]

“History always dresses us for the wrong occasions.”
—Ricardo Pau-Llosa

[Scruffy guerrillas from the hills crowd into the plush Hilton.]

Camera Obscura

[The whole poem will concern itself with obscurity, enigma — the ungraspability of the meaning of historical events and world-historical figures. Part of the problem, it will suggest, is precisely the images through which we try to take in the real world.]

The afternoon lightening his shadow,
Fidel descends from the mountains,
the clean-shaven lawyer turned guerilla,
his eyes focused on infinity,
El Jefe Máximo con sus Barbudos,
rebels with rosary beads

[History once again seems to dress us wrong – anti-clerical revolutionaries retaining their rosary beads.]

on their 600-mile procession across the island
with campesinos on horseback, flatbed trucks, tanks,
a new year’s journey down the oldest roads
towards betrayal.

[Towards betrayal. The revolution will be betrayed. Betray itself.]

Ambient light. Available light

[We always have very partial knowledge. We move by what’s available to us in terms of understanding, but it’s never enough.]

Light inside of them,
nameless isleños line El Malecón to touch Fidel,
already defining himself in black and white.
The dramatic sky moving in for the close-up
that will frame his all-night oratory,
he turns to the crowd,
variations on an enigma,
waving from his pulpit with rehearsed eloquence,
a dove on his shoulder.

[First the references to the rosary, and now, in this stanza, many suggestions that this “faith” (Fidel) revolution is really a slightly transposed religious event – variations on an enigma – with people lining up to touch their deity, who dresses like a priest in black and white. He speaks from a “pulpit” and sports a dove.]

This is a photograph. This is not a sign.

[People stubbornly “symbolize” reality, a process by which a revolutionary leader becomes a god.]

Flash-on camera. Celebrity portraits.

1. Fidel on a balcony across the street
from Grand Central Station,
an American flag above his head,
New York, 1959.

2. Fidel made small by the Lincoln Memorial,
Washington D.C., 1959.

3. Fidel learning to ski,
a minor black ball against a white landscape,
Russia, 1962.

4. Fidel and shotgun,
hunting with Nikita,
Russia, 1962.

Circles of Confusion

Beyond photographs,
Havana is looted and burned.
Women weep at our wailing wall,
El Paredón, where traitors are taken,
and television cameras shoot
the executions, this blood soup,
the paradoxes of our lives,
three years before I am born.

[Random photographic images trace Fidel’s reduction to a celebrity – or, if you like, the process by which the revolution’s strongman becomes a kitschy version of god – while the rest of the religious story plays out as well: The wailing wall where we mourn the loss or theft of the original faith; the devolution of divine passion into inquisition. But it’s a modern inquisition – it’s all photographed and filmed.]


[A photoflood is a lamp that sheds intense illumination in order to produce artificial light for photography and filming. The only form of true lucidity available to us is the artificial brilliance we rig up in order to “flood” the world with yet more images.]

But it is late afternoon,
and a shower of confetti and serpentine
falls from every floor of the Havana Hilton,
where history is a giant piñata,
where at midnight, Fidel will be photographed
eating a ham sandwich.

[This final stanza returns us – after the poem’s meditation on history and revolution – to the narrative immediacy with which the poet began. We are back at the Hilton, and celebrations of the revolution’s victory take place. Of course, given the treacherous and enigmatic nature of such events, they are “serpentine.” The last lines make everything explicit: history is a nightmare of chaos and grief, a great violent shaking up which nonetheless can be seen to smuggle back in precisely the cultural realities that inspired the revolution in the first place. Its final image has Castro – at midnight, the darkest hour – fully reduced by the camera and celebrity culture: he is pictured eating a ham sandwich.]

For these moments we give thanks: Thee, fully forth emerging.

A Clear Midnight
by Walt Whitman

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

‘She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.’

So, in honor of Leonard Cohen, who has died, and with UD‘s new tea series in mind, she features his great song, Suzanne.

The real Suzanne “would invite Cohen to visit her apartment by the harbour in Montreal, where she would serve him Constant Comment tea…”

I’ve sung this song, with guitar when I was a tyke, and on the piano post-tyke, for forty years. Its lack of dynamics, its few, unchallenging notes for the singer (no high notes), and its strange lyrics, give it a soft hypnotic insistence, a whispery chanting truthful feel. A religious song, it sounds like a litany. It lulls you like a child’s lullaby, yet its words are charged with enigmatic-but-feels-importantly-meaningful power.

