Remembering Leonard Cohen ~ Remembering Suzanne

teaorangesTea and oranges

Certain things in life seem to require “developing a taste.” I never developed a taste for Argyle sweaters, good Scotch, foie gras, or post-modernist art, and I nearly missed out on Leonard Cohen.

I first heard Cohen live at Rockefeller’s in Houston, and thought of him at the time as the Bob Dylan of the beret-and-brandy set. His talents as poet and lyricist are obvious. His melodies are haunting and recognizable, and much of his work has enduring appeal.

But that voice! There are times when you have to take your Dylan straight (“Subterranean Homesick Blues” comes to mind) and the same is true for Cohen. His performance of “Suzanne” is worth hearing, but the exquisite renditions produced by Judy Collins and Francoise Hardy brought me to the music and gave me a song for life. Continue reading

A Curious Case: The Woodmen and the Women

talimenaoverlook Ouachita National Forest,  viewed from the Talimena Scenic Byway

Less formally known as Talimena Drive, the Scenic Byway uncurls along the ridgeline of Winding Stair and Rich mountains. Passing through southeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, its fifty-mile length includes the highest points to be found between the Appalachians and the Rockies; the wooded valleys of the Ouachita National Forest, rolling away to the south and to the north, belie the complex and ultimately hopeful history of an area obsessed with its trees.

I would have missed Talimena Drive had it not been for a friend’s suggestion that I take the more circuitous, though ultimately more interesting, route through the mountains while on my way to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Quite apart from stunning vistas and emerging fall color, the more leisurely drive also would allow for a visit to the Muse Cemetery: an opportunity to confirm that my own muse hadn’t been interred while my back was turned.
Continue reading

Team Muse


Years ago, before the advent of computers and electronic organizers, I kept a manila file folder filled with clippings.  I tucked away poems I found especially moving.  I kept funny cartoons, interesting speeches reprinted in the newspaper, book reviews and critical essays torn from magazines.  As years of reading and re-reading passed, I unfolded those fragile pages ever more carefully, watching the paper brown with age and begin to grow fragile. The file became a touchstone of sorts, and it always was close at hand.

Eventually, I lost the file.  Where or when it happened is a mystery.  I simply reached for it, and it was gone.  Since that day, I’ve spent years searching for a half-remembered poem about a dog, a poinsettia, and loss, not to mention a commencement speech about climbing a mountain.  I’ve not much hope of finding either, because I remember only a few words from each and have no idea of their original source.

On the other hand, I do remember some of the cartoons. One of my favorites showed a disheveled Graeco-Roman woman standing outside a cafe filled with patrons engrossed in books or bent over coffee cups, writing in notebooks.  Barefooted, dressed in a flowing robe and sporting a laurel wreath in her hair, she clutched  a sign that said, “Will inspire for residuals”.

I didn’t do a lick of writing at the time, but I knew enough to laugh.  The thought  of a down-on-her-luck Muse soliciting business outside a cafe is humorous because it’s so absurd.  Continue reading

Suzanne’s Mirror – Reflections on a Homeless Muse


Certain things in life seem to require “developing a taste.”  I never developed a taste for Argyle sweaters, good Scotch, foie gras, or post-modernist art, and I nearly missed out on Leonard Cohen.

I first heard Cohen live at Rockefeller’s in Houston, and thought of him at the time as the Bob Dylan of the beret-and-brandy set.  His talents as poet and lyricist are obvious. His melodies are haunting and recognizable, and much of his work has enduring appeal. (Currently, his “Hallelujah” is topping British charts in two versions: one by Jeff Buckley, one by Alexandra Burke.  

But that voice!  There are times when you have to take your Dylan straight (“Subterranean Homesick Blues” comes to mind) and the same is true for Cohen.     Cohen’s performance of “Suzanne” is worth hearing, but the exquisite renditions produced by Judy Collins and Francoise Hardy brought me to the music and gave me a song for life.

