On my recent birthday, I was on top of the world, specifically in Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawai’i, looking down at the fat, ominous plume emanating from Halema’uma’u crater, where Pele’s fire now fluctuates around 400 feet below the rim, up from an earlier level of 660 feet down.
It took us nearly 24 hours to get home, with a long layover in LA. You know how a tired brain in alienating places is prone to get stuck on some endlessly repeating theme? Maybe that doesn’t happen to any of you, but it does to me. On this occasion, it was endless repetitions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Recently, Echidne of the Snakes posted a video of k.d. lang singing “Hallelujah,” and discussed the concept of a woman making a man’s song her own.
I got stuck thinking about this, as well as hearing it on endless loop. I decided I might as well exploit my weirdness by posting about it. Then I remembered how far back Leonard Cohen and I go. This is one of my problems as a blogger–succinct I’m not. There’s always a story behind the story. Or as another old favorite of mine, Bob Seger, put it, “There’s a house behind a house.”
So, on my nineteenth birthday I was standing in the rain outside a campus bookstore.
The bookstore was called Centicore. I was afraid of it. It was full of scrawny pale men hipper than me, with hot dark eyes full of angry dissatisfaction. It was weighty with books as cold and shiny as slabs of marble on a temple altar. The potential of all that knowledge felt so heavy on me–I could be pressed to death. Yet I must summon my courage and venture, or be nobody, a vagabond outcast forever. I had no money. I was just hanging out, shivering in the cold winter rain.
This was January in Michigan, the heart of a cold gray winter. Each year about my birthday, in those olden days before climate change, there was a thaw. A few days when the song of water would sound again, fleetingly, from the landlocked frozen woods. I thought of it as my thaw, a special magic secretly sent for me. This year I speak of: no crystal rivulets. Just sullen rain.
Through the rain, a figure approached briskly. A familiar, burly shape. My father taught at the same university I attended. You’d think we’d have encountered each other more often, but we seldom did. His appearance startled me. I almost didn’t speak.
No smile. He seemed taken aback.
“Well . . . hello. How are you?”
“Oh . . . fine. It’s my birthday.”
What did I expect? I guess I half-imagined he might smile, do a double-take: “Of course! How could I have forgotten! Happy birthday! Why don’t you come home and have supper with us? Your mother will be glad to see you! She’ll make you a cake!” Heh . . . I’ve always been a fantasist.
He frowned a little. Then he took out his wallet and extracted a five dollar bill. He looked at it, then rummaged further among the numerous bills. I thought maybe he was going to exchange it for a ten. But no. He found what he was looking for–a single additional dollar bill.
“Here.” He handed me six dollars. “Buy yourself some books.”
Having issued this directive, he turned and disappeared into the rain. I always wondered if he told my mother he’d seen me. It’s hard for me to believe that she forgot my birthday too, but it’s certainly possible. Kindly Metanous points out that my younger siblings were 17, 15, and 13 at the time. So perhaps it was easy for them to overlook my existence once I had perfidiously moved out of the house.
I took my six dollars into the store. I decided to buy the least useful thing I could think of. Poetry. And not the classical kind. Modern poetry. I didn’t quite dare buy dope or strong drink with my father’s money, but modern poetry was the next best thing and had the added benefit of being unlikely to kill of any of my brain cells.
Six dollars was, admittedly, more money back then.
- Poems 1952-1967, by James Dickey: 1.95
- The Geography of Lograire, by Thomas Merton: 1.75
- Selected Poems 1956-1968, by Leonard Cohen
The last was used, on the sale rack with the price cut off the cover, and inside in a round naive hand, still the words: “Dear Phyl, let’s always cherish the friendship that has brought us so close this Christmas. God bless–love, Me.” Phyl cherished it for about a year, it seems, then sold the book for a dollar.
I just now re-read “On the Sickness of My Love,” and “Indictment of the Blue Hole” to long-suffering Metanous, who commented cheerfully, “All righty then! I don’t want some of what he’s having!”
These books are more a puzzle to me now than anything else. Why did I think the words inside would help me? They are full of love songs of men in love with themselves and with their male god. Women serve occasionally as conveniences in the reception and transmission of that love. And yet I can feel a special smoothness to the pages even now, worn by my own hands through many readings.
Poems! break out!
break my head!
What good’s a skull?
I need you!
(“On the Sickness of My Love,” Leonard Cohen)
So that’s how the haunting began. Happy birthday to me.