"Healing Itself the Moment it is Condemned":   Cohen's Death of a Lady's Man

by Ken Norris

"I decided to jump literature ahead a few years,"1 reads the first sentence in "I Decided," a prose poem one encounters some thirty pages into Leonard Cohen's Death of a Lady's Man. This is a somewhat curious assertion, reflecting confidence and a degree of egotism on the author's part. Adopting a tone somewhat reminiscent of Irving Layton in his attacks upon the gentility, propriety and philistinism of the Canadian reader, Cohen continues this piece in a spirit of confrontation:

Because you are angry, I decided to infuriate you. I am infected with the delirious poison of contempt when I rub my huge nose into your lives and your works. I learned contempt from you. Philistine implies a vigour which you do not have. This paragraph cannot be seized by an iron fist. It is understood immediately. It recoils from your love. It has enjoyed your company. My work is alive. (p. 42)

The reader has been harangued and insulted; at the same time he has become involved in a degree of textual play. Cohen maintains that this paragraph "cannot be seized" and "recoils from your love." At the same time it is "understood immediately" and has enjoyed the reader's company. Cohen's final statement — "My work is alive" — is perhaps meant to counter a statement made in The Energy of Slaves, a book that immediately preceded Death of a Lady's Man: "I have no talent left/ I can't write a poem anymore. "2

     Whether or not we have understood this paragraph immediately, our engagement with it does not end with our reading of it. Because of the way Death of A Lady's Man has been structured, the prose poem "I Decided" is followed by an italicized commentary entitled "I Decided" which begins:

Did he "jump literature ahead a few years"? Certainly this phase of his work constitutes one of the fiercest attacks ever launched against both the 'psychological" and "irrationalist" modes of expression. There is a new freedom here which invites, at the very least, a new scheme of determinism. There is also a willing sense of responsibility and manliness such as we do not find among the current and endless repetitions of stale dada-ist re-discovery. (p. 43)

Having been confronted by the author in the initial piece, the reader now encounters another voice in the commentary. This voice questions whether the author of "I Decided" succeeded in his desire of jumping literature ahead, assesses the attack upon the "psychological" and "irrationalist" modes of expression that this phase of Cohen's work is asserted to represent, and praises the "responsibility and manliness" of the author. What is this critic doing in the midst of this text? Pulling his own weight in the hall of mirrors, in the concert of voices that is Death of a Lady's Man.

     Death of a Lady's Man is a difficult book to classify in terms of genre. It is not really a collection of poetry, although its primary text consists of poems and prose poems. Although the book tells a story (in a somewhat non-linear fashion) it falls outside the designation of being a novel. In its pairing of text with commentary it is stylistically reminiscent of Dante's La Vita Nuova and the Chinese 1 Ching, or Book of Changes. Death of a Lady's Man contains ninety-six poems and prose poems, eighty-three of them accompanied by commentaries. The commentaries respond to the poems or prose poems that immediately precede them. The responses are registered from a variety of standpoints, and alternately criticize, canonize, deconstruct, reconstruct, explicate, obscure or enhance the piece to which they are wedded.

     In a number of the commentaries we are referred to an unpublished manuscript entitled My Life in Art, "from which many of the pieces of this present volume are excerpted or reworked" (p. 21). In a letter to Stephen Scobie, Cohen explained the relationship between Death of A Lady's Man, My Life in Art, and another unpublished work, The Woman Being Born: Death of a Lady's Man derives from a longer work, called My Life in Art, which I finished . . . and decided not to publish. The Woman Being Born was the title of another manuscript and also an alternative working title for both My Life in Art and Death of a Lady's Man."3

     Death of a Lady's Man is haunted by the ghosts of these two unpublished manuscripts. Original passages in My Life in Art are constantly referred to in the commentaries, and the phrase "the woman being born" appears more than a half dozen times in the text. There is an interesting interplay between the three titles. The "death" of the lady's man is complemented by the woman "being born," while the "life in Art" exists beyond these births and deaths.

