Listening To Hummingbirds – Part 1: Steer Your Way

Listening to Hummingbirds – Part 1: Steer Your Way By David Peloquin

Photomontage Works By Martin Ferrabee

The essay, Between the Hummingbird and the Handcuffs: Leonard Cohen’s Avian Symbolism of Liberating Wisdom, explored a specific aspect of Cohen’s hummingbird symbolism related to a luminous but neglected poem in Book of Longing. It was always my intention to follow up on that meditation with a more inclusive treatment of the hummingbird’s place in Leonard Cohen’s language of symbol. Some time after that initial post, Martin Ferrabee (completely independent from my project), began offering a whole flock of original hummingbird montages. As Martin’s images began to appear, I found his use of symbol to be closely correlated to my own sensibilities, and to be at the same time, completely surprising and fresh. Most importantly, Martin’s use of symbolic pictorial language is in harmony with essential spiritual connotations that Leonard Cohen gave to the symbolic hummingbird right from the start. For this post I am pleased to include five photomontage illustrations from the hummingbird flock (or ‘Charm,’ as they are called) of my friend and sometimes collaborator, the sublimely multi-talented artist, Martin Ferrabee.

Steer your way past the ruins of the Altar and the Mall
Steer your way through the fables of Creation and The Fall

In the photomontage of the Creation and The Fall, Leonard Cohen’s face is translucent, his hummingbird in attendance at his ear. These first lines of Steer Your Way are from the song of the same name which appeared on Cohen’s 2016 album’ You Want It Darker, released shortly before his death on November 7th of that year. Martin has cast the hummingbird in one of its primary roles: as an inner guide to the poet, a role often given to spirit birds of inspiration and wisdom.

The avian visitation seems so blended with Leonard’s right ear that bird and ear seem one. I do not know if this was intentional, but knowing Martin’s innate symbolic intelligence, (and his sense of humor) I suspect it might be. Intentional or not, it follows the arc of symbol beautifully. The gifts of inspiration, guidance, and prophecy are primordial aspects of the spirit bird, which resides in the timeless, ever-present wonder, and whose message can only be heard through close in listening.

The Gift of Speech with Animals

The relationship of the poet, bird, and Muse is an intimate dance, and it is She who inspirers the song and sets its inner rhythms. In all the traditions that share variants of this myth, the sweet song of the bird first arrives while the poet is still (if only symbolically) a child. The relationship between poet and spirit bird often manifests itself in the early magic phase of the young girl or boy who is still open to the songbird’s invitation. Cohen captures the sense of this innocence beautifully in the first verse of the song, Nightingale:

I built my house beside the wood
So I could hear you singing
And it was sweet and it was good
And love was all beginning

As Cohen intimates in his first novel, The Favourite Game (1963), that liminal, magical conversation is so easily lost in the noise and distractions of the troubled dust of the world:


“Seven to eleven is a huge chunk of life, full of dulling and forgetting. It is fabled that we slowly lose the gift of speech with animals, that birds no longer visit our windowsills to converse. As our eyes grow accustomed to sight they armour themselves against wonder.”

Leonard Cohen
The Favourite Game: Book 1, Chapter 17


I include here a sample of Martin Ferrabee’s own lucid thoughts on one of the main themes of his hummingbird series: Cohen’s Hummingbird as a “Messenger of Truth.”

I particularly resonate to his use of the phrase “eureka moments” in the following quote; another way of pointing to what I refer to as Cohen’s confessions of  “direct experience” of these encounters with Truth. The Master of Montage…


Messenger of Truth

There are moments in Leonard’s work where he makes a big statement, a sense of a universal Truth or a guide for living, a realization important enough to take the centre stage in a song. These moments do not feel like the distant musings of an old philosopher or religious master but real eureka moments for a man who has spent his life searching for the slightest inkling of Truth in ancient texts, the depths of depression and the excesses of physical intoxication. I have chosen to include the humming bird in these illustrations to connect these big realizations to the physical Leonard. Above all in his writing he retains the sense of the human, the physical being moving through and making sense of this infinite universe we have found ourselves in.

Martin Ferrabee


Posts In The Listening To Hummingbirds Series

Part 1: Steer Your Way
Part 2: Rescuing The Heart
Part 3. If Your Heart Is Torn

The Listening To Hummingbirds series was inspired by Between the Hummingbird and the Handcuffs: Leonard Cohen’s Avian Symbolism of Liberating Wisdom.



2 thoughts on “Listening To Hummingbirds – Part 1: Steer Your Way

  1. I’ve grown with Leonard, he has inspired my life. It is a privilege for me to be sharing your thoughtful words with you. Thank you- Thank-you.

  2. Doreen, thank you for your kind words. I imagine that all those who are devoted to Leonard Cohen’s inspiring work would agree with you that his music and poetry have changed their lives. Of all the writing I have done on Leonard’s work, this three-part essay, more than anything else I have offered, is a meditation on inspiration, which for Cohen always seems to circle back to his inner Muse. I must add that when working with alongside Martin Freebee, I always experience new
    flashes of inspiration that come though his unique creative symbolic sensibilities. My hope is that Listening to Hummingbirds will gently remind readers to turn inward and give attention to the whispered Truth that always abides within each one of us. As Leonard intimates so gracefully: listen to your own spirit messenger….”don’t listen to me.”
    David Peloquin

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