The songwriter’s letter to Marianne Ihlen in her last hours was beautiful, poetic and to the point. Yet so often we deal with death in an inane, mawkish way
A short goodbye. A few sentences. But words of such clarity, simplicity and beauty. Many of us have by now read Leonard Cohen’s letter to a woman he once loved, Marianne Ihlen, on her deathbed – and those who didn’t know it already have seen that Cohen is a class act, a man you don’t meet every day.
He heard that she was dying and two hours later he wrote to her that he too was old and his body failing. He had, of course, written for her before, with the lyrics of So Long, Marianne and Bird on the Wire. This time he told her: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
Slipping into unconsciousness, her friend said that Marianne did reach out her hand. Cohen’s letter also stated that he didn’t need to talk about her beauty and her wisdom, “because you know all about that”. The 10 years they were together on and off, their intimacies, their passions, their endings, those – despite the songs – are all a part of their own personal story. Now he wishes her endless love on her journey – to death. It is everyone’s journey, but few speak so directly of it, not even while whispering in the waiting rooms.
Was Marianne his greatest muse? What does it matter? He loved her for a while. He loved his four bottles of wine a day before he took himself off to the Buddhist monastery where he was given the Dharma name of Jikan which means “silence”. But he knows about silence as he also knows about the tower of song.
Death is so often met with silence or with sentiments that are an inane babble to fill a void. The mawkish inscriptions and epitaphs seek to cauterise the grief, to fix it for a while. For how to write of loss? How do you write to a person you will never see again? I have done it, clumsily, inelegantly, with false jauntiness and then a wish for them to rest. Whatever that means.
Some think of him as a doom-monger but he is deadly funny and the faith was always there. “I think I was touched as a child by the music and the kind of charged speech I heard in the synagogue, where everything is important,” he said in his eighth decade, adding ironically that he was singing “a lot of Jew-sounding songs in different keys”.
Yet it is the fact that his words are so charged that is the reason they touch us. In my local park, there is an inscription on a bench for a friend who died and the words are taken from So Long, Marianne: “It’s time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”
Cohen once said: “Poetry is just the evidence of your life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” What ash though? Warm, sacred, dancing us to the end of love; young passions, old bodies, a rare and gracious farewell. So long, Marianne. Thank you, Mr Cohen.
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