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He leans in. “It is where you move into uncharted territory.” He shrugs slightly, his small, neat hands held in front of him. “The rest is just reinforcing wisdom or folly that you have inherited. But nobody can prepare anybody for an encounter with the opposite sex. Much has been written about it. You can read self-help books, but the actual confrontation as a young person with desire, this appetite for completion, well, that is the education.”
“And what a ruse that desire for completion is,” you suggest, “because ultimately, you’re still left with yourself.”
“What’s left of it,” he puts in, laughing.
Cohen sits back in his chair, his ideas as well-worn and familiar as old sweaters. “Of course, women are the content of men, and men are the content of women, and most people are dealing with this—whatever version of that longing there is. You know, of completion. It can be spiritual, romantic, erotic. Everybody is involved in that activity.”
Cohen exudes an air of permission. Nothing unsettles him. He will explain all: the eclectic collection of objects in his house, like the black-and-white picture of the dog on the pine sideboard (it’s of Tinky, the Scotch terrier he grew up with) that sits beside a modernist sculpture in silver by his childhood friend, Mort Rosengarten, that stands next to an antique pot, inscribed with Arabic symbols, which his father liked and that came from his mother’s house when she died.
Ask him about the graphic signatures, or chops, as he refers to them, that he designed and stamps onto several of the drawings. Perhaps they are too private to explain. They look like a secret code. “Not at all. Not at all,” he murmurs. “This one is the old Chinese writing of my monk’s name, Jikhan,” he says, pointing to one. “It got into the press as ‘the silent one,’ but it just means ordinary silence.” The poet as an absence of communication. Roshi, who assigns the names, likes irony, presumably.
“Yes, could be,” Cohen says. A beat of silence. “Since Roshi doesn’t speak English, it’s almost impossible to discern what he means.”
“These two interlocking hearts I designed for the cover of Book of Mercy,” his 1984 poetry collection, he says, moving along as he describes another chop. “I established this Order of the Unified Heart, that is a kind of dream of an order. There is no organization. There’s no hierarchy. There’s just a pin for people of a very broadly designated similar intent.”
“And yours is?”
He thinks for a minute. “To just make things better on a very personal level,” he says. “You’re just not scattered all over the place. There is a tiny moment when you might gather around some decent intention.”
“And what has been your most decent intention?”
He places his hands on the edge of the table. “I can’t think of any right now. There must be one or two.”
“Beauty, certainly,” he responds.
It is often said that Cohen is hard to define. There’s Cohen, the son of a prominent Montreal clothier and the grandson of a Jewish scholar. Cohen, the law-school dropout. Cohen, the novelist, the poet, the songwriter. Cohen, the sexual bad boy who becomes a monk.
But he disagrees. “I always felt it was of one piece. I never felt I was going off on a tangent. Mainly because I think we develop images of ourselves quite early on, and certainly one of the images I had of myself came from reading Chinese poetry at a very young age. There was a kind of solitary figure in some of those poems by Li Po and Tu Fu. A monk sitting by a stream. There was a notion of solitude, a notion of deep appreciation for personal relationships, friendships, not just love, not just sensual or erotic or the love of a man or a woman, but a deep longing to experience and to describe friendship and loss and the consequences of distance. So those images in those poems had their effect, and thirty years later, I found myself in robes and a shaved head sitting in a meditation hall. It just seemed completely natural,” he says in a quiet manner.
Cohen is at turns wistful, serious, and humorous. He appears to be completely in the moment, allowing himself the freedom of the response as it arises to each question or in reaction to the conversation, as it moves here and there.
At one point, in an exchange about his artistic life, he admits that he “drifted into things. I suppose there has been an undercurrent of deliberation, but I don’t really navigate it.” According to legend, it wasn’t until he encountered folk singer Judy Collins, in 1966, that he decided to perform publicly songs he had played for friends. The following year, she introduced some Cohen songs on her album, including his big hit “Suzanne.” In 1968 he released his first album.
Cohen didn’t seek out a musical career as much as it seems to have found him. Which is what is happening now with his drawings. He appears to have fallen into a whole new career.
He takes in this observation, looks out the window for a moment, and then brings his attention back into the room.
“That’s why I say free will is overrated,” he drawls in his smoky voice.