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Joan of Arc -- Leonard Cohen

I've always enjoyed poetry (and prose) that takes an established sequence of
events and offers a different way of interpreting them...
(Poem #744) Joan of Arc
 Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc
 as she came riding through the dark;
 no moon to keep her armour bright,
 no man to get her through this very smoky night.
 She said, "I'm tired of the war,
 I want the kind of work I had before,
 a wedding dress or something white
 to wear upon my swollen appetite."

 "Well, I'm glad to hear you talk this way,
 you know I've watched you riding every day
 and something in me yearns to win
 such a cold and lonesome heroine."
 "And who are you?" she sternly spoke
 to the one beneath the smoke.
 "Why, I'm fire," he replied,
 "And I love your solitude, I love your pride."

 "Then fire, make your body cold,
 I'm going to give you mine to hold,"
 saying this she climbed inside
 to be his one, to be his only bride.
 And deep into his fiery heart
 he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
 and high above the wedding guests
 he hung the ashes of her wedding dress.

 It was deep into his fiery heart
 he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
 and then she clearly understood
 if he was fire, oh then she must be wood.
 I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
 I saw the glory in her eye.
 Myself I long for love and light,
 but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?
-- Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen's subject material has always been the beauty and pain of
human emotion, and he brings a sensitive and experienced eye to his study.
His songs are often anguished and lonely, yet they're rarely depressing or
bitter; instead, they're permeated by an intense, almost touching faith in
the power of love, an optimism that redeems his superficial bitterness and
brittlety.

Today's allegorical song/poem is very interesting [1]. The theme is handled
more directly than in several other of Cohen's offerings; at the same time,
the poem is less personal, and (perhaps for that very reason) less
gut-wrenching. At first reading it seems irrevocably, inexorably
pessimistic: Joan's death by fire betokens no hint of the healing effect of
love, only its agony. And yet... there seems to be an element of paradox
here, for after all, the historical figure of Joan of Arc [2] is almost the
canonical example of the power of faith in the face of overwhelming odds.
This insight leads us to another, more positive interpretation of the poem:
_despite_ the cruelty and brightness of the fire's embrace, Joan chooses to
accept it, to accept the pain and the suffering, in the hope of redemption
and salvation. This is Cohen's testament; it may be harsh, but it rings
true.

thomas.

[1] In other words, I completely misunderstood its meaning, the first time I
heard it <grin>.

[2] who, incidentally, figures in several of Cohen's song lyrics - see, for
example, "Last Year's Man".

[Moreover]

This the fourth in a series of poems which are actually the lyrics to
popular (or, as the case may be, obscure) songs. I forgot to mention that
the previous member of the series, "Conquistador", by Keith Reid, was a
guest poem submitted by Amit Chakrabarti. Sorry,
Amit.

25 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

SD Williams said...

Rick and I sat up playing the music last week, not having done so in
more than 30 years, with Glenmorangie beside and the children all safe
upstairs, and we tried to remember songs and remembered Leonard Cohen, I
seeing him play once in the '60s or '70s, him too shy to take his gaze
from the stage floor, so that Buffy St. Marie had to coax him, but he
would not look at the audience as he sang Suzanne, and even all the
other sensitive singer poets of the age thought his vulnerability was
deeper than their's, and however else you interpret his songs, in the
end they are all different paths to delicious doomed love, the need to
find salvation in someone's embrace, sex, eyes, voice, and then to part
in so satisfying melancholy, blue streets, lone cigarettes, because, ya
know, it could never work, it never works, there's just a night or a
week or a month when you know one of you is fire and the other's wood,
and then you're just the ashes of the wedding dress. Joan of Arc, she
was just one more ice queen.

Manchester

Jones Susan M said...

I am a huge fan of Cohen - always have been, always will be. It was to
"Suzanne" that I felt my first stirrings of sexuality. Anyway, this song is
the "our song" for my husband and I, and we have talked about the lyrics
often. My husband postulated that Joan was pregnant, with part of her
wanting to go back to traditional life and get married: "a wedding dress
or something white, to wear upon my swollen appetite". I like the idea of a
brave and honest unconventional woman, bottom line. I think it's easy to
call her cold; certainly almost all strong women have been labeled so at one
point or another. How can someone willing to embrace fire ever be truly
cold?

Frazier Laurence (Larry) (CIV) said...

I'm reacting to Cohen's song, more than to the lyrics as poetry. The
words are dazzling, brilliant, searing. I like some of his work, not
all. I like his words sung by Judy Collins, and I don't like him singing
his own words at all. And I find I like him a lot better if I listen to
a couple of songs, not a whole big bunch of them. After a few songs, I
start to feel like he's playing the same notes over again. That isn't
really the case, of course. But he's so distinctive, he sounds like
himself. He doesn't sound like anyone else. Anyway, I have a question
for anyone who finds there way to (or, back to) this set of comments: Do
you have any idea why in the world he stuck "La, la, la" into the song?
I've tried my very best to make it seem like a striking counterpoint to
the intensity of what he's talking about, and I can't hear it as
anything but lame and jarring and discordant. (Or is that something Judy
Collins threw in?)

Larry Frazier

Hhthesmith said...

It's just a really good poem. Especially accompanied to music. Then it's a
great poem.

Gary Neitzke said...

When I first heard this song I was in the middle of a war - the war in Vietnam. A buddy of mine had purchase the album, Songs of Love and Hate, and copied it to a cassette. We had a little battery powered Panasonic combo radio/tape player we carried with us to the field. Often, in the evenings we would walk up to the top of a hill that had been scorched naked by Agent Orange, smoke a few joints, watch our allies, the South Korea's randomly launch artillery shells towards a distant mount, affectionately known as "Charlie's Mountain" as we listened to Leonard. Joan of Arc became one of my favorite Cohen songs.

The song is not so much about Joan. It is about us. Or rather it is about the 'fire' in us that as an earlier comment in these notes put it, "there is something essential about being Joan of Arc that requires martyrdom". I must submit that it should read, there is something essential in us...that requires the martyrdom of Joan of Arc.

What is that "essential" which requires purification by fire?

It is the story - both ancient and modern - of the human community-turned-lynch-mob. caught up in the -contagions of the spreading flame. It is the story of culture reaching for a pseudo-peace through the concept of sacrifice. Joan is painted as a devil, a witch, one who is responsible for the ills the beset the community. Joan is the scapegoat; but who is the real satan here! Leonard ends with the statement and question: "Myself I long for love and light, but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?"
The answer he is trying to point to is "NO". As the line in another Cohen song, "The Story of Issac": "...you must not do it anymore!"

G. Neitzke

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poetbdk said...

Leonard Cohen's poem/song is a really great tribute to Saint Joan of Arc.

Ben D. Kennedy
www.MaidOfHeaven.com

Michelle Oliver said...

I suggest that "her swollen appetite" may have been her love for God. Her love had grown and required closer union, which was to be granted on their "wedding day" with Fire, who reminds me of Satan in Genesis.

I believe Joan would have loved this song. Perhaps Leonard Cohen was a French troubadour in the 15th Century. I can't imagine him as fighter alongside Joan, though I don't doubt him the necessary courage.

Leonard Cohen said...

His songs are often anguished and lonely, yet they're rarely depressing or bitter; instead, they're permeated by an intense, almost touching faith in the power of love, an optimism that redeems his superficial bitterness and brittlety.Great stuff!

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Smithy said...

I read two commentators on a youtube video of Joan of Arc saying that Cohen stole this song - that it is actually a traditional French folk song - they were writing in French so no one responded - I can find nothing online to back up their accusation

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