     Death of a Lady's Man is also haunted by an earlier version of itself. Originally intended for publication in 1977, Cohen withdrew the manuscript in the eleventh hour, in order to effect major revisions, but not before galleys had been sent out to a number of reviewers. Sam Ajzenstat pointed out in his review of the later, revised version (published in 1978) that the major revision is the inclusion of the commentaries which did not appear in the earlier version of the book.4 What was a somewhat tentative and mediocre book of poetry has been transformed by a wild display of style and irony embodied in the commentaries that interrogate, elucidate and undermine the original text.

     While discussing textual relationships and titles, it is worth pointing out that, in the title Death of a Lady's Man, with its implication of the man as a womanizer, the spelling of "lady's" shifts the meaning significantly. This would then be a book about the death of one woman's man. Lest we judge Cohen and his publisher as bad spellers, a record album by Cohen released a year before the book was published, and seeming to have the same title, is entitled Death of a Ladies' Man. The variation in spelling is upheld and justified when we come to consider the actual content of the book. The discontinuous, non-linear "story" of this book is the progress of a marriage, and its eventual failure. The outcome is never in doubt for very long. The entire relationship is summarized in the poem "Death of a Lady's Man" in eight stanzas; we know by page thirty two of a two hundred and sixteen page book what the outcome of the marriage will be. Following this summary, the book is engaged with detailing the actual demise of the marriage, but it is, by no means, the only "marriage" that is presented for our consideration.

     Death of a Lady's Man is adorned on the front and back covers, on the title page and at the termination of the text with a reproduction of a Renaissance woodblock print depicting the spiritual union of the male and female principle. This spiritual union is depicted as a sexual union, bringing into play the axis of sexuality/spirituality upon which Death of a Lady's Man often turns. Cohen himself utilizes a sexual metaphor in writing of the marriage in the poem "Slowly I Married Her," which concludes:

And slowly I come to her
       slowly we shed
the clothes of our doubting
  and slowly we wed (p. 182)

The union of opposites — the male and the female, the self and the other, the sacred and the profane, or what Cohen refers to in one passage as "what is holy and what is common" (p. 14) — is a synthesis that pervades the book.

     Marriage is a central metaphor that extends outward to other interrelationships: the poet "married" to his life in art, the poem "married" to its commentary, a possible implied marriage of the reader to the text. In a prose poem entitled "This Marriage," Cohen yokes together a paragraph about petty bickering between himself and his wife with a more "spiritual" paragraph in which the marriage is declared to have "foundations" that are "faultless and secure" (p. 54). In the accompanying commentary, the commentator observes about the poem that "It is a marriage and operates like one, healing itself the moment it is condemned" (p. 55). In my view, this is an apt evaluation of the book itself. Because of the interplay between text and commentary, the book is continually "healing itself' of the defects of its rhetoric or conceptual framework. The book constantly proclaims, and thereby transcends, its own limitations; it is a text that is at war and at peace with itself.

     The primary text of Death of a Lady's Man ranges over a ten year period, telling the story of Cohen's s marriage and his acts of infidelity, while at the same time probing his career as a singer-songwriter, his failure to deliver upon his artistic and political promises, as well as detailing his search for spiritual fulfillment. A number of personas pass before us and speak their piece: Cohen the pop star, Cohen the failed artist, Cohen the revolutionary, Cohen the husband, Cohen the religious seeker. The commentaries in the book are written "years later" as Cohen points out several times in his commentary to "The Unclean Start." The original text is being judged and evaluated by a later self who has experienced the failure of the marriage and is now engaged in the rigorous spiritual training of Zen Buddhism. In this confrontation and assessment of selves one is reminded of the brilliant mirror scene in Timothy Findley's novel Famous Last Words. Having abdicated the British throne, the Duke of Windsor, in the midst of an assassination plot launched against him in Portugal, drunkenly stumbles up to the Martello Tower of the Villa Cascais to hide. In the room where he hides there are a number of Baroque mirrors, and in them he sees three different images of himself. In one he sees himself as the Prince of Wales, in the second as the Duke of Windsor, in the third as an old man. In his drunkenness, the mirror images begin to speak to him and he carries on a conversation with them. When the threat of assassination becomes imminent, the Duke, in a fit of panic, runs through his own reflection, shattering the mirror and scarring his face for life. In Death of a Lady's Man a similar interaction with images of self takes place, but the mirrors are never shattered, or a true self revealed.

