One of the lizards
was blowing bubbles
as it did pushups on the tree truck
I did pushups this morning
on the carpet...
The following article appeared in Canadian Literature, No, 60,
Spring, 1974 and is focused on Leonard's book, The Energy of Slaves.
Leonard Cohen, The Energy of Slaves. McClelland & Stewart.
By Tom Wayman
Well, folks, here's the news: 1. Leonard Cohen is still getting screwed. 2. He likes it. 3. He doesn't like it. That, plus some whimpering that is either for or against the vague idea of a revolution, seems to make up the content of his newest collection of poems, The Energy of Slaves.
Women in Cohen's poems in this book primarily are holes, though sometimes they can be breasts or thighs or asses.
As in Irving Layton's poems, women are discussed in terms of their usefulness to the poet for sticking something into the holes that they have and are. But whereas Layton can have a poem in which a hole reads Kafka, Cohen gives us holes that watch television.
I love to creep up behind her
when she was engrossed in Star Trek
and kiss her little ass-hole
Now this is not to castigate Cohen for failing to take a certain position on Women's Liberation, as though there was some absolute morality in the world and Women's Lib was good and being anti-freedom was bad. But it is the effect of Cohen's attitude on the writing that seems unfortunate. By reducing women in this way to mere bodies, he makes the topic that he spends most of his time considering appear one-dimensional, dull, predictable. Seen from a viewpoint that allows women to be people -- no more, no less -- Cohen's poems celebrate a Mystery that is not mysterious, recoil in bafflement from situations that are easily explainable, and in their attempts to be sympathetic to women demonstrate an unlimited contempt for their subject. So the opinions on life that his poems try to explore finally seem trivial.
When Cohen writes a poem called "Portrait of a Girl", he imagines her entirely concerned with her body (as he is):
She is profoundly worried
that her thighs are too big
and her ass fat and ugly
Also she is too hairy
The lucky American girls are not hairy
The poet hastens to reassure her that she really has "no problem whatsoever" because he finds her body attractive.
I wish I could show her
what such hair and haunches
do for one like me
Women in these poems cause the sorts of troubles haunches and holes generally get poets into. They tend to get filled by other people, giving rise to all the whining anguish of poems of jealousy. Or, conversely, holes can get possessive. Cohen says that his music is
...not merely naked
It is open-legged
It is like a cunt
and like a cunt
must needs be houseproad
And on and on: Cohen's many poems about his ups and downs with various holes are usually please addressed to an ambiguous "you". He pleads throughout the book, in poem after poem, to a particular woman or woman personified.
Play with me forever
Mistress of the World
Keep me hard
Keep me in the kitchen
Keep me out of politics
Twice in this book as Cohen does his whine-act, it apparently dawns on him that there is more to women than their holes:
I act like a fool
when I speak to two girls on yet another night
the one cunt sunk like an imperial bathtub
in my slippery conversation
and the other an endless tribute to Helen Keller
Helen Keller -- popularly imagined as blind, withered, intellectual -- is a good symbol for Cohen's distance from women as human beings. In this poem he predictably opts for his familiar hole. A girl must "fall", he says, and so he pleads to be there when she does:
Choose me louder please
if only in the moment that you fall
We could be lovers begging together
The other poem in this collection which perhaps hints that there might be more to women than their bodies is the poem beginning "There are no traitors among women". This poem suggests that women do not always respond favourably to men who see them as bodies. In fact, the body itself can be a weapon directed back at men.
There are no traitors among women
Even the mother does not tell the son
they do not wish us well
She cannot be tamed by conversation
Absence is the only weapon
against the supreme arsenal of her body
Cohen concludes this poem by saying:
Forgive me, partisans,
I only sing this for the ones
who do not care who wins the war
"The war" here apparently refers to the war between women and men. So is this stanza directed to the "partisans" of this war, men and women, saying that this poem (and/or Cohen's other poems?) is written for those people who don't care much about the outcome of the currently-publicized battle of women to obtain full status as human beings, first-class citizens, equally-paid employees, etc.? If in fact this is Cohen's intention, this is an interesting statement. It seems then that he is aware of the current struggle, and although his poem above addressed to the "Mistress of the World" hardly shows it, that he is aware that there is plenty of politics in the kitchen. If this reading of the poem is accurate, then it also shows Cohen lining up with those who feel themselves outside the current struggle: who don't really mind if women's status and condition in society stays the same as at present.
To put this more charitably: Cohen seems to be saying here that his poem's categorizing of women as bodies is not intended to be read by people concerned about women. Rather, he sings for those who either like things the way they are or those who in any case don't intend to do anything about women's place in the world.
The concentration in this review on what Cohen is saying arises from the poet's style in The Energy of Slaves. Poems hee are mainly untitled, and in a simple manner spell out what an "I", presumably Cohen himself, has to say. (At least, there is never any indication that a persona, rather than Cohen himself, is speaking in these poems.) Occasionally, Cohen's thoughts can descend to the sententiousness of a Rod McKuen:
They locked up a man
who wanted to rule the world
They locked up the wrong man
Often when Cohen wants to discuss politics, however, he adopts the weary tone of the supposedly-failed revolutionary. In the poem "Crying, Come back, Hero", the speaker says he is aware of politics, but decides to give it up to "speak for love alone" in order to reassure girls who are upset because their holes (once again) aren't being filled:
would rather haunt cafés on both
sides of town than break my only
heart for your millennium...
