I don't recall where I purchased Leonard Cohen's Selected
Poems 1956-1968. Maybe it was the old 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich
Village. I know that his poem "Suzanne Takes You Down" was a
favorite of mine, sung by Judy Collins when my high school friends and
I looked over our shoulders at the Vietnam War, racial turmoil, and all
those other things we associated with the adult world. I purchased Cohen's
book because I was haunted by the reference to Jesus being a sailor.
poem was very sensual to a young person like me. I think my coming of
age could be measured by my strong desire to find someone who could feed
me "tea and oranges / that come all the way from China." I hummed
Cohen's work while writing a few poems that were influenced more by Bob
Dylan and Phil Ochs than by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. I had
made no decision to become a writer; there was no urgency behind expressing
myself. In fact, poetry was not even a possibility.
As the sixties ended, my parents found enough money to send me off to
college. I attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and during
my sophomore year enrolled in a class called "Blues, Soul and Black
Identity," taught by the literary critic Stephen Henderson. He became
one of my earlier mentors, but there was another teacher in the class:
her name was Susan Thomas, and she became the embodiment of first love.
Her name became inextricably linked with Cohen's verse. I found myself
walking across campus and changing into a man.
I knew the words to "Suzanne Takes You Down," though not much
about Leonard Cohen. A cousin gave me a copy of his novel The Favorite
Game, but Cohen was not my favorite writer; he had written just one
wonderful poem. In the back of his Selected Poems, I discovered
"You Do Not Have to Love Me" and sent copies of it to friends.
But this second poem was like a mistress, an affair that didn't last.
I was in love with "Suzanne," and the poem acquired an even
deeper meaning for me as I grew older.
When my brother Richard died in his sleep in 1985, I found myself once
again tasting the words of Cohen's poem in my mouth; this time it absorbed
grief and loss. I looked upon my brother's death, which had engulfed sadness
and depression, and knew that "he himself was broken / long before
the sky would open." In this poem, Cohen writes about saviors, and
perhaps this is why I keep returning to it. Something in it continues
to haunt me. I keep waiting for Suzanne to appear, and to disappear, and
to believe that this too has something to do with love.
like to know more about E. Ethelbert Miller's poetry?
Read a recent
interview with the poet in The Metropolitan Review.
to First Loves