Like Henry Purcell’s great song Music For Awhile, Suzanne (and many other Cohen works) gets its simple/complex, lulling/enigmatic, balladic/liturgical mix from Cohen’s use of counterpoint as much as from its lyrics. “[T]he counterpoint lines — they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs,” says Bob Dylan. “As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”

The unsettling independence of Cohen’s two musical lines has, UD thinks, the same effect as the same technique in the Purcell piece, where the singer calmly and simply and affirmatively sings above a dark and complex ground bass; we are in a harmonic and at the same time disharmonic location in these sorts of songs, where manifest human assertions about the world are latently undermined and complicated by a subterranean countervailing pure-musical insinuation. This beautiful but corrosive pure music seems to come from some tragic, obdurate, humanly unavailable, realm of metaphysical power. Cohen’s songs, says Suzanna Vega, are “a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells.” Cohen himself at the end of his life said “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process.”

Cohen describing his lifelong struggles with depression could be describing the dynamic of many of his songs. There were “periods when I was fully operative but the background noise of anguish still prevailed.”


There’s a gentle waltzy circularity to Suzanne, underscoring its theme of willing but confused erotic/spiritual entrapment by Suzanne/Jesus. One keeps going back to her. You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind. That is the travel of everyone through this seductive song – it’s the sort of song whose two reconcilable/irreconcilable lines somehow reconcile you to the impossible truths of mortality.

I’m describing here a variant of great art’s cathartic power.

Of its many versions, I like Judy Collins’ best, because her very breathy, low-vibrato, balladic voice (you take in, almost pruriently, her intakes of air before many lines) is a perfect match for the drifty, openly musing, openly sexual content of the piece.


Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone


[Wisdom’s the killer – the divinity killer. Wisdom understood as the refusal to travel blind, the refusal to trust Suzanne as she takes your hand.]


And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with her mind

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind


This last verse skirts sentimentality (children in the morning); yet it’s also true that whenever she sings the words And the sun pours down like honey (with melisma on sun and a soft/explosive release of air on the h of honey), UD finds forming in her eyes what she’d called triumphant tears. For her, that is the true climax of the song, the cathartic payoff where the natural/metaphysical world finally drops its dark counterpoint against us and opens up a world so unproblematically bright that we can suddenly see everything with a Blakeian double vision that makes the counterpointed world finally (fleetingly) harmonic: flowers in the garbage, heroes in the seaweed.

“Each of us at times has felt the future fade, / Or seen the compass of his life diminished, / Or realized some tangible illusion was unreal.”

I think that people are the sum of their illusions,
That the cares that make them difficult to see
Are eased by distance, with their errors blending
In an intricate harmony, their truths abiding
In a subtle “spark” or psyche (each incomparable,
Yet each the same as all the others) and their
Disparate careers all joined together in a tangled
Moral vision whose intense, meandering design
Seems lightened by a pure simplicity of feeling,
As in grief, or in the pathos of a life
Cut off by loneliness, indifference or hate,
Because the most important thing is human happiness –
Not in the sense of private satisfactions, but of
Lives that realize themselves in ordinary terms
And with the quiet inconsistencies that make them real.

… [I]n the course of getting older,
And trying to reconstruct the paths that led me here,
I found myself pulled backwards through these old,
Uncertain passages, distracted by the details,
And meeting only barriers to understanding why the
Years unfolded as they did, and why my life
Turned out the way it has …

… Why did I think a person only distantly like me
Might finally represent my life? …

… The houses on a street, the quiet backyard shade,
The room restored to life with bric-a-brac—
I started by revisiting these things, then slowly
Reconceiving them as forms of loss made visible
That balanced sympathy and space inside an
Abstract edifice combining reaches of the past
With all these speculations, all this artful
Preening of the heart. I sit here at my desk,
Perplexed and puzzled, teasing out a tangled
Skein of years we wove together, and trying to
Combine the fragments of those years into a poem.
Who cares if life — if someone’s actual life — is
Finally insignificant and small? There’s still a
Splendor in the way it flowers once and fades
And leaves a carapace behind. There isn’t time to
Linger over why it happened, or attempt to make its
Mystery come to life again and last, like someone
Still embracing the confused perceptions of himself
Embedded in the past, as though eternity lay there —
For heaven’s a delusion, and eternity is in the details,
And this tiny, insubstantial life is all there is.

… It starts and ends
Inside an ordinary room, while in the interim
Brimming with illusions, filled with commonplace
Delights that make the days go by, with simple
Arguments and fears, and with the nervous
Inkling of some vague, utopian conceit
Transforming both the landscape and our lives,
Until we look around and find ourselves at home,
But in a wholly different world. And even those
Catastrophes that seemed to alter everything
Seem fleeting, grounded in a natural order
All of us are subject to, and ought to celebrate…


From “Falling Water,” by John Koethe

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