It's panic in the eyes of girls
that tells me I must speak for love alone,
panic at their empty beds,
at sanitary rows of monsters born.
In another poem, Cohen complains that foreign governments are anxious to subvert our government.
The killers that run
the other countries
are trying to get us
to overthrow the killers
that run our own
In this poem the speaker says he believes foreigners "will kill more of us" than any present regime. He adds:
Frankly I don't believe
anyone out there
really wants us to solve
our social problems
And as Cohen's solution to us solving our social problems, he ends the poem with a lecture on the evils of flag burning
the killers on either side
to unfortunate excess
which goes on gaily
until everyone is dead
Nothing in the poem gives any indication why Cohen feels foreign governments are trying to subvert our government, or why burning a flag leads to the death of "everyone". What is given here is the poet's opinion, take it or leave it. AS in another, self-abasing little spurt of ego:
has a way to betray
This is mine
But what does "this" in the last line refer to? The poem? Does Cohen really believe a poem can betray "the revolution"? What effect does a poem have on anything? Or does Cohen mean "this" to refer to the act of writing poems? How does writing poems "betray" the revolution? Is he involved in some sort of revolution that is betrayed by producing art? This poem, like many of Cohen's in which he pretends to be discussing politics, seems like an intricate puzzle that would hardly repay anyone's efforts to puzzle out.
And it is this pretence of discussing politics that leads to the fuzziness of these poems, and hence their failure to give any pleasure or insight. I feel certain that If Cohen actually were involved with any of the social movements commonly described as revolutionary,some of the vagueness that these poems convey might vanish. Once outside of one's own head, where you are free to be vaguely "revolutionary", any thinker moving into the real world of people and their problems in present-day North America soon finds he or she has to tighten up mentally in both concepts and language. The sort of sloppy, generally anti-establishment sentiments Cohen's poems here sag into reek of the world of radical chic.
Cohen's poems in this collection often mention torture, war, revolution. These poems usually employ the Distinctly Ominous Ending, such as "This is war / You are here to be destroyed" or "This machine is rubber and metal / it fits over your body and you die slowly" or "Any system you contrive without us / will be brought down". But as with Cohen's poem on betraying the revolution discussed above, exactly who is threatening whom with what is left vague and unresolved. For example, in another poem the poet says:
One of these days
You will be the object
of the contempt of slaves
Then you will not talk so easily
about our freedom and our love
Then you will refrain
from offering us your solutions
You have many things on your mind
We think only of revenge
But who is the "we" and the "you" here, specifically? Is Cohen linking himself with the poor, the downtrodden, the wage-slave? It might appear so, except that elsewhere he distinguishes clearly between himself and the majority of people who have to work hard for a living.
I am punished when I do not work on this poem
or when I try to invent something
I am one of the slaves
You are employees
That is why I hate your work
Apparently Cohen's "slaves" are people distinguishable from the ordinary North Americans who are at work each day in order to survive. So what is the "revenge", the "contempt of slaves" that Cohen mentions in his poem above? What sort of revolution is Cohen involved with? In at least one poem, he suggest an incident that seems to arrive out of De Sade's vision of revolution in Marat/Sade. He sees himself testifying at some revolutionary tribunal, or behalf of a girl:
I will remember if I can
the fragrance of your skin
perhaps you can get away
with five years People's Field Whore
It is difficult, due to Cohen's lack of comment on this idea, not to believe he is using this image to give himself some sort of titillative mental thrill.
In an interview in Maclean's last year, Cohen was quoted as saying his next book of poems would be about the problems of fame. Of course, he is not responsible for what the press says he said, but some poems here do seem to tackle the question of fame, albeit predictably:
the 15-year-old girls
I wanted when I was 15
I have them now
it is very pleasant
it is never too late
I advise you all
to become rich and famous
Another poem discusses "the poet" (Cohen?) and his present life. The poem ends with:
Three night sat the Hilton
a girl with round buttocks
suntanned and cheerful, fourteen, Athens
Are we to believe that what Cohen has to say about fame is to suggest the delights of having sexual intercourse with children? Surely this is some sort of pose. Otherwise, it seems to me that a kind of basic immorality has to be added to Cohen's poetic faults as exhibited in this collection of tedious male supremacy, vagueness, sententiousness and mental self-titillation brought on by talk of revolution and violence. And what I mean by immorality here is immorality in Wilde's sense of the term: boredom. Does Cohen, who is 39, really have nothing more to say about having intercourse with children less than half his age except "very pleasant" and "round buttocks"? If this is all he can say, pro or con the idea, surely his poverty as a writer is evident.
Most of these criticisms of himself, however, Cohen has anticipated. He has a poem in The Energy of Slaves that really serves as a miniature review of the book (or at least the first nine lines do):
I have no talent left
I can't write a poem anymore
You can call me Len or Lennie now
like you always wanted
I guess I should pack it up
but habits persist
and women keep driving me back into it
Before you accuse me of boring you
(your ultimate triumph and relief)
remember that neither you or me
is fucking right now
and once again you have enjoyed
the company of my soul
Lennie Cohen seems to be saying here that anything short of fucking is likely to be boring and without talent. I don't think that's true. And certainly I don't think that is any excuse for producing this book. Nothing inside that I can find will repay anyone -- female and male -- for the time necessary to read through these poems, for the time necessarily spent in the company of Cohen's soul.
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