I first heard the song “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen at a poetry reading in a medieval church in southern France. A poetry teacher at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Auvillar, France, approached the front of the small stone church, her short hair burning platinum blonde, donning an angular black dress that fluffed out at the waist with magenta tulle. She started to sing. “What is this song?” I asked my fellow students urgently. It was Leonard Cohen, the musician and poet whom I loved vaguely, on principle, from years of listening to Hallelujah. What else didn’t I know? We were two weeks into a monthlong internet ban as part of our summer writing intensive. Over the remaining weeks of the intensive, I took to repeating the few lines I remembered from the song over and over again in my head as I walked alongside Auvillar’s Garonne River, an incantation of the poetry teacher’s low, lush, flatlined voice filling up the damp church interior. You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind.
I found the song on Spotify while waiting in the Toulouse airport: the first thing I did after reconnecting to Wi-Fi. Cohen’s recorded version sounded wetter, more languid, his voice trailing a split second behind the melody which the guitar pushed forward. I couldn’t remember the platinum-haired poet’s name, but I heard traces of her in the recording, too — the same low, distant quality. Gone were her closed eyes, the gentle sway of her angular body, the Auvillar chapel, that moment in time. But I was falling under the song’s hypnosis yet again, even in the airport at 6 a.m., sleepless and caffeinated and lulled by this goodbye. A female voice drops in and out, high and incantatory, singing an unexpected harmony that magnifies the distance between her voice and Cohen’s. I listened to the song over and over, closing my eyes, letting it wash over me.
Cohen published the lyrics to “Suzanne” first in a book of poetry, his 1966 “Parasites of Heaven.” The slim volume was hard to track down. When I finally picked it up from the circulation desk at Bass Library, I walked across campus, flipping through its dusty pages, looking for the words that had burrowed inside me. That mysterious character of Suzanne appears earlier in the collection, I notice, on page 31, in “Suzanne wears a leather coat.” The collection’s poems are all titled by their first lines. The verse feels vulgar to me after knowing the song. Her breasts yearn for marble. The traffic halts: people fall out, of their cars. The Suzanne I’ve come to know, I realize, doesn’t have a body. The song lyrics are printed toward the end of the collection, in “Suzanne takes you down.” I found those familiar incantatory words with relief. I couldn’t read them without thinking of his drawling voice, that chapel in Auvillar, the river.
“Suzanne” was written for Suzanne Verdal — how many times can I use the name Suzanne in one essay? Let’s find out! — girlfriend of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt and a fiery member of Montreal’s elite circle of bohemian artists. Cohen and Verdal weren’t lovers, it turns out, despite her assurance in the lyrics: “Just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her / then he gets you on her wavelength / and she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover.” According to a 2016 story on NPR, Verdal would invite Cohen to her apartment along the Port of Montreal. She served him Constant Comment tea, a black tea flavored with orange rinds, which Cohen renders as an exotic experience rooted in the senses: “She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.” They went walking through Old Montreal, past the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, where sailors used to be blessed before going out to sea. Cohen and Verdal shared a friendship, nothing more. Physically, at least. In 1998 Verdal told BBC Radio, “I would always light a candle and serve tea, and it would be quiet for several minutes, then we would speak. And I would speak about life and poetry and we’d share ideas.”
The sexual undertones throughout the song depicting Cohen’s longing — “you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind” — serve only as a way of getting at the underlying problem, which is this: The more we rely on somebody for guidance, the more the guides can deceive us, for they need us, too; the more they deceive us, the more guidance we need. There’s a symbiotic relationship between worshiper and worshipped. The “I” in “Suzanne,” a more idealized and invested Cohen, loves this glorified Suzanne so much she becomes a pseudoreligious figure. The “you” speaker serves the dual function of distancing the narrator from himself, and also inviting us inside the verse, enveloping us unwittingly into Suzanne’s grasp.
Cohen moves, in the middle verse, from Suzanne to Jesus — as I suppose we all might at some point — what is it about universalizing things? He’s already down by the river with Suzanne, then steps out of himself, the poetic narrator. Cohen’s Jesus becomes isolated in the “lonely wooden tower” from which he watches over sailors. When the music begins to swell, Cohen’s lazy alternation between three notes bursting temporarily upward, he sings, “When he knew for certain only drowning men could see him / He said, ‘All men will be sailors, then, until the sea shall free them.’” Jesus and Suzanne are one and the same: secluded in their splendor, inaccessible, solitary. They condemn others to lives of suffering in order to relieve their own. And we’re powerless against them, these people who we follow, blind to all but the salvation they promise but can never fulfill. The salvation becomes this eternal yearning, the promise of a coincidence, in some far-off future, with what we need and what they’ve promised.
We have different names for the same pattern — loneliness, a faulty reprieve, a mutual descent. Call it love, religion, idolization, friendship. It’s the danger of viewing a relationship as a transaction, as something that can save us. It fails, and we’re in debt. How far will people go to save themselves? Suzanne promises the speaker something: a new, better life. “The sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor / and she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers / there are heroes in the seaweed.” When you want to take Suzanne’s hand and let her lead you down to the river, let her make promises, you must convince yourself that you’re blind — for otherwise, you have no excuse for falling for it other than your own emptiness.
Suzanne is, essentially, your textbook manic pixie dreamgirl. She’s beautiful even when she’s “wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters.” She sits with Cohen by candlelight and talk about “ideas,” whatever that means. But that’s not why I love this song, why I kept on repeating those lines I heard in the Auvillar church until I could hear them fleshed out in full, why the song itself — with its raindrop guitar strums, three-note melody and high, wistful harmony — continues to infect and obsess me. Rather, it’s the question Cohen poses, and articulates in a way I’ve never thought about before: If the people we rely on need us reciprocally, if our relationships are based on this mutual, irreconcilable need, who do we turn to? Where can we go? How can we pray, dream, love?
Cohen provides a provisional answer in the song’s last lyric: “You know that you can trust her / for she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.” The roles are reversed, there’s a mind-body synthesis. He can dive blindly into the water alongside her. But in Parasites of Heaven, the ending is much less resolute. Instead of assuring himself of his trust, he sings, “You’re sure that she can find you.” There’s a search implicit in Suzanne’s capacity to “find” him. He’s trapped in this circuit of need. I play the song over again, in search for a resolution. It won’t come, but I’m in it now. The Garonne River in Auvillar was my honeyed harbor. I left it behind, the way we leave everything behind, falling away from our past selves until we can’t even recognize them anymore. I left in search of my own Suzanne, who I didn’t know I needed until that day in the chapel. I wait for her in my lonely tower. I’m her sinking stone.
Sara Luzuriaga | firstname.lastname@example.org .