A Tribute to Leonard Cohen
I’ve always loved the poem ‘Suzanne’ by Leonard Cohen, after he died at the end of 2016, I decided to write an essay dedicated to him.
Suzanne – A Tribute to Leonard Cohen
“Suzanne”, by the modern romantic music legend Leonard Cohen, is a song/poem touching on love and the surreal craving for affection. Cohen describes an ideal world where the heart is right and his only focus is this image of ‘Suzanne’. She is a free spirited bohemian woman who he is in awe of but can never really have. The reason this is one of Cohen’s most beloved poems is that everyone can relate to wanting something you cannot have.
The poem starts with a simple but beautiful image, “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river.” Introducing the reader to ‘Suzanne’, taking him places, relates to how she decides what happens and how she takes control in their relationship. Cohen describes this picture to us with great purity without going into detail. We still get a clear image. When Cohen says that ‘Suzanne’ is half crazy it contradicts the fact that he may be crazy in love with her. This flows through to the image of him being fed tea and oranges; being placated with comfort food. There is a sense of humour and wit when Cohen decides to use the word ‘oranges’ in this poem as it has no rhyming word. Going on Cohen says “she lets the river answer.” This line links back to verse one where he describes Suzanne guiding him to the gentle image of a river. The impact of this verse is about the innocence in a relationship and how if there is no conflict and life is carefree the relationship will continue to stay beautiful.
Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen: three of the most important songwriters from the 60s and 70s, all Jewish but sharing an unlikely interest in Christianity and particularly in the character of Jesus. Reading through the verses on religious content Cohen presents us with an unusual mythical change to Christ’s story. Saying that “he walked upon the water” mirrors back to his use of the word river. Cohen manages to make big statements then calm the reader by his use of a watery imagery. When Cohen implies “only drowning men could see him”, him meaning Jesus, gives the mental image of men begging in despair for God’s forgiveness like Cohens vagrant need for attention from ‘Suzanne’. The line “Forsaken, almost human” reminds us of the biblical story of a crucified Christ who felt abandoned, forsaken by both man and God his father. Christians believe that Jesus is both God and man which echoes back to this phase. In this verse it is never certain whether the lines refer to God, Jesus, Suzanne or the writer himself. The meaning fluctuates, it ebbs and flows like the rhythm of the river that Cohen consistently brings the reader back to. Cohen no doubt was aware of his own wisdom and somewhat holy aura
‘Suzanne’, from what Cohen tells to us does seem like she had an unusual exotic twist to her which seemed strange for a woman of her time. Going back to the line where Cohen explains his memory of ‘Suzanne’ serving Leonard Cohen with a delicacy of orange scented tea all the way from China, a faraway almost mysterious place that he himself has no understanding. This could be referring on to ‘Suzanne’ and her known vibe of having a free spirited persona. In the final verse Cohen states that ‘Suzanne’ wears rags and feathers. This creates the strong mental image of a woman who chooses to live in a society where everyone is treated fairly and equally. This is why she decides to drop out of a consumerist society and be different by buying her antique-like clothes at a Christian organisation, such as the Salvation Army which falls back on to the religious theme. This is how ‘Suzanne’ manages to find beauty in places other people cannot envisage, as we hear from the lines “Among the garbage and the flowers.” Leonard Cohen seems to be entranced by her simple yet ecological alternative lifestyle amongst all the griminess of the docks. He will never forget her just as the character in this song has influenced the life of many and caused a massive input to the music industry. He then states in the final verse “While Suzanne holds the mirror” implying that Suzanne and only she can open Cohen’s eyes to this supremely significant yet striking way of living.
Suzanne may have now become extremely old or even joined Cohen in his sad departing but his poem will forever reopen a window to the days he spent loving Suzanne. There are three major themes addressed in this tale Intimacy, Religion and the exotic. On the surface it may seem like just a tale of unrequited love but also woven through this poem are strong philosophical messages, all bound together by the reoccurring theme of water. Every time I revisited the poem I found deeper meaning – it’s like looking into the depths of the ocean and never being capable of seeing the bottom.
Lola Rose, 2016
Image: (By Rama [CeCILL (http://www.cecill.info/licences/Licence_CeCILL_V2-en.html) or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], from Wikimedia Commons)
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