In truth, Cohen was a poet and songwriter before he became famous for his recordings. Initially, “Suzanne” was a poem, published in a 1966 collection called Parasites of Heaven.  After Collins recorded the song in 1966, and Noel Harrison in 1967, Cohen himself recorded the song: also in 1967.  At that point, Cohen’s reputation was made and the rest would be musical history. 

But before the fame and fortune, before the song and even before the poetry, there was a person: Suzanne Verdal.  Many think Cohen’s wife Suzanne Elrod was the inspiration for his song, but it was Verdal, the former wife of Montreal sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, who served as muse. 

Though not lovers in any conventional sense, the relationship between Cohen and Verdal was extraordinarily intense, colored by the Montreal lifestyle of the time.  In an interview with Kate Saunders on BBC Radio in 1998, Suzanne herself described the mileau:

The Beat scene was beautiful.  It was live jazz and we were just dancing our hearts out for hours on end, happy on very little.  I mean we were living, most of us, on a shoestring.  Yet, there was always so much to go around, if you know what I mean.  You know, there was so much energy and sharing and inspiration and pure moments and quality times together on very little or no money.

Suzanne met Cohen while still married, but their relationship deepened after her separation from Vaillancourt:

With Leonard, it happened more in the beginning of the sixties.  When I was living then separated from Armand, I went and was very much interested in the waterfront.  The St. Lawrence River held a particular poetry and beauty to me and (I) decided to live there with our daughter, Julie.  Leonard heard about this place I was living, with crooked floors and a poetic view of the river, and he came to visit me many times.  We had tea together many times and mandarin oranges.

Reading her accounts of their time together, it’s amazing to discover how much of the song’s seemingly esoteric imagery is grounded in the mundane realities of their lives.  Not only the tea and oranges, but the river itself, Suzanne’s bohemian “rags and feathers”, the nearby church where she would light candles – all the details were caught up in Cohen’s poetic vision of their relationship.

But it wasn’t Cohen who came to her, breathless with excitement about his new creation.  According to Suzanne,

One of our mutual friends mentioned to me, ‘Did you hear the wonderful poem that Leonard wrote for you or about you?’  And I said no, because I had been away traveling and I wasn’t aware of it.  But apparently it got into the attention of Judy Collins, who urged Leonard to write a song based on the poem.

The song being written, Suzanne never heard from Cohen again, apart from a brief meeting or two.  After a show in Minneapolis in the 1970s, he kissed her cheek during a chance encounter and said, “You gave me a beautiful song, girl.”

Later, there would be an even more poignant final meeting. Close by her old home near the river, Suzanne used to dance at Montreal’s Place Jacques-Cartier.  As she told another interviewer:

[In the 1980s] Leonard Cohen came up to me.  I saw him in the crowd and I went up to him and I curtsied to him, and after the dance was done, he walked away.  I didn’t understand.  There was no acknowledgement from Leonard, and I did think about that for quite a while, actually.  It was rather upsetting.

In ways I’m sure Cohen never expected and Suzanne never intended, her life has become a mixture of garbage and flowers.  Since becoming homeless, she has drifted from Venice Beach, California back to Montreal, and back again to Santa Monica. Through the course of her struggles, she has become one of the children “leaning out for love” rather than the ethereal and poetic figure who holds the mirror.

If someone else were to hold the mirror before her eyes, what might Suzanne see?  Her own words offer some perspective on how a famous, yet nearly invisible, muse experiences homelessness:

Although I have had the front row view of the mighty Pacific and the solace of my feline family and sea-gull companions, it has been an arduous task of endurance keeping mind and body safe for now on five years.  Crippling pain from a serious accident in 1999, due to multiple fractures was enough.  Then to lose my career which took a lifetime to build.  My life as a choreographer, dance instructor and massage therapist was over; indefinitely. 
Enduring this, and the peripheral loss of dignity in having to face homelessness from the inabilty to earn my financial independence, I retreated to my tiny cabin on wheels.  I was down on my luck.  The telephone was strangely silent.  there must have been something to be said of many former friends and associates who were no longer calling.  It seemed, in some folks’ judgement, that I was choosing to remain in this homeless situation, adding shame to injury.”

