Between songs like Hallelujah, Anthem and Tower of Song, one tends to pass over the Leonard Cohen of existential and sacramental poetry. And Good Friday seems to be the best time to remember a little book, a very little book indeed, of psalmic beauty. Cohen’s Book of Mercy is one of his most underrated. Described by many, including myself, as Psalms 2.0, the Book reveals the poet face to face with his own mortality and in dialogue with the Unrevealed. A losing battle perhaps, but a battle of excruciating tenderness and introspection. And words echoing across the wasteland.
“Not knowing where to go, I go to you. Not knowing where to turn, I turn to you. Not knowing how to speak, I speak to you. Not knowing what to hold, I bind myself to you. Having lost my way, I make my way to you. Having soiled my heart, I lift my heart to you. Having wasted my days, I bring the heap to you.”
“I pushed my body from one city to another, one rooftop to another, to see a woman bathing. I heard myself grunt. I saw my fingers glisten. Then the exile closed around me. Then the punishment began; a small aimless misery, not in the heart, in the throat, then the removal of the body, the birds singing to a treasure of garbage, then world amnesia, a ghost bathing and shitting. Then I was judged by the face of one I tricked. Then the fear of justice. Then, for the ten thousandth time, the reality of sin. Then the Law shining, then the memory of what it was, too far, too clean to be grasped. Then I longed to long for you again, to know the ache of separation. How long must I be uninhabited by a soul? How long sustain the mutiny of this denial? O master of my breath, create a man around these nostrils, and gather my heart toward the gravity of your name. Form me again with an utterance and open my mouth with your praise. There is no life but in affirming you, no world to walk on but the one which you create. Forgive me with these hours and this midnight. Give this thought a master, and this ghost a stone. And do not let the demons boast about your mercy.”
“You led me to this field where I can dance with a broken knee.”
“Let the light catch the thread from which the man is hanging. Heal him inside the wind, wrap the wind around his broken ribs, you who know where Egypt was, and for whom he rehearses these sorrows, Our Lady of the Torah, who does not write history, but whose kind lips are the law of all activity.”
“Though I don’t believe, I come to you now, and I lift my doubt to your mercy. Under the scorn of my own pride I open my mouth to ask you again: Make an end to these harsh preparations. I made a crown for myself with your blessings, and you locked me down to self-mockery. You said, ‘Study the world that is without me, this wild degree of solitude.’ I covered up the path of desire and I overthrew the bridge of tears, and I prepared the wilderness on which the Accuser walks. The Accuser has no song, and he has no tears. Speak to me again. Speak to my words. Give this ghost the form of tears, that he move from nothing to sorrow, into Creation, even winter, even loss, that he have weight, that he be placed. Discover him in tears and make a place for his longing. Behold him in your court, one who upholds the throne of praises. Where have I been? I gave the world to the Accuser. Where do I go? I go to ask for pardon from the Most High.”
“Tomorrow is yours, the past is in debt, and death runs toward me with the soiled white flag of surrender.”
“Blessed are you who, among the numberless swept away in terror, permitted a few to suffer carefully”.
“Tonight I come to you again, soiled by strategies and trapped in the loneliness of my tiny domain. Establish your law in this walled place.”
As the night comes over once again, as it does every year, and perhaps every day, we make room for what we do not know, and welcome that which we cannot see. We draw closer, not knowing where we tread.
“It is to you I speak, solitude to unity, failure to mercy, and loss to the light. It is you I welcome here, coming through the coarse glory of my imagination, to this very night, to this very couch, to this very darkness.”