The Lean and the Luscious
(a review of The Spice-Box of Earth)
by David Bromige
This book contains some fifty poems on various aspects of sexual love.
One of the most successful of them is called simply, "For Anne."
With Annie gone,
whose eyes compare
with the morning sun?
Not that I did compare,
But I do compare
Now that she's gone.
There is here none of the delight in language for its euphonic sake alone
which enhances and mars the companion pieces; there is only a clear, rueful
statement of widely-felt truth. But so clear is the statement that it gives
rise to doubts concerning the authenticity of the other poems. The poet declares
that he is not in the habit of appreciating the greenness of his own fields
-- a common failing. Yet most of the book consists of the expression of such
appreciation. Here may be a clue to the impression of artificiality one gathers
from The Spice-Box of Earth. One suspects that at times the ornateness
of the language obscures a paucity -- not a feeling -- but of communicative
maturity. The emotion is there, but the emotive thought has not crystallised;
it lies dispersed in abstract nouns and adjectives.
A poet, if he wishes to keep his poems alive, must watch closely for those
words whose meanings have decayed, and drive them away from his work. These
are words like "heart," ruined by bad poets and successful song-writers;
like "lovely" and "splendid," destroyed by advertising media. Leonard Cohen
is obviously aware of the obsolescence of "heart," for it can be no accident
that it does not appear once. But other ruined words -- "beauty," "golden,"
and "glory," for example -- frequently recur. And when a poet as perceptive
as Leonard Cohen uses these words and others of like ambiguity, there are
grounds for belief in his partial lack of creating consciousness. But only
For in every poem that repeats the hard simplicity of "For Anne" he is
successful. In poems of the other, luscious mode, he is less often so. After
"For Anne," the terse ballad, "I Long To Hold Some Lady" is the best:
I long to hold some lady
For my love is far away,
And will not come tomorrow
And was not here today.
There is no flesh so perfect
As on my lover's bone
And yet it seems so distant
When I am all alone...
But I long to hold some lady,
For flesh is warm and sweet.
Cold skeletons go marching
Each night beside my feet.
On the other hand, "When I Uncovered Your Body" seems to mean very
...I thought I could bestow beauty|
like a benediction...
...the real and violent proportions of
made obsolete old treaties of excellence,
measures and poems,
and clamoured with a single challenge of
which cannot be interpreted or praised:
it must be met
This is an argument-poem; the poet is arguing with his misapprehensions.
It is doubtful, however, whether the dialectic, depending on words as amorphous
as "beauty," "real," "excellence," and on Audenesque turns of speech as hollow
as "treaties of excellence," can sustain so strong an ending. In fact, the
intended largeness of "it must be met" assumes the characteristics, after
much inflation, of a barrage-balloon which floats away, lost to
There are poets, passionate men by definition, who can never communicate
-- in their poetry -- sexual passion. I do not believe Leonard Cohen is among
them. "Beneath My Hands," "Celebration," and "The Priest Says Goodbye," speak
of his possibilities. But for these to become actual, he will probably have
to write less about love, and think about it longer.
Cohen's poetic nerve cannot, in the end, be completely hidden by the flesh
of words. His fine perception is apparent in "Before the Story," "As the
Mist Leaves No Scar," and "Summer Haiku" -- "Silence / and a deeper silence
/ when the crickets / hesitate." When his sensual insight escapes petrification
by lack of thought, or by the alchemy of golden words, he produces, "When
he puts his mouth against her shoulder / she is uncertain whether her shoulder
/ has given or received the kiss." Above all, he brings the impression of
good health to his poetry. The afflictions mentioned here are curable, and
once Cohen has freed his sensibility from the West called "the thick glove
of words" he will be able to sing as few of his contemporaries can.