“When they poured across the border:” Reflections on Leonard Cohen & Ilya Kaminsky

I’ve just finished reading Sylvie Simmons’ excellent biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, and have been reflecting on the magnificent sweep of his career. In the last few years, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to his late work, especially the live albums, so it’s been good to revisit how his writing developed.

In the middle part of his career, Leonard Cohen’s work took a dystopian turn in the albums I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992). He continued to perform some of the songs from these albums in his live shows – ‘Everybody Knows’, ‘The Future’, ‘Anthem’. But in fact, tucked in among his more personal lyric songs, there were hints of this political strain in his writing in his early rendition of the Resistance song, ‘The Partisan’ on his second studio album, Songs from a Room (1969).

‘The Partisan’, live in Helsinki (2008)

Cohen learned the song aged 15 at summer camp. In the sleeve notes of his 1975 album, Greatest Hits, he comments that “I developed the curious notion that the Nazis were overthrown by music.” In his late concert in London in 2008, he tells the audience, “Friends, we’re so privileged to be able to gather at moments like this when so much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos. So, ring the bells that still can ring…” He segues into the song ‘Anthem’, with its refrain, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. Despite his change in outlook six decades later (that the world can’t be saved by music), there’s a certain continuity here – searching out light in the darkness. This is a song that has come into sharp focus for me in these last terrible weeks: “The wars, they will be fought again…”, he tells us. And:

“I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd,
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud.”

‘Anthem’, The Future (1992)
‘Anthem’, live in London

Another is ‘In My Secret Life’:

“Look through the paper, makes you want to cry,
Nobody cares if the people live or die.”

Lines that one can innocently hum along to while relaxing at home – making coffee at work, looking out of the window on a train – one moment, can suddenly come alive and seem prophetic the next. Or, as he says himself: “A riddle in the book of love,/ Obscure and obsolete,/ Till witnessed here in time and blood,/ A thousand kisses deep.” (Recitation / A Thousand Kisses Deep).

In a time when political statement is very fashionable in poetry, there’s something about serious art that resists being reduced to rhetoric, ideology, but is also deeply responsive to quiverings and shifts in the inner compass. What Seamus Heaney called the Republic of Conscience. Great writing, of course, is firmly on the side of humanity. Take the heavyweights Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky; the poet Anna Akhmatova, all with their concern for moral and physical suffering, the dignity of the lone human person – the “naked man and woman” (‘Everybody Knows’).  

In early 2020 I saw the Ukrainian-Jewish-American poet Ilya Kaminsky read at the T.S. Eliot Prize readings in London. (He didn’t win the prize, although it seemed to me that he should have done). Kaminsky read from his second collection, Deaf Republic (2019), a drama in free verse which tells the story of an imagined town, Vasenka, traumatised by occupation. When a deaf boy is shot in a protest against the occupiers, the town falls silent and communicates solely in Sign Language as a form of resistance. The poems are interspersed with signs for: Hide. Soldiers. Story. Be good. The town watches.

In the opening poem, which the poet read that evening, the speaker tells us: “we protested/ but not enough.” And, “I took a chair outside and watched the sun.” The poem ends: “…in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,/ in our great country of money, we (forgive us)/ lived happily during the war.”

In his first collection, Dancing in Odessa (2004), the parallel opening stand-alone poem ends with a kind of Cohen-esque prayer:

“For whatever I say/ is a kind of petition, and the darkest/ days I must praise.”

© Benedict Gilbert 2022


You can hear ‘We lived happily during the war’ read here by Padraig O’Tuama: https://castbox.fm/episode/Ilya-Kaminsky-%E2%80%94-We-Lived-Happily-during-the-War-id2532075-id391611712?country=us

Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Vintage: 2012; 2017)
Leonard Cohen, Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1975)
Live in London: 17th July 2008 (Sony Music)
Leonard Cohen, Poems & Songs: Ed. Robert Faggen (Everyman)

Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic (Faber, 2019);
Dancing in Odessa (2004; Faber, 2021)

Featured image: Pexels free images

I previously wrote about Leonard Cohen below:



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