The Bigness of Small Poems – # 22 in a Series – Cohen and Zwicky

Canadian Poet and Singer Songwriter, Leonard Cohen

Canadian Poet and Singer Songwriter, Leonard Cohen. Photo: Rolling Stone


for Frank and Marion Scott


and a deeper silence

when the crickets 


Leonard Cohen from Leonard Cohen: Selected Poems 1956-1968, McClelland & Stewart, 1968

I am home now from my two weeks away in the U.S. and Calgary reading from my new book and leading retreats and workshops. I am so grateful to all my retreat participants from the Episcopalian communities of Palmer and Emmanuel churches in Houston and St. Timothy’s in Lake Jackson and my hosts and organizers in Texas: Andy, Liz and Donna; and in Calgary, hosts Ian and Darlene and my reading organizer Rosemary and in Canmore, Alberta my hosts Patrick and Heather.

Now, I have time to take deep breaths and be present to my heart. It’s gratitude and sorrows. The grief many of my retreatants who were struggling with in the fallout of the U.S. election and another grief, quite unexpected.

On November 11, while I was in Surfside on the Gulf of Mexico my sweetheart called me and left a message. As I listened to her message my heart clenched, just from her voice. I thought, Oh My God, someone in our immediate family has died. Her sorrow, that visceral. It was only a few words later that she asked: Did you know Leonard Cohen died?

Since then the internet has been full of his passing. His poems, passed on like sacred scripts, to be touched by the inner hands of soul and heart. His early poems, I cherish them.

Oh my, the silence. Its importance, especially in poetry. How Leonard reminds me in his haiku, above, exquisite in its silence and spaciousness. Oh, the silences Leonard took us to. Even the silences between his words as he spoke in concerts.

The ephemeral stream outside my window is a rush of noise, I can’t hear its summer silence unless I listen carefully. If somehow it stopped, just a second or two, how I might hear it more fully, afterwards.

When I was in Toronto a month or so ago I met up with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in about thirty years. We talked about Cohen. She reminded me of this poem and emailed it to me later:


I almost went to bed
without remembering
the four white violets
I put on the button hole
of your green sweater

and how I kissed you then
and you kissed me
shy as though I
had never been your lover

Leonard Cohen from Stranger Music, McClelland & Stewart, 1994

The economy of words and emotion. How Cohen creates a dense emotional world in nine lines. And not a trace of sentimentality anywhere. How white violets and a green sweater hold everything.

And this next poem. Its tenderness, the way its metaphors charge the poem with an erotic electricity amped up for me, by images that seem to presage loss and grief – upturned bellies, fallen sparrows, closing and falling wings, when your mouth/ begins to call me hunter, deep caskets. The conjunction of yes and no in this poem gives both the yes and no added urgency; gives the last stanza a pure and earned poignancy.

Beneath My Hands

Beneath my hands 
your small breasts 
are the upturned bellies 
of breathing fallen sparrows. 

Wherever you move 
I hear the sounds of closing wings 
of falling wings. 

I am speechless 
because you have fallen beside me 
because your eyelashes 
are the spines of tiny fragile animals.
I dread the time 
when your mouth 
begins to call me hunter. 

When you call me close 
to tell me 
your body is not beautiful 
I want to summon 
the eyes and hidden mouths 
of stone and light and water 
to testify against you. 

I want them 
to surrender before you 
the trembling rhyme of your face 
from their deep caskets.
When you call me close 
to tell me 
your body is not beautiful 
I want my body and my hands 
to be pools 
for your looking and laughing. 

Leonard Cohen, ibid

Could I write love poems like these for my sweetheart? For me, love poems, especially, are hard to write. Is it because I do not want to be revealed? I wonder. I am glad though I have two in my new book for my wife, my sweetheart. I seem to manage break-up poems better!

Another Canadian poet who writes textured compact love poems, is Jan Zwicky. I add two of her poems in tribute to Leonard Cohen, one of only a few of our Canadian poets who are, dare I say, household names. I wish we could add to that list, among many others, Zwicky, Lane, Crozier, McEwen, Nowlen and McKay. Here are Zwicky’s poems:


I step in, out of the century,
to the the calm light of your eyes.
Here, each thing in itself – as though
a vault, reaching into darkness,
held back a weight so we could breathe.

It shines, your grey gaze,
shines. And I lean
into that silence, the world that opens now
against the long draw of your body. The arc
it draws through me.

Jan Zwicky from Forge, Gaspereau Press, 2011

Love Song

Your weight now
becomes my own. Your eye,
which is fire, which is sleep.

A door Opens: gold light
from another life. O,

this unfolding into birdsong,
into leaves! O,

the lilt of you.

Jan Zwicky, ibid


  1. Liz
    Posted November 26, 2016 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this Richard, I have been waiting for it. Xx

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted November 26, 2016 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much Liz! So glad to be blogging again. Sad for the occasion!

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