The Book of Longing / Leonard Cohen

McClelland & Stewart, 231 pp, $32.99, hardcover.

Like many ex-Montrealers, I would be willing to buy a collection of Leonard Cohen's telephone-pad doodles if they existed. The peripatetic songwriter has shadowed the days of my life as surely as the Beatles and the Grateful Dead have shadowed the lives of others.

The Book of Longing is not, however, a jumble of bedside doodles. It is, rather, Cohen's first original collection of poetry since The Book of Mercy, a 1984 compendium of modern psalms. Based on the dates of the pieces in this rather hefty (by poetic standards) tome, Cohen has been working on it for close to 30 years. (The book is currently at the top of the Globe and Mail bestselling-fiction chart.)

The fact that the singer disappeared up the slopes of California's Mt. Baldy shortly after his breakup with Rebecca De Mornay did nothing to lower his profile. Far from it. Indeed, the secret of Cohen's abiding fascination probably resides in the fact that for a man whose poetry is so nakedly confessional, his own personality remains teasingly opaque. This expatriate shows us what he wants us to see, while jealously hoarding his secrets for a select few.

Perhaps because of his prolonged monastic isolation, The Book of Longing looks more Japanese than anything Cohen has done before. Its mixture of meditations, drawings (ruefully funny), and poems can't help but remind us of Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book.

The text is uneven, mixing gems with rough drafts. While the themes remain the same (the endless struggle between spirit and flesh), they are now pitted against one inescapable fact: the poet has grown old. His hungers may be perennial, but his body is not””and boy, does he know it.

Still, Cohen has clearly not lost his unique ability to marry pathos to self-mockery: “I shaved my head/I put on robes/I sleep in the corner of a cabin/sixty-five hundred feet up a mountain/It's dismal here/The only thing I don't need/is a comb.” 