Introduction: Brian Nowlin’s essay on “Treaty” from Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker album is personal, poignant and revealing. While the critics’ reviews of You Want It Darker have been especially thoughtful and respectful, Brian’s expression of his response to “Treaty” offers insights not found in the reviews of professional critics.
Leonard Cohen’s “Treaty” – Not Just A Song But A Piece Of Soul: A Guest Post By Brian Nowlin
I felt called to dash off some thoughts last night about L.C.’s new album — well, about “Treaty.” What an amazing song! My reflections veered into a highly personal direction, which I hadn’t anticipated, but there was no other way to write about my current experience of the song.
The invigoratingly painful jubilee of “Treaty” has completely stopped me in my tracks, so much so that my engagement with the rest of the album has thus far been casual at best. I don’t have any real interest in offering an exhaustive “reading” of the song, or in trying to unpack particular lines, but I feel compelled to try and say a few things.
Like so much of Leonard Cohen’s work, “Treaty” blurs prayer and love song, spiritual meditation and erotic lament — or rather, it doesn’t so much blur them as speak from that deep place where the agonies of love and the insoluble questions of the spirit are inherently one and the same. As I hear it, it’s a song that voices the simultaneous miracle and impossibility of a particular relationship, the aching truth that sometimes our deepest attachments simply cannot survive the falsifying mechanisms and the mysterious torments that the specific context of a human encounter often carries with it. I also hear, in and through the particular drama I try to describe above, a broader engagement with the inevitable disappointment and pain operative in life as a whole. This is both a personal kind of love song and an impersonal dialogue with the universe. Really what the song so powerfully conveys for me is the inseparability of love and loss — that perennial occupation of lyric poetry. The song ineffably touches something in me, a naked vulnerability, that in the midst of life’s most difficult situations longs for an impossible “treaty,” a solution, a respite from suffering, even while knowing full well that such a compromise is not forthcoming, and that in fact its very impossibility is the key to the visitation of such beautiful longing.
The delivery of the line, “You were my ground — my safe and sound / You were my aerial,” is something I find more moving than just about anything else in Leonard Cohen’s work
The above may sound abstract and intellectually pompous, but let me ground it a bit (by the way, speaking of grounding it: the delivery of the line, “You were my ground — my safe and sound / You were my aerial,” is something I find more moving than just about anything else in Leonard Cohen’s work). My mother is currently suffering from Alzheimer’s. It is, of course, a heartbreaking situation, one that is particularly painful to witness because this amazing woman, who happens to be my mother, has always been a supreme intellect, someone whose adventurous soul has inspired many people. I’m not currently on the front lines, as it were, of trying to navigate the day-to-day challenges that arise as her memory and awareness erode more drastically seemingly every day, but even from afar, the utter impossibility of the situation, the complete inability somehow to solve the painful tragedy of it, colors every facet of my life. It’s a darkness that nevertheless inspires a certain vitality. As I move through the particular moments of my life — as a father, a husband, a teacher, a writer — I find myself much more sensitive to the bittersweet tang that seems always to be just beneath the surface of one’s thoughts and feelings, one’s longings, and one’s engagements with other people. The fleeting beauty of life has a sharper edge to it.
I don’t want to get into all the specifics — unfortunately, some of you reading this have probably experienced the horrors of witnessing someone battle this particular disease — but right at the moment my siblings and I are faced with some especially anguished decisions about my mother’s need for increased care. As I say, it’s a totally impossible situation. “And I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty we could sign.”
“Treaty” has arrived in my life at the perfect time. It sounds depths. It saddens. But it also invigorates, as Leonard hoped the album as a whole would. Like much of Leonard Cohen’s best work, “Treaty” is not just a song but a piece of soul. The way this works is more mysterious than my words indicate. It has, I think, less to do with the “content” of the song, and more to do with the place from which the song arises, in other words, with the sacred dimension of Leonard’s poetic enterprise.
Brian Nowlin, a published poet with a Ph.D. in English and an M.A. in counseling psychology, and the author of scholarly articles on lyric poetry and the ontology of metaphor, professes that most of his actual knowledge about the poetics of wonder and the irrepressible vitality of the imagination comes courtesy of his amazing little boy, Timothy. He counts, in fact, earning the title of Stay-At-Home Daddy his proudest achievement in recent years. And, while Brian has served as a college professor and a private teacher for various grade levels, he attests that as a professional educator, he is nowhere near as inventive as his adorable wife, Amy, who is, according to Brian, “very likely the greatest kindergarten teacher in the history of the universe.” Brian is forever grateful to his mother, Janet Nowlin, for inspiring a love for poetic vision—the intuition that ordinary life is animated by extraordinary undercurrents—and for embodying a fidelity to what Henry Miller called the “life more abundant.”
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Oct 26, 2016.