     In several instances mirrors are employed by Cohen's personas in order to affirm the image of the self. The most engaging appearance of the mirror takes place in the commentary to the prose poem "My Life in Art," in which Cohen, in the midst of his Zen training, finds himself being caught up in "the moronic frivolity and despair of hours in the mirror (p. 193). In this commentary Cohen also states: "Destroy particular self and absolute appears" (p. 193). In Death of a Lady's Man the erosion of particular self only leads to the establishment of particular selves, not to a revelation of the absolute, nor to the concrete establishment of the author's presence. Even in so seemingly personal a book, the author is, as Roland Barthes suggests in The Pleasure of the Text, "lost in the midst of [the] text."6

     Before moving on to a consideration of how text and commentary interact in Death of a Lady's Man, I would like to cite Barthes' conception of "texts of pleasure" and "texts of bliss" in attempting to assess just what kind of textual expectations this book fulfills. Given that Cohen's whole body of work is steeped in eroticism and perversity, Barthes' sexual metaphor of textual pleasure, with his sense of textual pleasure as perversion and the text as fetish object, seems an appropriate model.

     Barthes defines a text of pleasure as "the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading."7 In contrast, the text of bliss is "the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language."8 This contrast can perhaps also be recognized, more simply and in a Canadian light, in a statement made by Robin Blaser in an essay evaluating George Bowering's poetry: "So many are devoted to form as rest. Bowering's work is restless."9

     So, too, is Cohen's. Death of a Lady's Man is a book that is certainly not linked to "a comfortable practice of reading." It aggravates, it frustrates, it bores, it perplexes and it offends. Although not as extreme in vision or as anti-climactic as Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers, it is often coarse, vulgar, obstinately ambiguous and inconclusive. It does not provide a smooth surface or a contented reading. At times when the poems do come to rest, the commentary provokes them into restlessness and ambiguity. Although the commentaries are sometimes amusing, we are also discomforted by them. Too often we are told by the commentary to revise our reading of the piece we have just read; this tends to unsettle our reading assumptions, violating, as it does, the reader's integrity, the reader's right to confer interpretation. The reader struggles to defend his own territory against these encroachments, while, at the same time, often being charmed or taken in by them. This makes, of course, for intriguing reading.

     There are a number of poems and prose poems in Death of a Lady's Man that, judged individually, come up to the standard of Cohen's most anthologized poems ("The Change," "The Beetle," "The Rose," "Slowly I Married Her," and "How to Speak Poetry" are notable examples). Much of the energy and interest in the book, however, are generated by the commentaries and the way they interact with the poems.

     An example that occurs early in the book is the case of a prose poem entitled "Death to This Book." Not a very aesthetically successful piece, "Death to This Book" vitriolically curses and condemns both the book and the marriage in a coarseness of language and spirit. Having read the piece, we move on to the commentary, which reads in part:

Does he really wish to negate his life and his work? Although the energy is similar, we get a different picture from the first passage of an unpublished manuscript called My Life in Art, from which many of the pieces of this present volume are excerpted or reworked.

