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Leonard Cohen.

Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, c1984.
unpaged, cloth, $14.95.
ISBN 0-7710-2206-9.

Grades 10 and up.
Reviewed by Tony Cosier.

Volume 12 Number 5
1984 September

Despite all the publicity, this collection of prose psalms comes across as a private book between a lonely man and his God. Not that Leonard Cohen is working entirely outside of a tradition. He takes both tone and phrasing from traditional psalms. His idiom is Jewish: he lets his dialogue with God come down to "a Jew's business."

Cohen is in great need of mercy. He calls himself ashamed, nervous, weak. He dances with a broken knee. His forehead is in danger of caving in against itself. His heart has given birth to an ape. His will is a "fragile thing, starving among ferns and women and snakes." Cohen says he suffers from misery, defeat, fear, disgrace, loneliness, failure, loss. He is a hooked fish, a puppet without strings.

Cohen works through his agonies doggedly. He calls on God to "crush my swollen smallness, infiltrate my shame." He cuts himself off from his earlier works, his earlier philosophical stances. He cuts himself from what seems worst in his cultural heritage, the "black Hebrew gibberish of pruned grapevines," and "the revolt that calls itself Israel." He works toward what seems best in that tradition: open thought, respect for the family, frailty before God. He tries to "end the day in mercy that I wasted in despair."

In a lyrical piece at the centre of the volume, Cohen captures the process of his book of mercy. A creator in a chair brings forth dancers from himself that complement himself. When the dancer succeeds, he serves God in beauty. When the dancer fails, God sends him forth again. By such a process, Cohen says, "even a bitter man can praise Creation."

For all his literary trappings, Cohen is not a prophet at heart. He looks neither God nor humanity directly in the eye. At one point, he even expresses doubt that God exists. And this doubt is an integral part of his stance: "Though I don't believe, I come to you now and I lift my heart to your mercy." He centres his continuing dialogue almost entirely upon pronouns—he and I and you—and shifts these constantly, so that Cohen is sometimes he, sometimes I, occasionally even you, while God is sometimes he, sometimes you, and the reader is always guessing.

Cohen's heart is, as he puts it in his final statement, "a rage of directions." He sees his life as a wall of filth, yet he moves toward a pinprick of light. If he is sincere in that attempt, the Book of Mercy shows him to be something more than that man "uninhabited by a soul" that he tells us he is afraid he may be.

Tony Cosier, Confederation H. S., Nepean, ON.
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