Reading her words, I hear the words of Cohen’s poem in a new way:

And you want to travel with her,
And you want to travel blind,
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.

Life being what it is, I do ponder from time to time the responsibility of a poet to his muse. Still, while I wonder who is or isn’t traveling with Suzanne these days, there is little I can do, apart from holding the mirror of my own words to the realities of Suzanne’s life: hoping, in some small way, to reflect her broken body with my mind.


Who feared, as hope’s flowers unfolded
that blossoms might fade
with unseasonal change
and petals blow free down the wind?
Who dreamed, when love’s singing first started,
that melodies drifting
through dissonant chords
could keen like a nightbird’s last cry?
Who dared with life’s dance just beginning
to partner with fates
unaccustomed to grasp
at the swift, sudden stumbles of time?
Who wept, at the journey’s frail ending
for the path never taken,
the compass unused,
the years still untrodden, untried?

As always, comments are welcome.

Purity of Prose is to Write One Thing


Readers who follow my postings know my habit of keeping a series of “snippets” at the bottom of my computer monitor.    Rarely inspirational in any traditional sense, they give me encouragement and perspective.  Ranging from full quotations to simple phrases, some are posted only a day or two before being consigned to oblivion. Others may stay for a month, or are posted and reposted as I consider and re-consider their meaning.  Only one snippet has earned the privilege of continuous posting, a reader’s utterly perfect description of our beloved computers as “infernal persnickity timesuckers”.  Taken separately, each word is apt.  Taken together, they form a verbal perfect storm that never fails to sweep my mind clean of whatever cyber-frustrations have built up.

Another favorite was reposted today: Soren Kierkegaard’s famous phrase,  “Purity of heart is to will one thing”.    The first of his Edifying Addresses to be translated into English, it was written in 1846 and included in the volume, Edifying Addresses of Varied Tenor,  published in 1847.  I’ve always wished that particular edifying address had the same direct beauty of the title.  I can’t read Kierkegaard – too dense, too convoluted, too formally philosophical – and I’ve never made it all the way through his essay.  But I’ve always felt the phrase to be utterly true, even though I see its truth only partially, as though with sideways glances.

The “willing of one thing” came to mind today as I pondered my continuing frustration with a short piece I’ve been trying to bring to completion.   For nearly two months I’ve twiddled with sentences, re-arranged paragraphs, rephrased thoughts and shuffled ideas, to no avail.  All of the pieces seem right, but when I nudge them next to each other on the page, they simply lie there exhausted, with no sense of life or energy.  Today as I worked, allowing my mind to wander, Kierkegaard’s words suddenly reappeared, immediately recognizable and yet utterly transformed:

Purity of prose is to write one thing. 

Startled beyond words, I wondered: had my subconscious been at work?   Was it my Muse, back from one of her famous day trips to Poughkeepsie?  Had my efforts to force the essay in one direction kept me from seeing it preferred to head off in another?   Dragging the essay from its hiding place and reading it again, I was startled beyond words to find not one essay, but two.  My original wonderful idea was walking hand in hand with a second, equally wonderful idea.  If my essay were dessert, it wouldn’t be chocolate cake and ice cream, it would be chocolate cake and apple pie.  There simply was too much.

The problem of “too much” is real.  Characters, ideas, or plots show up uninvited,  and they intend to stay.  Authors have been thinking it over for centuries.   Samuel Johnson said, “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”  Thoreau, speaking of life,  might as well have been talking about writing when he said, “Simplify, simplify…”  

 Annie Dillard describes the irony of it all in her book, The Writing Life:  “The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point.  It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin. “

And so, with the encouragement of the ages, I begin again.   No longer content to tweak sentences or chose different words, I begin to jettison entire paragraphs.  As I do, a clearer structure emerges, and a sense of renewed life for the words which it supports.   Best of all, that second wonderful idea is still at hand, ready to be developed in its own way.  Purity of prose may be to write one thing, but it never is to write just once.  “Write your one thing,” whispers the Muse, “and write it well.”   And then, write the next thing.  And the next.  And the next…

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