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Suzanne: Between the Garbage & the Flowers

Cohen's poem about a night spent with his friend Suzanne Verdal, accidentally wrote a sea shanty that became the 20th Century's love rime.

On water, and what it feels like to try and remember something.

Suzanne was written about a real person. The extract below is from a BBC Radio 4 interview with her, conducted in June, 1998.

BBC: The song is about the meeting of spirits. It’s a very intimate lyric, very, very intimate.

Suzanne Verdal: This is it.

BBC: It seems very sad that the spirits moved apart.

Suzanne Verdal: Yes, I agree and I believe it’s material forces at hand that do this to many the greatest of lovers (laughs).

BBC: So would you say in a way, in the spiritual sense, you were great lovers at some level?

Suzanne Verdal: Oh yes, yes I don’t hesitate to speak of this, absolutely. As I say, you can glance at a person and that moment is eternal and it’s the deepest of touches and that’s what we’d shared, Leonard and I, I believe.

Ask most academics and theoreticians, wise jesters, oracles and sages, they'll tell you that the problem with you is that you've gone too gooey for newness. Sentimental for the sublime. You're an orientalist, romantic, fetishist, prodding at the shiny like a dog, superficial, greedy and it all looks a bit much like worship, which today is way more pagan than not worshipping

used to be. They might tell you to get a grip and introduce you to social exchange theory that is just hegemony juice without the bits and you might reply that heartbeats can only be heard in silence and their tendencies are the same in all breasts. You might tell them that love is a prostrate, unearthly folly that is like worship of a universal ideal (whispering satin roses upon bracken) and that if they wanted to know, rather than just theorize, music is usually best at elucidating this kind of atomic parallax (silver kabbalah from ear to ribs to foot), with poetry a close second and then you might introduce them to Leonard Cohen who, whilst writing blushing poems (are you sure you want to hear it, it’s not quite – yes, read it to me – are you sure – yes, yes) about a night spent with his friend Suzanne Verdal, accidentally wrote a sea shanty that became the 20th Century’s love rime.

“The publishing rights were pilfered in New York City”, said salt-lipped Cohen, beached by RCA pirates, “but it is probably appropriate that I don’t own this song. Just the other day I heard some people singing it on a ship in the Caspian sea.” Suzanne’s marine legacy reveals its sublimity twofold, firstly in that it is very much a hymn to water, boats, and transience, forever emblems of loves lost and found as tides or the sacred heart shrinking into the blue-cut-blue-green. (Cohen’s guitar ebbs, of course. That’s from the man who once sang the description of the secret chord as he played it). Here is the ocean, constant yet changing and dropping into the unimaginable vastness; here is love, heterogeneously slippery, but divine because it is only for humans and all humans. Years earlier, proto-beat Walt Whitman recognised himself a seabeard abjection with the infinite lying dormant within him, declaring himself like the sea “one phase and all phases.”

Secondly, in its destiny to become a folk song, testified across a vast body of covers, including Nina Simone’s. The sun rises with that song. Nina doesn’t alter Cohen's lyrics, and largely through cadence is able to reappropriate the power of the muse to become Suzanne, a new nymphic martyr. Crucially, however, she changes one word - whether by accident or ingenuity I’m not sure - from “amongst" to “between the garbage and the flowers”. Unclustered, balanced. In both the poetics of Suzanne and of love, we bungee between the particular and the universal, just the quickening of a revelation Cohen would later make in robes that in one thing there exists all things. So let’s get religious:

“And Jesus was a sailor

When he walked upon the water.”

Like the martyr that haunts Cohen’s poetry, this Suzanne he describes is an archetypal presence. She’s dressed in myriad feathers a pauper or a witch or a gigantic bird of paradise, slumbering dragoness by the river. Her place is one of arrival and departure, crossing and inroads without beginning or end where so many rites cleanse their initiates: drowning sailors

shuggy-boated by strings and choirs into non-perishable bliss. Down by the harbour quietude unfolds in the water of her eyes amongst a slowly globalizing bazaar and between the steamboats now, and shoulder hunched cargo, give me freshness, peace, and two things that are always good… She remains, still smelling of oranges & tea, of the earth & the vine, divine divine. I want to “travel blind” past the guiltiness of import and towards the faith fall into another’s philosophical pool, which requires the sacrifice of sight in a bleary, first morning kinda way. Suzanne, who “lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover”, is but a faucet for the pre-global water chords. Water always remembers - what waves have touched China touched you - and the most profound discoveries present themselves as memories, in exactly the same bleary first morning way (what lovely un-second before the day’s inaugural breath).

Ahem, prokaryote choir be seated, overture! in which Jesus descends from his “lonely wooden tower”, towards a desecrated desert, awaiting a flood of moss tea.

Overleaf, plankton gush in C! One imagines Cohen and Suzanne, auld hippies in true Altman browncore, wading towards each other through the matutinal mud, the hills still dawning bottle green as the rapids soften and pick the wasteland a gasping fruit bob: apple, pear, lemon, grape, ducking through their toes. They might start laughing here as the water sloshes knee-high into their wellies and they bound towards embrace.

Adoration is this at times, attempting to retain eye contact across a Pangaean drift. Reunion, departure, reunion and tall tales.

Suzanne is mirrored like a coast, and its final chorus reconvenes and returns the gift of sight teaching you finally where to look for all those memories.

The naive quest for archetypal recollection in another is a slightly less submissive version of death (co-opted blindness, handheld warmquietblack, Crescendo! dreams), moves to someplace a little more glimmering than just the finite return to the infinite. It means to allow, selfishly, yes quite greedily, prehistory to sprout like weeds through the jungle of life whilst we’re still kicking to stoop and smell it. Memories are great contradictions; past tumbling into present as through love’s own vertiginous clairvoyance; death dug up into life, sweet and stolen, lovely and repugnant, from a spot between the garbage and the flowers.

You can’t have the particular without the form. Perhaps, like you can’t have something unless there is nothing, you can’t have the heart without the head. There are bad, bad, bloody origins to some of our exoticism that was in dire need of reassessment but often, behind shiny things from thick mangrove places, are hidden things beckoning obsession that run and flow in circles or balls. Immemorial Ohm-ing Aquarius like the smell of earth’s cuticular oranges and tea, the smell of ship birch too wet this far from soil or the smell of Mediterranean salt the same smell of the Galilean sea.

The 1998 interview is a wistful one, but more recent accounts of Verdal reveal justified spite for Cohen, his success and a confiscated nomenclature. Cohen's verses constitute a threadbare constellation of nevertheless cherub strands.

Verdal, on what it feels like when someone reminds you.

Suzanne Verdal: He was "drinking me in" more than I ever recognised, if you know what I mean. I took all that moment for granted. I just would speak and I would move and I would encourage and he would just kind of like sit back and grin while soaking it all up and I wouldn't always get feedback, but I felt his presence really being with me. We'd walk down the street for instance, and the click of our shoes, his boots and my shoes, would be like in synchronicity. It's hard to describe. We'd almost hear each other thinking. It was very unique, very, very unique.


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