We begin the Final Revision of My Life in Art. There hasn't been a book like this in a long time. Much of the effort of this ultimate version will be expended trying to dignify a worthless piece of junk. The modern reader will be provided a framework of defeat through which he may view without intimidation a triumph of blazing genius. I have the manuscript beside me now. It took me years to write. . . It will become clear that I am the stylist of my era and the only honest man in town. (p. 21)

At the very least, this is all somewhat unsettling for the reader. An obscenity-laced tirade is followed by a commentator who wonders whether the negation of the tirade was delivered in earnest, then produces a passage from an unpublished manuscript which has a similar energy but gives a different picture. So we begin to read a passage from the "final revision" of My Life in Art which is incorporated into the "final revision" of Death of a Lady's Man. The assertions that "There hasn't been a book like this in a long time" and that "Much of the effort of this ultimate version will be expended trying to dignify a worthless piece of junk" are supposedly about My Life in Art; yet they radiate out to become comments about, or at least thoughts to have about, Death of a Lady's Man. Although Cohen asserts in this passage that My Life in Art is "worthless junk," he also proclaims that he is "the stylist of [his] era and the only honest man in town." The reader feels that he is being conned at every turn, at every staging. Yet perhaps there is some truth in Cohen's statements about style and honesty. Death of a Lady's Man is a book in which style and strategy count for just about everything. That the book is a text in which any assertion is rarely ever allowed to rest or to close off discourse also suggests that we might find a greater degree of honesty in the constant contradictions that crop up in this text than in a text that never calls itself into question.

     The questions and contradictions come from every direction, in a proliferation of attitudes and voices. In the piece "Another Room," Cohen congratulates himself for having worked upon his writing rather than disturbing the heart of a girl by taking sexual advantage of her. In the commentary, it is the voice of the girl that contradicts the piece: "But you have disturbed my heart. . . I am not protected from your agitation of my heart. . . Your song is cruel and selfish. . . It is futile to contact you in the midst of your training but I've been hoping you might fall on a spear and leave your master and live with me on the servicemen's beach behind the Gad Hotel" (p. 23). Similarly, in the commentary to "The Lover After All," it is the voice of the wife that speaks, declaring that "Even though the purity of your love is affirmed by the unanimous quiver of every feather in the celestial host, I am not going back to the axe of your love, O triumphant husbandman and lassoo king of the gateless horses. . . I will be never again the cup of your need" (p. 67).

     Whereas these commentaries confront and contradict the persona of the pieces, other commentaries react to the artistry of the pieces themselves. The love poem "I Have Taken You," is followed by a commentary that tells us

This poem fails because something has been "withheld" from the reader. There is a lie here, or a deep stinginess with the truth. The poem begins to rot after the third line, maybe after the second. . . What happened between them escapes this poem. Their mutuality requires the most obvious crutches of Victorian syntax just to limp down the page. (p. 39)

The poem "O Wife Unmasked," a somewhat spiritualized love poem, ends with the lines: "What sad bureaucracy of luck/to be with you and you alone/muddling through the Day of Judgement," (p. 128) to which the commentary immediately responds: "Claustrophobia! Bullshit! Air! Air! Give us air! Is there an antidote to this mustard gas of domestic spiritism?" (p. 129). Lest we think that all of the evaluative commentaries are condemnatory, there is the commentary made in reference to the prose poem "The Change": "I think this qualifies as great religious poetry and also earns itself a place in the annals of complaint" (p. 19).

     Death of a Lady's Man contains pieces that wrestle with the questions of political allegiances and spiritual revelation, and it is in these instances that the commentaries are sometimes played mostly for laughs. In the prose poem "Our Government-In-Exile" Cohen earnestly proposes a new world order. He writes: "One day this will be over. The war against the poor. . . I'll live to see a decent society built around this page" (p. 24). The commentary informs us:

This is the work of a middle-class mind flirting with terrorism not without a certain charm. A modest effort should be made by all concerned to discredit and neutralize this type of inflammatory expression now that the actual business of running the country is in our hands. His thought did have a certain currency among extremists of every persuasion, and he was a familiar figure in the revolutionary cafes of pre-Independence Montreal with his ouija board and Walther PPK automatic. There was inherent, however, in all his positions, an unattractive frivolity which necessarily disqualified him from the responsibilities of leadership. When asked to clarify his stand on certain important matters, he replied, "How can you concern yourself with these things while Layton and I are alive?" (p. 25)

Behind the surface humour of this passage there are a few serious implications being made about art and politics. Positing that the running of the country is now in the hands of what was once "our government-in-exile," the revolutionaries are depicted as seeking to "neutralize" and "discredit" inflammatory expression; at the same time, they disqualify the artist from "the responsibilities of leadership." The supposed statement Cohen has made about himself and Layton reflects the artist's egotistical concern which takes precedence over questions of truth and justice.

