Book Review: The Flame by Leonard Cohen
“You want it darker,” sang Leonard Cohen in his last album, released three weeks before his death, “we kill the flame.” And now The Flame is here. With a foreword by his son Adam, who produced 2016’s You Want It Darker, The Flame is Cohen’s ninth and last collection of poetry. Adam notes that this was Cohen’s final project, “what he was staying alive to do, his sole breathing purpose at the end.” Despite being unable to see it to completion and publication, Leonard Cohen offers in The Flame a collection of writing that stands proudly at the end of his body of work, which spans over six decades and includes fourteen studio albums, two novels, and nine poetry collections.
The book opens with Adam Cohen’s foreword and a note from editors Robert Faggen and Alexandra Pleshoyano. While Adam’s is a personal note that highlights not only Cohen’s dedication to this work but the deep and lasting devotion to writing, the editorial note offers interesting insight into how the collection came together. The first section of the book is titled “Poems” and is made up of sixty-three poems that Cohen considered finished works. What follows this conventional part of the collection is the section titled “Lyrics”, which includes the lyrics to his albums Old Ideas, Popular Problems, and You Want It Darker, as well as his lyrics for Anjani Thomas’ album Blue Alert. Some of these have appeared in his previous collection Book of Longing, and others appear here with some variation to the album versions. The third section consists of selections from his notebooks and includes pages from his notebooks chosen by the poet himself for publication here. Written and rewritten over several decades, while all in verse, these pages are hard to separate into individual poems. Some of them include a date and location, but on several occasions a poem will seem to go on for pages on end with no indication of its journey. Between the “Lyrics” and the “Notebooks” there are two pages that show Leonard’s brief email exchange with his friend and poet Peter Scott about Scott’s poetry collection Walking on Darkness, and an email he sent Rebecca De Mornay just hours before he died. The book’s closer is Cohen’s acceptance speech of the Prince of Asturias Award.
As Adam points out, Cohen’s works figure certain recurring words and themes, among which those of fire and flame. Cohen plays around them in The Flame as well, accompanying the images to more or less subtle, but always subtly humorous, considerations on death, love, desire, ageing, fame, beauty, and faith. Ageing is especially mentioned, contributing to an underlying sense of the poet wrapping up his life and looking at his career as a whole.
Because of this, Cohen’s poems emerge in The Flame as compelling, mingling all the different mentioned themes with a sense of urgency that lurks just beyond their lightness and somewhat self-deprecating humour. It’s a balance that Cohen has always navigated well, that between seriousness and playfulness, intensity and lightness. His person seeps through the lines and results from these contrasts as incredibly humble, intelligent, and ever surprising, as in these lines from “I Can’t Take It Anymore”:
When asked in an interview about the difference between a song and a poem, Cohen replied that “a poem has a different time. It doesn’t have a driving tempo – in other words, you can go back and forward, you can come back, you can linger. Whereas with a song you got a tempo, you’ve got something that’s moving swiftly, you can’t stop it. And it’s designed to move swiftly.”
In The Flame however, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between poems and lyrics. They tend to have the same structures. Often very musical 6, 8 line stanzas in iambic verse, rhymes or half rhymes as ABCB (or with 8 lines, something similar with variants). There’s a lot of repetition too, as in the first poem, “What Happens to the Heart” – the last line repetition as employed in “A Thousand Kisses Deep” from Book of Longing. In the notebooks’ section there is more free verse and experimentation, as well as very short poems, or snippets of unrealised poems. These can be as short as two or three lines, or feature just one word per line. He keeps the playfulness of not abiding by the rules any time he wants, but his best works have that familiar form, 6 or 8 verses with some rhyme scheme, similar to his songs. There are instances of such poems even in the notebooks, and the musicality of the lines suggests the possibility of a song being born from those lines.
As was the case with Book of Longing, The Flame features drawings and self-portraits of Cohen, some of them accompanied by notes or short verses. The collection is eclectic but with a strong sense of unity, both poems and illustrations resonating with the themes and forms of his body of work – different styles but with the same features and focus. Leonard Cohen built a dedicated following by writing and singing about longing, love, desire, loss, ageing, and death looking for a deeper understanding of these conditions. The Flame is a work of moving intimacy, a touching final offering of a writer who was devoted to his art until the very end.
Did her BA in English Language and Culture at the University of Groningen and her MA in English and American Modern Literature University College Cork. Currently working on her PhD. Particularly interested in the Beats and in all sorts of poetry. Believes in travelling, practical art, daydreaming, and dark chocolate.