Introduction to "Suzanne Takes You Down"
E. Ethelbert Miller

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.

 



Cohen's 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.


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Would you like to know more about E. Ethelbert Miller's poetry?
Read a recent interview with the poet in The Metropolitan Review.



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