     As we have seen, the forms of the commentaries are diverse. Some refer us back to notebooks ("the Nashville Notebooks of 1969" [p. 187], "the blue-spined Italian Notebook, summer of 1975" [p. 117]) or to the original version or final revision of My Life in Art in order to elucidate a text or to show how a poem originated. In the commentaries to the prose poems "Orion" and "I Like The Way You Opposed Me" we are given line-by-line explications that read like religious commentary or pseudo-New Criticism.

     In the prose poem "To Deal With You" Cohen states that "It was a crude charlatan's trick, trying to associate the obscurity of your style with the mystery of the godhead" (p. 48); while in the commentary we are told that "This paragraph is, I believe, an invitation for the truly bored to come out of the closet and be baffled one more time, one last time" (p. 49). There is no doubt that, in many respects, Death of a Lady's Man is "a crude charlatan's trick," a network of truthful and misleading information going nowhere in particular. We are lost in a hall of mirrors, the funhouse of the text. For all of its alchemical combining of the high and the low, the serious and the comic, the male and the female, there is no revelation, no transformation, no "triumph of blazing genius" (p. 21). The act of reading Death of a Lady's Man, however, certainly involves the reader in pleasures of the text. We may not wind up with many conclusions, but we do become engaged in an elaborate reading experience.

     What about the death we were promised in the title? Is it actual or metaphorical? Does it exist at all in this book? Confronting this question in the commentary to "She Has Given Me the Bullet," Cohen writes:

There is the bullet but there is no death. There is the mist but there is no death. There is the embrace but there is no death. There is the sunset but there is no death. There is the rotting and the hatred and the ambition but there is no death. There is no death in this book and therefore it is a lie. (p. 113)

There are a few places we can look for this "death." There is the poem "Death of a Lady's Man." Perhaps there is a metaphorical or symbolic death in that poem. There is something of one; in the seventh stanza we are told

The last time that I saw him
      he was trying hard to get
a woman's education
but he's not a woman yet. (p. 31)

Could this represent the "death" of the lady's man, while at the same time providing a sharp irony to the concept of "the woman being born"? Maybe.

     There are a few suggestions of a spiritual or emotional death littering the text — "You are a dead man/writing me a letter" (p. 137); there is even a commentary that reads like a will —

I leave my silence to a co-operative of poets
who have already bruised their mouths against it. . .

I leave to several jealous men a second-rate legend
of my life.
   (p. 187)

Nevertheless , the reader is inclined to agree with the commentator who wrote "There is no death in this book . . ." (p. 113). The book continues being written and re-viewed.

     How does this text attempt to resolve itself? The last entry in the book is entitled "Final Examination," and is a five line poem followed by a commentary. The poem reads

I am almost 90
Everyone I know has died off
except Leonard
He can still be seen
hobbling with his love. (p. 212)

This somewhat pathetic poem raises more questions than it answers. For one, who is speaking in this poem, who is the I? In the poem, Cohen is still alive, seen "hobbling with his love." Who or what is his love? The wife who has been present throughout the book, from this future perspective, has left him years ago. Is his love another woman, his spiritual devotion, his life in art?

