My favourite Montreal book...

Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs

By Mark Abley

A review of Stranger Music: Selected Poems And Songs by Leonard Cohen

Published on November 1, 2005

Stranger Music: Selected Poems And Songs
Leonard Cohen

You have to understand, I don’t come from here. I grew up in a prairie city. Montreal was a distant rumour, its voice in my head a confused echo of Jean Beliveau, Danny Gallivan and Pierre Trudeau. Then, when I was suffering high school, I discovered those first songs:

Let’s meet tomorrow if you choose
Upon the shore beneath the bridge
That they are building on some endless river

The Champlain Bridge, I imagine now; it opened to traffic between 1962 and 1967. In Saskatoon I didn’t know the bridge’s name, but I was confident about the river’s identity.

And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour

Something in his words, or his tone, or possibly even his guitar-playing, made me yearn to see that harbour (and, yes, those many ladies). He wasn’t English like the Beatles or the Stones. He wasn’t American like Bob Dylan or Paul Simon. He was from my own country. There was a place in my own country that could inspire such incandescent poetry. I can’t tell you what a radical idea this was. Soon, on a shelf in the Saskatoon Public Library I can still call to mind, I discovered The Spice-Box of Earth and Flowers for Hitler:

Did you see the streetcars
passing as of old
along Ste Catherine Street?

“He made the city romantic,” you scoff. Yes, but he also made it real. By the time I moved to Montreal he was living in L.A., or New York, or maybe a Greek island, or possibly a Zen monastery. No matter. Listen closely – even the later poems and songs sometimes bolt back to his previous life:

I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting
under the marble and the snow.
I said, ‘Mother, I’m frightened …’

If this is my city now, Leonard Cohen helped make it so.

mRb
Mark Abley is now writing a book about the future of language.

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