October 03, 2018

The Flame

By Leonard Cohen
Review by
Legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen offers his final thoughts in The Flame, a collection of poetry and lyrics.
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When Leonard Cohen died on November 6, 2016, he left behind the writing that had consumed him in his final years, as well as a trove of journals and drawings. Collected here, this final body of work, including lyrics from his last three albums, offers a window onto the mind of one of the 20th century’s great artists, whose songs and words have helped generations of listeners and readers articulate meaning.

Cohen lived an extraordinary and turbulent life. In the period that begat many of the poems collected here, he was in poor health and significant pain. What the book captures, his son Adam writes in a foreword, was an effort, in part, to relieve suffering, as well as a ruthless dedication to writing. “Writing was his reason for being,” Adam Cohen notes. “It was the fire he was tending to, the most significant flame he fueled. It was never extinguished.”  

Steeped in somber reckoning, The Flame takes the long view that only age affords. Cohen’s appraisal is unsparing; many of his poems carry an abiding tone of remorse and acknowledgment of debt and error and the torment lovers can cause one another. “No time to change / The backward look / It’s much too late / My gentle book,” he writes. But passion is such torment’s twin or genesis, and that fiery emotion is likewise constantly on stage; one hears the resonant notes of countless love affairs in these poems. Every so often, there’s a pleasing flicker of humor, a self-deprecating nod. In “Kanye West Is Not Picasso,” Cohen writes, “I am the real Kanye West / I don’t get around much anymore / I never have / I only come alive after a war / And we have not had it yet.”

Sprinkled with Cohen’s self-portrait sketches, The Flame is full of gestures so intimate it’s almost a voyeuristic experience. But that, of course, is one of the squeamish pleasures of a writer’s published notebooks: you can’t be certain that what is here was meant for you, or not quite in this way. It’s not that The Flame in any way seems a breach of privacy; indeed, it is, as his son writes, nothing less than “what he was staying alive to do, his sole breathing purpose at the end.” Cohen apparently focused on little other than the preparation of this book near the end of his life. Still, even if intentionally so, the work feels both like a final speech and a disrobing. In perusing the sizeable volume, one can’t help but feel privy to something raw and shining, both uncomfortably and movingly revealing, the final laying-bare of a unique chronicler of the human heart. 

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The Flame

The Flame

By Leonard Cohen
ISBN 9780374156060

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