     We turn to the commentary, looking for resolution and answers, and read the following:

I have examined his death. Although it is unstable, I doubt that we shall find the old goat nibbling again at the lacy hem of the various salvations. I am more vulgar than he was, but I never pretended to a spiritual exercise. Furthermore, his death is sexless and cannot be used in politics. There is a cheap sweet smell in the air for which he bears some responsibility. I swear to the police that I have appeared, and do appear, as one of his voices. I see in the insignificance of these pages a shadow of the coming modesty. His death belongs to the future. I am well read. I am well served. I am satisfied and I give in. Long live the marriage of men and women. Long live the one heart. (p. 212)

We bring together the facts about the "death" of the lady's man that are presented in this paragraph and, like the pieces from different jigsaw puzzles, they don't fit together. The death is "unstable," "sexless and cannot be used in politics," and is a death that "belongs to the future." We may have a death, but we certainly can't produce a corpse, unless it is the body of the text. It certainly isn't the body of the author. Looking to the teachings of Zen Buddhism, we find that enlightenment is often spoken of as a "great death, the step of dying to oneself that is coincident with rebirth in realization."10 This rebirth would never be termed "unstable." As it is, the voice that speaks, that swears "to the police that I have appeared, and do appear, as one of his voices," states that he doubts that "we shall find the old goat nibbling again at the lacy hem of the various salvations." If there is any "rebirth in realization" it is in the recognition that "I am more vulgar than he was, but I never pretended to a spiritual exercise."

     The reader reaches outside of this paragraph to the body of the text to come to some conclusion about this concluding paragraph, in an attempt to make sense, to close off the reading, in order to be finished with the text. We know that the marriage is over; in that sense the "lady's man," the husband, has died. The author, with his multitude of voices, goes on living. It is his death that "belongs to the future." The voice that speaks on his behalf claims to be "well read," "well served" and "satisfied." In the face of the failure of Cohen's marriage, marriage is affirmed. In "The Unclean Start" Cohen had written "We are married: there is only one heart" (p. 86). It is the one heart of marriage that is affirmed in the book's last line.

     An ironic ending? Possibly. Certainly an uncomfortable ending for the reader. On the facing page to the "final examination" there is a reproduction of the male and the female principle embracing in spiritual/sexual union, reiterating the primary dynamic of the book. This reader remembers Cohen having written in the commentary to "The Good Fight": "When will we collaborate again, men and women, to establish a measure for our mighty and different energies. . . . We are each other's Mystery. This Mystery will not yield to violence or dissection" (p. 115). There is a principle of rest, of union in this. But then, looking again at the illustration, one notices that the male principle is enjoying the superior position in the depicted union, inviting a discussion of sexual politics, and a scathing feminist critique of a book that is overloaded with male dominant ideology.

     Death of a Lady's Man is one of a number of somewhat "eccentric" literary works that have been written in Canada over the past twenty years that suggest a direction for Canadian writing other than the realist novel and the social realist poem (Bowering's Burning Water, Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter, bp Nichol's The Martyrology and Cohen's own Beautiful Losers are some other examples). Rather than take as their raison d'etre the mimetic representation of everyday life, these works concern themselves with, in George Bowering's words, "the efficacy of the sentence as the basis of reality."11 Forcing our attention onto the status of the text, and the attendant pleasures of the text, they are inviting Canadian critics to supplement thematic interpretations and character analysis with a discussion of textual strategies and open-ended readings.


  1. Leonard Cohen, Death of a Lady's Man (Markham, Ontario: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 42. All other quotations are cited by page number in the text.[back]

  2. Leonard Cohen, The Energy of Slaves (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), p. 112.[back]

  3. Stephen Scobie, Leonard Cohen (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1978), pp. 156-57.[back]

  4. Sam Ajzenstat, "The Play's the Thing," Books in Canada (October 1978), p. 10.[back]

  5. Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words (Markham, Ontario: Penguin Books, 1982), pp. 245-252.[back]

  6. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), p. 27.[back]

  7. Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, p. 14.[back]

  8. Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, p. 14.[back]

  9. Robin Blaser, "George Bowering's Plain Song," Particular Accidents: Selected Poems of George Bowering (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1980), p. 9.[back]

  10. Robert Aitken, Taking the Path of Zen (San Francisco: North Point, 1982), p. 51.[back]

  11. George Bowering, unpublished interview in the author's possession, p. 3.[back]